Let me own up with no ado that I am rather a casual than committed procrastinator who indulges in occasional paralyzing fits. As such, I’ve learned from my own experience two things: First, as with all troublesome things, there is no easy button. Second, by rooting down to the cause or the why behind my procrastination I can usually jump start myself (albeit sometimes sputtering) into action.
Be careful to not assume that those who routinely procrastinate do so from laziness, disinterest, or dislike of the task at hand (though certainly that is sometimes the case). At its root, procrastination stems from a deeply ingrained, highly perfected thinking process that shapes one’s choice not to act. Until you get your spade and dig up the root of that thinking process, your procrastination will continue.
So how do we begin to dig up the root? My favorite model to use whenever I consider any thinking challenge is the Whole Brain® Thinking Model. The model describes our thinking preferences, which are often directly linked to our procrastination traps.
When you find yourself procrastinating, take a moment to think about your thinking (big word of the day: metacognition) and ask yourself the five questions below, each one of which links to one of the four thinking styles (Analytical, Safekeeping, Relational, and Experimental).
1) Am I procrastinating because thinking about the sheer number or magnitude of the details involved in achieving the goal or the task overwhelms me and prevents me from beginning? This is my current favorite when it comes to procrastinating. My goal is to coach independently from my day job. Seems simple enough. Yet, when I think of this goal what comes to mind is a long list of all the things I need to do and a longer list of all the things I need to do to make the things I need to do possible. The result? I’m quickly mired in a nasty quagmire of doubt and paralysis before I’ve taken a first step. This type of procrastination can impact those with strong Experimental and Safekeeping thinking styles. At such moments, I’ve taught myself to start with what I’ll start with. “Just do anything that moves you in the desired direction,” I tell myself. I recently read this excellent article from James Clear about focusing on a system rather than a goal, which awoke such clarity and resonance for me that I’ve since shared it with just about everyone I know. Although we certainly need to set a S.M.A.R.T goal, many of the details will change along the way as we create a system to help reach the goal. Trying to wrestle each detail before its time (or before you’ve even started) is wasteful, frustrating, and of no value. It’s like spinning your wheels and getting no traction. If this is what you want, go for it! If not, pause this type of procrastination with the root word: MUD.
2) Am I procrastinating because I like the thrill and rush of the last minute and do my best work at such times? If your answer is yes, recognize that your inner risk taker is essentially gambling with money you may or may not have. Exciting, yes. But also stressful. This type of procrastination tends to get worse when the gamble pays off and you turn in great work and receive praise, recognition, a high grade, or what have you. This is very typical for people with the Experimental thinking style. With this type of procrastination in particular, you have to be honest with yourself about whether or not you like the rush and thrill. If so, stop saying you’re a procrastinator (to yourself and others) and declare yourself to be instead a thrill seeker and a thrill maker by holding off until the last moment. No shame in that game. Remember though, it’s still a gamble. And with all gambling comes the stress to the mind and body, and the emotional thud when your results are subpar and you receive a tsk, tsk instead of praise. Do you really want to gamble on producing not just good but excellent outcomes? Do you really want to gamble that you can pool together the resources you need at the last minute? Do you really want to create needless stress for those you work and live with (that is, the ones that put up with you at such times)? If not, pause this type of by saying the root word: GAMBLE.
3) Am I procrastinating because I’m afraid to make a mistake, fail altogether, or of not being good enough? As a recovering perfectionist, this flavor of procrastination never fails to tempt me. And make no mistake: this is your inner perfectionist hard at work stealing your joy and potential right from under your nose. What’s worse, it does so all while making you believe this vigilance is in your best interest. And hey, maybe it is. Our inner perfectionist uses vigilance as a means of keeping us as far away as possible from risk, errors, and injury. No one wants to look like or be made a fool. Most of the time though, its trickster voice keeps you cemented where you’ve always been, regardless of your goals or what’s in your best interest. In my experience, this type of procrastination is the most pernicious kind because it leads to extraordinary self-doubt, shaky confidence, and downright negativity. Because of this, we have to learn to forcefully muzzle our inner perfectionist for our own good. I do so with the root word: SAFEKEEPING. Not surprisingly, this is very typical for people with the Safekeeping thinking style.
4) Am I procrastinating because I don’t have enough information, data, or the answers I need? This one seems easy to kick start: if you need more information, get it. Search the internet. Make a phone call. Read a book. The troublesome nuance arises here when we have enough information to get us started and maybe even carry us through, but enough information is never enough information. Part of this type of procrastination stems from a discomfort with ambiguity and the unknown. Another part is a strong tendency toward analysis. Our inner analyst sets to work, eager to mine for data and engage in logical and rational thinking. Being resourceful, this inner analyst puts an inner researcher on payroll who, hungry for ever more data, works to get us answers, to prove what we already believe, or to disprove what we don’t want to believe. Never satisfied that the facts at hand are enough to compel to action, the search goes on. The analysis becomes the focus rather than taking action. To Malcolm Gladwell’s point, whether you’re 6’5” or 7’3”, at 6’5” you’re tall enough for the NBA. All those extra inches are superfluous. Thus, solve this procrastination equation by saying the root word: ENOUGH. This is very typical for people with the Analytical thinking style. Side note: This type of procrastination can be closely linked to #1 above, especially when the search for more and more information leads to more and more details that quickly get overwhelming.
5) Am I procrastinating because I feel like I need help – so much help that I feel like I need to get other people involved just to get started? This type of procrastination might come from the fact that you just do not enjoy working alone and get your energy from others. You can easily tackle this by creating a list of the people you think can add value and then prioritizing that list noting which aspects of the challenge each is best suited for. It may be as simple as finding just one person to serve as a buddy, sounding board or resource. Make sure to think about what value helping you out will bring for them. If you just need someone to help you get started, just setting up a “let me talk this through with you” meeting. That deadline may be enough to prompt you to begin to get ready and get the ball rolling. The Interpersonal thinking style is what kicks in with this procrastination trap- which you can stop by using the root word PEOPLE.
What matters when you’re working to compel yourself to action isn’t that you use my root words. What matters is that you think about your thinking to discern for yourself the why behind your procrastination and your own process for getting yourself going.