Procrastination is an odd compulsion. Everyone has experienced it, but the underlying reasons can be tough to pin down.
After all, procrastination delays the very activities that bring people closer to their goals — whether that’s building a thriving business or stronger triceps. So why don’t humans just sprint toward that brighter, fitter future?
Scientific studies of procrastination have spiked over the past 20 years. Researchers once considered the issue a basic time-management problem, but they now view it as a complex and highly individual phenomena.
“True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation,” author Eric Jaffe wrote in Observer magazine. “Experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions seems to be its very foundation.
Greek philosophers used the word akrasia to describe the state of acting against one’s better judgement. Building on this term, author James Clear believes everyone has a “Present Self” that desires instant gratification and a “Future Self” that prizes long-term rewards. “When the time comes to make a decision,” Clear wrote, “you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self.”
The personal motivation.
Back in 2006, I often struggled with the snooze button. When the buzzing began at 5 a.m. I’d ask myself, “Should I stay in bed or should I spend a few hours on my business?”
I was working as a programmer for a New York-based media company and building my company, JotForm, on the side. I learned a lot about myself while juggling a full-time job and scaling a startup — including how to battle my own procrastination demons.
I started to consider why I was delaying certain tasks. Once I identified the root cause, I could plan to reclaim my productivity. This approach might sound simple, but most advice doesn’t probe the source of the problem. Instead, society most often teaches people to simply push through any feelings of resistance.
The “just do it” approach works sometimes, but it’s not sustainable. If you’re repeatedly avoiding specific tasks, there’s an underlying reason — and odds are it’s highly personal.
Here are four factors that might be behind your bad habit, along with some ideas to help you conquer each scenario.
1. Progress doesn’t feel fast enough.
Think about the last time you started a new project or business endeavor. You probably felt excited and energized by the challenge. A couple months (or years) later, the shine dulled. Maybe you felt discouraged and even a little bored. You were fighting both time and biology.
Dopamine often is described as the brain’s “reward chemical,” activated by the ping of a smartphone or a heaping plate of pasta. But new research shows dopamine is more closely related to reward-seeking behavior than operating as a reward itself.
When your brain encounters novelty, it releases dopamine. The natural chemical motivates you to search for a reward (there’s that exploring and pushing forward again). But when the project’s novelty wears off, your mind rebels. Your motivation drops as your brain thinks, “My hard work isn’t being rewarded. This isn’t fun anymore.”
The “Present Self” and its demand for instant gratification makes it even tougher to force yourself to open the spreadsheet yet again or to keep chipping away at a frustrating product feature.
BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University, suggests you can fight the dopamine drop by setting up “small wins” and celebrating each milestone. According to Fogg, every task should be accompanied by a simple trigger. Imagine you want to create an online course. You could commit to writing a paragraph after every glass of water, then continue this triggered behavior throughout the day.
Once the task is done, it’s time for the small celebration. You could listen to a favorite song, take a brief walk, or read a great book. Repeat this process until you’ve achieved your goal. Small wins reward your novelty-seeking brain and nudge you toward the finish line. The feedback loop also establishes a powerful habit that can eliminate the need for motivation entirely.
2. You don’t know where to start.
It’s common to feel overwhelmed in today’s fast-paced world. Seemingly endless to-do lists can make it feel as if there’s no good place to start. Unfortunately, divided attention often leads people to procrastinate in a sneaky way: They engage first in low-value activities such as emptying the inbox or checking social media.
Founders are especially prone to these feelings because there’s rarely a clear path forward. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you also may be wearing a lot of hats or juggling a packed schedule. In talking to fellow entrepreneurs, I’ve learned it’s normal to feel uncertain — particularly when starting something new. Remind yourself it’s OK not to have the answers. Give yourself permission to start where you can.
Brainstorming solutions with friends, mentors and advisors can help you establish clear priorities. Seek out people who aren’t lost in the weeds of your business’ day-to-day demands. They often can help you realize where your time is best spent and what you should delegate.
Systems also can help squash procrastination. My family owns a small olive farm, and I join them every year for the annual harvest. The whole operation runs like a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows each step of the process, making procrastination almost impossible.
3. You’re afraid to fail.
Founders love to repeat the mantra “fail fast, fail often.” Below the bravado, however, many live in fear of making bad decisions.
During a recent visit to Silicon Valley, writer Rob Asghar spoke to one unusually candid founder. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, told Asghar, “Many people here do talk about embracing failure, but that’s usually just hype.”
Some fear failure so intensely they cut corners. Others might delay launch dates, miss deadlines or obsess over small details instead of releasing a beta version. I’m not immune. I struggled with perfectionism during the early days of my business. Perhaps we could have grown faster, but I was a bootstrapped founder. I didn’t have a board or investors monitoring my every move. When the fear of failure crept in, I could be gentle with myself and then carry on.
Joseph Ferrari, an associate professor of psychology at Chicago’s De Paul University, calls people who experience fear-based procrastination “avoiders.” Whether they’re avoiding failure or even success, they’re deeply concerned about other people’s opinions. “They would rather have others think they lack effort than ability,” Ferrari wrote.
High standards aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Everyone knows success takes grit, perseverance and strong principles. Beyoncé and Serena Williams are two self-described perfectionists who have harnessed this tendency with amazing results.
“Perfectionism and procrastination are linked,” Boston University psychologist Ellen Hendriksen wrote, “but it’s not necessarily the sky-high standards that slow you down, but the sky-high standards mixed with a belief that your performance is tied to your self-worth. That combination can grind you to a halt.”
You are not your work. And untangling the difference between who we are and what we achieve can help to stop to fear-based procrastination.
4. You don’t like the task.
Some activities aren’t fun. Few people enjoy going to the dentist, doing their taxes or visiting the DMV. Building a business also requires many less-than-thrilling activities. When there are so many moving parts to tackle, who wants to spend precious hours invoicing?
This is perhaps the most mundane type of procrastination. People put off dull, boring, or uninspiring tasks because they don’t feel like tackling them.
“Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea, without consciously realizing it, that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action,” social psychologist Heidi Grant wrote. “I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100% nonsense.”
Grant suggests that instead of waiting for motivational lightning to strike, you apply a technique called “if-then planning.” First, identify the steps required to complete a task. Next — and most important — determine where and when you’ll act. Tell yourself, for example, “If it’s 10 am, then I’ll close my email and research design agencies.”
This process doesn’t require willpower. And that’s important, because a lack of willpower, in the traditional sense, might lead you to postpone things in the first place. Embrace your limited resolve, Grant recommends, and use if-then planning as a backup tool.
The power of self-knowledge.
Everyone has different motivations, goals and personalities, so it makes sense that everyone also has different reasons for procrastinating. Once you understand what’s blocking you, it’s easier to choose the best solution. Ignore the other hacks and don’t worry if “expert” advice falls down.
After all, it’s more important to know yourself, experiment and stick with what works for you. And take comfort in knowing every human who’s lived has faced the same challenge, from wise ancient Greeks to Silicon Valley startup founders.