Why you procrastinate (and how to beat it as you grow your business)
Do you procrastinate?
You’re far from alone.
In fact, it's 9.25 am on a Monday right now. I have a call in 30 minutes, and I should be finishing up an article on marketing and value creation.
Instead, I kicked off the morning with a coffee and a marketing 360 review. Then opened up my email (bad move) and found myself inspired to funnel hack one of Chris Ducker's offers (don't tell him). Then I got bored with that and decided to check on my Google Analytics.
Now I find myself staring at a blinking cursor wondering if I can knock out a draft of an entire article in 30 minutes.
I'm at war with my procrastination demons. Or the instant gratification monkey, as Tim Urban calls it.
The monkey ain't interested in writing an article on marketing. He wants another coffee and maybe a quick look at LinkedIn to see if we have any new comments. Then a quick visit to YouTube to explore the mind of a master procrastinator.
It’s something we’ve all done at one time another – or practically daily, if you’re a master procrastinator like me.
You and I could chalk this all up to a lack of self-control. We’re just lazy, right? Everyone else has got it figured out and here we are putting off what needs to be done… again.
But that would be a huge mistake.
In this article, I’ll explore why we procrastinate and what the latest research reveals about how we can beat it (hint: it’s not because you’re lazy and the solution isn’t to “hustle harder”).
Read on to discover the techniques and mindsets I use to overcome the instant gratification monkey every day when he starts distracting me from what needs to be done.
Why do we procrastinate?
Psychologists Solomon and Rothblum defined procrastination as "the act of needlessly delaying tasks to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort".
While that sounds like something only a person who’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic would put themselves through, the truth is it’s something that everyone in human history has wrestled with at least once in their lives.
Show me someone who claims they never put things off and I’ll show you a liar.
Procrastination even plagued the philosophers. It was clearly on Seneca’s mind nearly 2,000 years ago when he wrote: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.”
The ancient Greeks even had a word for it: akrasia. That’s what they called the state of acting against your better judgment – of doing one thing even though you know you should do something else.
And according to a 1994 Time magazine article, Bill Clinton was a “chronic procrastinator” during his time in office.
If everyone from stoic philosophers to the leader of the free world struggles with procrastination, what hope do the rest of us have?
Well, hopefully this shows you that procrastination isn’t a personal failing, but part of the human condition.
This means you’d be making a grave mistake by chalking your inability to get the things you tell yourself you’re going to get done up to laziness, lack of discipline, poor time management, or an addiction to Netflix.
Because the truth is you’re not fatally flawed – you’re just human.
And you procrastinate for the same reasons the rest of us do: there’s no immediate benefit, or you don’t know where to start, or you’re scared you’ll fail.
Is procrastination always bad?
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that procrastination can sometimes be a useful tool.
In their book Who Not How Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy suggest that procrastination is actually a form of wisdom:
"Procrastination is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when you really want something more for yourself, but lack the knowledge and capability to do it."
They posit that procrastination is a sign that you're stuck and need help getting the job done.
Nassim Taleb would agree. In Antifragile, he writes:
“Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation, the cure is changing the environment, or one's profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one's impulses. Few can grasp the logical consequence that, instead, one should lead a life in which procrastination is good, as a naturalistic-risk-based form of decision making.”
If you chronically procrastinate on a particular task, then maybe you should start listening to yourself and outsource it to someone else.
And if you chronically procrastinate your entire to-do list? Maybe you should start thinking about your exit strategy.
So, don’t always assume procrastination is a fault you need to fix. It can also be a very useful tool for discovering the things you need to delegate – or even that you need to get out of your business.
The root causes of procrastination (and how to overcome them)
Considering it’s a problem that’s plagued humanity since the dawn of time, you might be surprised to learn that researchers have only recently started to have much luck solving the procrastination equation.
Over the last few decades, studies have revealed that procrastination of all shapes and sizes has a handful of root causes.
Here’s what they are – and how they tend to manifest for us entrepreneurs:
You don't know where to start
Building a business ain't easy, and neither is selling one.
A lot of items on an entrepreneur’s to-do list are ill-defined, difficult, and downright scary. After all, it’s our job to chart new waters and create value from nothing.
Unfortunately for us, that’s also the perfect storm of procrastination.
Next time you find yourself putting something off and engaging in low-value activities like checking your inbox or scrolling through social media, ask yourself whether you know what the next step of the task you’re supposed to be tackling is.
In other words: you don’t actually know where to start.
Pay attention to the tasks you don’t procrastinate on as well. I’ll put money on the fact that you can list every single step you need to take to get those tasks done – and you could do them blindfolded.
As soon as you recognize that you’re procrastinating something because you don’t know how to start it, define the first step and just get started.
One of two things is certain to happen: you’ll discover it wasn’t so complicated after all, or that you won’t be able to tackle it alone.
And the quicker you know which it is, the better.
One thing to note is that as entrepreneurs, we wear a lot of hats and spin a lot of plates. And it's okay not to have all the answers. So, be sure to give yourself permission to seek out people who can help on the tasks you don’t know how to start.
I can't imagine trying to build this business alone. My virtual team brings expert skills in copywriting, LinkedIn engagement, podcasting, email marketing, paid media, funnel hacking, and selling big-ticket consulting. When I don't know how to do something, I find someone who does.
When it comes to exiting and building value in a business, most entrepreneurs don't know where to begin because they don’t have any relevant experience. Identifying and assembling a team to carry you through the exit journey is one of the most important teams you'll create in your business. And it will help you avoid procrastinating over what is arguably the most important deal of your life.
Progress doesn't feel fast enough
Think about when you started your business. You felt excited and energised by the challenge.
But after a couple of years, the excitement fades and frustration creeps in.
“Why aren't we growing anymore?”
You feel discouraged, even a little bored. Your eye wanders to other opportunities causing bouts of shiny object syndrome.
And this is only natural research actually shows your brain releases dopamine – the “happy hormone” – when it encounters novelty. Because of this, you literally crave new experiences and quickly get bored of things that stop providing you with them.
In a (quite literally) shocking study, 18 of 42 subjects remarkably chose to give themselves at least one mild static shock on the ankle when left alone for 15 minutes. The novelty of an electric shock was actually preferable to sitting alone with their thoughts for a quarter of an hour.
I’ve certainly experienced boredom-induced procrastination myself.
When I was selling my business we signed a letter of intent, then the pace slowed down. As the negotiations unfolded, I found myself seriously procrastinating. My business just wasn’t interesting to me anymore. Mentally, I’d already left the building and was on to the next thing.
Us entrepreneurs also have to battle the thorny issue of time inconsistency – the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards, even if those future rewards are far greater.
If you’re like most people, you probably battle with this on a daily basis when you resist the urge to scroll through social media instead of pushing through and getting the pride of doing something hard that takes you another step closer to your goals.
For me, the immediate gratification I get from a couple of likes and comments on LinkedIn wins out over the long-term benefit of finishing tasks that take me toward my goal of owning the best value creation company on the planet more times than I’d like to admit.
The solution? Get crystal clear on your “why?”.
Think of the long-term benefits that will come from ticking the task off your to-do list.
And remember: we repeat behaviors that make us feel good. But the things that will take your business forward are all sources of delayed gratification.
Want to tip the scales in favor of getting the important things done rather than putting them off?
According to psychologist BJ Fogg: “Emotions create habits… [and] celebration is the best way to use emotions and create a positive feeling that wires in new habits.”
So, celebrate when you tick each task off your to-do list with a “hell yeah!” or a fist pump or whatever makes you feel like a winner.
This will help make productivity a habit and procrastination a distant memory.
You're afraid to fail
Some people fear failure so intensely that they sabotage themselves so they always have an excuse at the ready if things go south.
Some unnecessarily cut corners, ensuring the end product can never be up to scratch and they’ve always got a reason why that isn’t “I tried my best and fell short”.
Others might sabotage themselves in the form of delaying launch dates, missing deadlines or obsessing over small details instead of releasing a beta version.
Or in other words – procrastinating.
I'm certainly not immune. I struggled with perfectionism – which Winston Churchill quipped could also be spelled “paralysis” – during the early days of my business. In hindsight, we definitely could have grown faster, but as a bootstrapped founder I didn’t have the pressure of a board breathing down my neck to whip me into shape.
There’s no quick fix for this one. Identifying and overcoming your desire to use procrastination as your favourite flavor of self-sabotage is an issue you’ll need to tackle with a therapist rather than a helpful hack.
If you think this might be the case for you but had never considered it as the cause of your chronic procrastination, I hope this has planted a seed in your mind about how you might fix the issue.
You don't like the task
Last but not least, I’d urge you to consider the fact that you simply don’t like doing the tasks you procrastinate on.
As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, we procrastinate “unnatural duties and procedures” as a symptom of our “body rebelling against its entrapment”.
To you and me, that means we procrastinate tasks that go against our nature.
So if you’re bad at something or just plain don’t like doing it, don’t be surprised when you put it off.
The solution? Delegate, outsource, or simply don’t do the tasks you always procrastinate.
Your business will be in a much better place for it and you’re bound to be a lot happier at its helm.
How to stop procrastinating
When I look at the entrepreneurs that I admire, the thing that sets them apart is that they show up and deliver day after day.
While the rest of us are getting bogged down and distracted by daily “emergencies” and instant gratifications, they’re doing the work.
And while most of us get demotivated and off-track after a bad performance, a bad workout, or simply a bad day at work, top performers settle right back into their rhythm the next day.
How do you escape the procrastination trap and become more like the top performers we all admire from afar?
Here are four things that help me:
1. Stick to the 1-3-5 rule
I picked my favourite procrastination-busting tool up from Alexandra Cavoulacos, founder of The Muse.
It’s called the 1-3-5 rule, and here’s how it works:
Assume that on any given day you can accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things.
I wrap up my workday by creating the next day's 1-3-5 list.
- Finish this article on procrastination
Three medium things:
- Write up notes from a discovery call
- Update Facebook ads campaign
- Promote new webinar
Five small things:
- Share Joe's LinkedIn post.
- Book a meeting room at Co-Work.
- Post last week’s article on LinkedIn.
- Send call details to David.
- Make changes to the conclusion in my new guide.
Once I've finished my 1-3-5 list, I’m done for the day and I can let the monkey out of the cage for a little bit.
2. Use the Pomodoro technique
The 1-3-5 rule helps me get clear on what needs to be done. The Pomodoro technique helps me get it done.
The Pomodoro technique is simply setting a timer from between 25 and 50 minutes and focusing intensely on the task at hand during that time. When the timer goes off, step away from your desk and take a short break, then come back and tackle the next Pomodoro.
I start every day with three 50-minute slots punctuated by ten-minute breaks, during which I aim to complete the day’s big task.
Then I do three 25-minute slots with five-minute breaks between them – one each for each of my medium tasks.
After lunch, I use another 50-minute chunk to tackle the day’s five small tasks. The rest of the afternoon is spent in meetings and going down rabbit holes, then I log off at the end of the day having ticked off every item on my 1-3-5 list.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said every day went as smoothly as this. But there’s no doubt the Pomodoro technique helps me get through far more tasks than I would otherwise.
3. Eliminate distractions
The harder something is to do, the less likely you are to do it.
The morning is the time I set aside for creative endeavors like writing. And creativity doesn’t always come easily, often making procrastination hard to resist.
So, I leave my phone in another room. And I do my best to avoid opening my email until midday.
Of course, I’m not perfect with this. I made the mistake of opening my email when I started what was supposed to be an article on marketing and here I am writing about procrastination.
But these rules help keep me on track more often than not – and a lot more than if I didn’t live by them at all.
4. Create on-ramps
Just as you want to increase the friction involved in doing the things you don’t want to do – like checking your phone – you should seek to remove it from the tasks you do want to do.
The way to do this is through on-ramps, such as leaving your running gear laid out the night before for a morning run.
When I need to get something done the next morning – like this article (it's now 5.30 am on Wednesday) – I make it as easy as possible to hit the ground running.
I close everything on my computer, switch off notifications, and leave the article open on my desktop. I also clear my desk (except for a snack bar), prepare the coffee machine, and leave my phone in another room.
An on-ramp is like a road onto a highway. I want to walk into my office and immediately be on the writing highway.
Everyone struggles with procrastination. But hopefully, this article has helped you understand why it is you put important things off and how to solve the procrastination equation.
I can’t promise you’ll never put anything off again, but I believe these tips will certainly help you control the urge to distract yourself instead of doing the work – and ultimately transform your business.
And if you can’t seem to get a handle on getting things done, find out how you can work with me to get your business into shape.
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