In my work with leaders who struggle with procrastination, I encourage them to get curious and think about it like a warning light coming on in your car - it’s a signal that encourages you to look deeper. What actually is going on “under the hood”?
Here are some things procrastination could be signaling to you:
You have too much going on/you actually don’t need to be focused on the task.
Just because a task is on your list doesn’t mean it belongs on your list. Maybe it made sense to put it on your list a couple of weeks ago, and now it’s unnecessary. Maybe your list has too much and it’s unrealistic to think that you can get everything accomplished. Don’t be afraid to reconsider the tasks on your list and edit some of them off or simplify them.
Instead of focusing only on the one procrastinated task, take a step back and consider the whole ecosystem of your list and your current life. If you were a boss evaluating the assignments of an employee, how would you strategically set them up for success? It’s okay to say, “It seemed like a good idea to assign this to myself, but now I see that it doesn’t actually belong on my list.”
You have anxiety about making a decision or moving forward.
Sometimes, waiting until the last minute on a task allows me to free myself of overthinking. It took a while for me to realize that this is what was happening - I was putting off the task because I felt unsure about committing to how to move forward. When it gets to the last minute, I don’t have time to overthink it, it just has to be done and so my brain can let go of all the overthinking and just move forward.
Now that I know this about myself, when I realize I’m procrastinating I can pause and reflect on whether or not it’s related to anxiety about making a decision. If it is, sometimes I purposely wait to move forward on it. Why worry about procrastinating on it when I know that I actually need to wait until the last minute to get it done? Or, I can confront the decision anxiety, let go of perfectionism, and get the thing done without trying to make it the perfect decision.
You need clarity on how to accomplish the task.
Sometimes I’ll write something like, “Clean the house” on my to-do list and then stare blankly at my house before turning to my phone to play a game. Or, at work, I’ll write “finish the video” on my list, and then stare blankly at the computer screen before turning to check my email for the tenth time. The reason is because “clean the house” and “finish the video” are large projects with many steps. My brain wants to turn to things like games or email because it is clear what productivity looks like - it feels good to pass a level on a game or answer a couple of emails. Putting off a task like cleaning the house doesn’t mean that I’m lazy or unmotivated, sometimes I need to take time and step back to create more clarity. What do I actually mean by “clean the house”?
There are two strategies I use to help myself get clarity - time-specific and task-specific. Time-specific: I feel overwhelmed by trying to analyze what tasks I want to do, and so I set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and just keep moving forward on the project without overthinking what I’m doing. Task-specific: I determine two or three specific tasks and focusing on doing those before allowing my brain to wander to other things. For example, I want to clean off the kitchen island, pick up the clutter in the living room, and put away the laundry.
After both of these methods, I pause to evaluate - do I need to/want to keep going? I give myself permission to stop if it feels like that is all I can give at that moment.
You have unexpressed conflict with someone or something related to the task.
This is a big one for me. Growing up I was the youngest in my family and I often felt bossed around by everyone in my house. Procrastinating on various tasks, like cleaning my room, was a way for me to exert power and take up space. I knew that I really did have to clean up my room, but waiting until the last minute was a passive way of expressing conflict with my parents. “I’ll do it, but I’m going to do it in a way that drives you a little bit crazy.”
As an adult in the workplace, I remember becoming aware that my procrastination on a major project was because I disagreed with the approach to the project. As a people-pleaser who was afraid of creating instability by expressing conflict, I often suppressed my opinions about these things, thinking it wasn’t a big deal. However, these objections would eventually surface as procrastination. I learned that disagreeing with the approach to a project didn’t have to mean creating unnecessary conflict - I could go to others and simply say “I have some questions about this project, can we talk about it?” Even if nothing changed with my assigned tasks, talking about it often removed the procrastination block and I was able to move forward. If you are procrastinating on something, take a step back and consider whether there is unexpressed conflict and how you might bring that out into the open instead of holding it in and creating conflict within yourself.
Many times, procrastination is a signal that tells us something deeper is happening!
If you want more food for thought about procrastination, I invite you to check out this podcast episode that looks at times when procrastination can be a good thing.
If you are stuck in procrastination quicksand and want help getting out, I'd love to work with you one on one. I can help leaders identify the root causes instead of trying to solve procrastination with "ten easy steps" or endless "productivity hacks." Check out my calendar and schedule a free introductory session.