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Stop Procrastinating!

I used to be a master procrastinator. In fact, I was so good at procrastinating that I could put anything off. I wasn’t proud of this however, and it definitely was affecting my health, my relationships and my career. But I didn’t know what to do about it, until I finally learned that I was just creating more and more pain for myself, when I didn’t have to. I didn’t need to feel so uncomfortable. There was a much simpler way.

Over the years I’ve got to talk to a lot of people about procrastinating, and so many people say that they procrastinate about the massive things in their lives that seem insurmountable. Others say that they have so many teeny tiny tasks to get through that it seems overwhelming, to the point where they’ve buried themselves in so many things that it seems never-ending. Sound familiar? I know I used to do both of these things.

When I was single and I really wanted to be dating, I kept putting it off and convincing myself that I was too busy, too tired or that it wasn’t going to go anywhere, so why bother. I kept doing that over and over again, until it had been so long since I’d been out on a date that I felt so much more out of my comfort zone, than if I had just gone on that date earlier. Even if you’re in a relationship there might be things you’re procrastinating about. Maybe you’ve stopped enjoying date night together or eating dinner together, or you don’t hang out with family and friends anymore. Maybe it’s that you put off hanging out with your family or friends, choosing to stay at home with netflix and takeaway instead.

For some people, procrastination might be showing up in your job or career. Do you feel stuck each day, dreading the tasks that lie ahead? Are you putting off projects or you only get them done at the very last minute or when your boss or clients ask you for an update? Have you been shoving aside a stack of boring paperwork that keeps on building up, or avoiding making an important call to a client? I used to feel scared to talk to my boss about problems, even if I had a solution, so I would wait until a problem landed on his desk and he’d come chasing after me. That made it even more uncomfortable, but I just felt frozen in fear.

How about your health? Is your health where you want it to be? I used to be overweight, and I would keep promising myself that I would change. I would promise to change my unhealthy habits. I would think about waking up earlier to exercise. I’d plan to cook all my food at home. I would talk about drinking more water and eating less sugar. But these promises didn’t last very long, because I always put off taking any action until “tomorrow”. I would always find reasons why I couldn’t follow through. Excuses like “It’s too cold or rainy outside to go for a run.” “I don’t like these vegetables” and “this food is boring”, or “I don’t have the time or the skills to cook from home”. I told myself that it was harder for me than for everyone else, because I didn’t have strong willpower like they did. Or because I couldn’t afford a personal trainer or pre-made healthy meals. Or that I just didn’t have as much time as other people did. Are you procrastinating about making healthier changes in your life too? Where else are you putting things off in your life?

These little choices that we make every day, the ones that we put off because we tell ourselves that it’s just this once, and we’ll start again tomorrow, these are the choices that matter the most. This is the procrastinating that can create a bigger problem, because it’s the part that people don’t realise is happening until years later. You hear about this when you meet somebody whose relationship has ended and they tell you that they knew it was happening. They knew the relationship wasn’t where they wanted it to be, and that there was stuff they knew they could have done, but it was uncomfortable, so they put it off. It’s those times when, like me, your weight starts to become a real health issue and you knew there were things you could have done before it got to that point, but didn’t.

It’s all in the little things

It’s in those moments where you know there is something you can do, that those little choices you make, make all the difference. In each moment, we get the chance to change the course of our whole lives more positively, but we procrastinate, we put it off because it seems too uncomfortable “right now”. But sometimes in that moment we might forget how much more uncomfortable we will make it for ourselves later, if we don’t act now.

For example, your partner comes home after a big day. Early in the relationship maybe you are smiling and wanting to hear all about their day but as the relationship progresses, that happens less and less. Until the day they arrive home, and you both find yourselves complaining about your days and getting pissed off. Instead of noticing the pattern, you do the same thing again and again and again. Maybe it’s that you don’t have time to listen to your partner because you’ve got your own stuff going on. Maybe work is not as fun as it used to be, and now the things that used to give you joy are just a hassle. Life starts to feel hard.

Could it be that you do it with your kids? The first time they brought home their very first piece of homework or the first picture they ever created, it was a big deal. It was so exciting and new. But then they bring that home again and again and again and you start to feel less interested, like you’ve seen it all before. It’s not as exciting the fourth, fifth or tenth time. That’s just you letting procrastination get in your way, stopping you from doing the little things that make a difference, like celebrating those pictures with your kids, as if it was their first one.

In those moments, those are the times where you’re actually putting off positive emotions, going for the easier option of feeling neutral or a negative emotion of being annoyed, frustrated or angry. Those little things add up, but the best thing about this is that procrastination isn’t something that just happens to us right? It’s a behaviour we do, an action we take. So that means we are in control of that, we get to choose what actions we will take in any moment.

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So why did we choose to procrastinate?

The reason procrastination does not feel good, is that we’re aware that we’re avoiding something, but we’re also aware that avoiding it is not helpful to us. Yet we still might choose to put it off and procrastinate. Why?

Procrastination is not about being a “type of person” or having a personality flaw, and it’s not about time management or productivity hacks. It’s a learned way of coping in the moment with challenging or negative emotions. Some tasks might trigger negative thoughts or emotions for some of us, and different tasks for others. It might be that the task you’re setting out to accomplish, isn’t very fun, like cleaning dirty toilet stalls after a large event, or having to check and double check and triple check the same wordy, thousand page document. But for most of us, it’s not the task itself that triggers procrastination, it’s the meaning, beliefs and thoughts that we create surrounding the task.

You might be thinking “I’m not good enough”, “What if I do a bad job?”, “I’m not smart enough or skilled enough to do this.” or bringing up all kinds of pictures in your mind, about the worst case scenario. You might start to worry and find yourself doing “What if this happens” thinking. All of these factors combined, can lead us to convince ourselves to ignore that important task for a little while longer, and distract ourselves instead. You might check emails, colour code the linen closet, re-organize your planner or use social media. Maybe you fool yourself into feeling productive by doing only the fun parts of the projects you enjoy, but leaving the challenging parts until the last minute, or worse, until tomorrow.

But in the background, your mind is still running the negative thoughts and pictures you’ve created about the task, making it feel as if you’ve lived the worst case scenario a thousand times over. Every time you choose to avoid the task, in each moment, you’re compounding the negative associations that you’ve created with that particular task, strengthening the negative feelings that you have about it, and making you want to avoid it even more. In fact, some people even start to feel worse with self-blame and guilt, which can make you procrastinate even more. The thing about compounding negative feelings, is that you can learn to compound the positive ones too.

The reason you might keep going round and round in this painful cycle of procrastination, is because there is a tiny moment of relief when you choose to put off a task. That little relief, feels like a reward to the brain, almost as if you’ve already done the task, and so you keep chasing the reward and avoiding the task. It can become something of a habit. The great thing about this, is that habits are behaviours we do. You can break patterns of behaviour that don’t serve you, and create patterns of behaviour that do. It doesn’t make sense to keep doing something that you know will result in negative consequences, now does it?

The steps out of procrastination:

The very first step to getting out of procrastination is that one has to take responsibility or be at cause. That means taking responsibility for who you are and how you show up in the world each day. It means taking responsibility for your relationships, for the health that you are in, for the thoughts that you have, for the emotions that you choose to live in, for the communication that you have with others. Sometimes all that it comes down to, is being and acting in ways that are mindful of ourselves and our thoughts, as well as others and how we communicate. As long as you are asking yourself the question of whether you are taking responsibility for something, then you will be on the right track. Now, responsibility is more than just owning up to something or saying sorry if you make a mistake. Taking responsibility is also about taking action and following through.

The opposite of taking responsibility is letting yourself be led by your own excuses or reasons for things. Saying that you are not where you want to be, because of your boss, your upbringing, where you were born or what you learned in school. I used to tell myself that I wasn’t where I wanted to be because I was shy, I was an introvert and that I couldn’t meet people because I didn’t like going out to parties. I would use excuses like “I never learned to eat healthy, that’s why I’m overweight” or “I work in the food industry, that’s why I’m not as healthy as I could be.” You probably don’t make excuses 100% of the time, but you might notice that when it comes to certain things, or areas of life, that’s where your reasons start to pop up. Where are you making excuses in your life?

When I started taking responsibility and noticing what I could be responsible for, that’s what helped me out of procrastination. It wasn’t just about saying I had responsibilities, because anyone can say “I am an adult, I am responsible, I’ve got responsibilities to pay my mortgage, to have my kids go to school, to provide a house, to turn up to work every day. I’ve got a responsibility to my family, to go to birthdays and Christmas or dinner every week. I’ve got a responsibility to myself to get up each day and have a shower.” Of course, these things are things that we are all responsible for, but what about the next stage of responsibility?

Choose your emotions

How often do people take responsibility for their emotions, how they are feeling or how they choose to feel? Emotions are part of procrastinating. Like we spoke about earlier in this article, procrastination doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. It’ s not like it lands on your table and says “I’m here, let’s procrastinate together”. It happens because of a hundred different things that build up over time. Things that cause procrastination are often triggered by negative emotions or by extreme positive emotions.

When we are procrastinating, negative emotions start showing up. Things like fear. Scared of screwing it up, scared of getting it wrong, wanting things to be perfect, scared of doing something for the first time, scared of being laughed at or not as good as the next person, of standing out, or maybe shyness comes in. If we put things off again and again and again, then we might get triggered into overwhelm. All of these emotions happen at some point or another, which we label as procrastination.

I discovered that handling procrastination wasn’t about the doingness of procrastinating, because that takes care of itself. It came down to asking myself, how do I handle my emotions and what are the emotions that come up? If I am procrastinating, I am choosing something that is easy or comfortable, like watching TV or playing PlayStation or going out. It might be hanging out with my friends or eating convenient food or quick, high sugar food. Choosing the easy option over the one that’s more difficult.

The more challenging choice in that moment, might be preparing food ahead, or eating something different to everyone else. It might be saying no at dinner because everyone else is eating lasagne with heaps of cheese and lots of oil and you’re choosing to eat veggies or a salad. Maybe if you’re uncomfortable meeting new people, the more challenging thing would be to go out on the weekend instead of staying home watching TV. As a parent it could be having a tough conversation with your kids, or learning how to express more positive emotions when you’re feeling more negative thoughts. It might be choosing to do the extra bit of work that would get you ahead in your job, that will help you stand out.

Choose your environment

It’s about really choosing the thing that’s uncomfortable over the thing that’s comfortable. But it’s not just one big choice, and then it’s over. It’s a whole lot of little ones. If you are going to face uncomfortability then it’s going to take some effort, some self awareness, and it might even take some new environments or people around you, helping you to look in and see the things that you are avoiding. It’s easier to look in your room, shed, or your garage and see that it’s messy and that you’ve been putting off tidying it up right?. Sometimes it’s not as easy in the moment, to realise that you are putting off things that you don’t see, like feeling positive emotions. That’s where perspective and environment can help. You can surround yourself with people who can help you see the mess, and help you stay focused not distracted. You can set up your home or office environment to avoid any distractions too.

For example, if things didn’t turn out as you pictured one day, or you’ve been putting off celebrating a project or playing with your child, sometimes it helps to get feedback from those around you. Start to notice their reactions, their actions and communication with you. This can help you to notice when you might be out of perspective. The other side to this, is that your environment can help you to really celebrate those moments where you nail it.

When you take responsibility and you choose your emotions and respond how you want to, take action the way you want to instead of getting caught up about what’s happening tomorrow or next week. Celebrate you taking responsibility! Really fully enjoy those moments, because each time you do, you’re creating a stronger and more positive picture in your mind that will carry you past the next time you want to procrastinate. Smiling at your partner and going on a date. Just being present with them, not looking at your phone because that’s another easy option, looking at apps, looking on facebook, getting distracted. Instead you’re fully in the moment and feeling it. Celebrating it with your team, your support group, your family, your friends, your tribe.

It’s a process

Procrastination may not be something that you just stop overnight and never do it again. It’s a process of continuously choosing, over and over and over again. Because we didn’t just start procrastinating overnight either. It’s just something some people learned how to do, to avoid the things that were uncomfortable. If people avoided uncomfortability 100% of the time, we wouldn’t even be walking! Babies learn how to walk and that’s uncomfortable in the beginning, but they keep going until they get it. And you can too. All the little moments add up over time. It’s simply being aware of the times when you might be choosing the more comfortable option over the one that could help you move forward. Just remind yourself, it’s only a little step, the very next step in front of you. It’s not about doing one massive step and then never taking another step again.

So the first thing to do is to know that you are doing it. You want to have perspective and know that you are avoiding uncomfortability. You might know that you are avoiding feeling happy or that you are choosing the easy option of avoiding conflict. Or that you are choosing the easy option of eating food to change your emotions because that seems way easier than learning it how to do yourself. After you can see what you’re doing, and you know that this is not working for you anymore, in fact it might be a problem for you, then what? Just change it? There’s a step that happens first. So the first step is you have to know you are doing it.

The second thing is you have to stop. Just stop doing it. Before we can learn anything new, we have to stop doing the thing that we were doing before. It’s like putting the pause button on. Imagine you were a train conductor, changing the direction of a train. In order to actually change the tracks, there’s a moment in time when there is a pause. The train pauses, the tracks change, the train moves onwards in a better direction. It might sound like a small step, but it’s really important. Sometimes the best way to pause, is to just breathe. Take a moment to step back from your emotions or the situation, and just take a few deep breaths.

To recap, the first thing with procrastination, is to know you are doing it. Then you stop and pause. Then you do something. So you might recognise that your relationship isn’t the way it used to be, then you stop for a moment, think about what you used to do that was fun or positive and then choose to do that instead. The way that we started procrastinating is by avoiding the little uncomfortabilities. The way we stop procrastinating is to start focusing on facing some of those little uncomfortabilities. Like taking an apple into the break room instead of eating the cream buns that are supplied. Getting up 5 minutes early and stretching instead of sleeping in. Making the bed each day, or after a tough day, still smiling at your kids and celebrating the things they’ve done, being genuinely curious and interested.

It’s about pausing, instead of rushing off to the next thing. If you are putting off your tax, face a little bit of uncomfortability and do the first thing. You don’t have to do all of your tax all at once. Maybe it’s just inputting one line of data, or organising your scrunched up receipts. If you are putting off cleaning up your room, ask yourself why? What are the emotions that are present, and then do one little thing that is small enough to not feel overwhelming, but big enough to know that you took action forward. The thing that stops us from procrastinating is recognising that we’ve done something towards our goal, or towards being the best version of ourselves and celebrating it.

Celebration time!

Celebration is just feeling good. It’s that feeling when you’ve accomplished something. Funnily enough, some people put off the celebration because they want it to feel so amazing, so incredibly huge and out of this world, like a 40th birthday or getting married, graduating from university, or having a baby. But you don’t need to wait for a significant life event before you celebrate life and progress. It’s the little moments that you celebrate, the little moments when you feel good about something you’ve done, that really count.

If you went on a date even though you didn’t want to, even if it wasn’t that great, but you showed up and you tried. Then celebrate the fact that you did it and you got out of your comfort zone and it is the best feeling! Sometimes people have trained themselves over and over again to notice the things that they’re not doing well, or to notice only what’s missing, how they are not like other people or how they’re not performing. What procrastination teaches us, is that we actually want to do the things are comfortable that we enjoy, so why don’t we use that. Instead of procrastinating, do the things that are hard first and then enjoy the benefits of it. Instead of getting the miniscule relief from procrastinating, why not get a huge amount of joy and celebration from actually doing the thing!

This way, you can reroute the train tracks in your mind to take you from procrastinator to action-taker. Do something small, like the first paragraph of an essay or tidy a cupboard of your closet, go up and talk to somebody who you wouldn’t normally talk to and then you give yourself the reward, the pleasure, the comfortability of feeling good. Celebrate each time you do this and keep doing that again and again and again and you actually rewire procrastination. You can take the structure of procrastination and make it work for you so it doesn’t exist in your mind anymore. Now you are facing the little things that you used to avoid, and you face them early because if you face them early they don’t stack up over time.

When you face those tough moments early and you celebrate them every time, it feels incredible and it feels like you are in control. You know that feeling of carrying weight on your shoulders of what you should be doing? That’s gone for me now! Rather than thinking of it being a big thing, you’re doing it in little moments that compound over time. So just focus on the little things, and watch them grow like a snowball that totally works for you. These days I choose to write down the things that I did well, that I appreciated and felt good about throughout the day. I find that it helps me celebrate and it’s how I started changing my perspective and making the uncomfortable things, comfortable. Try it! It might just work for you too.