There’s a common perception that procrastination is a result of laziness.
But for me personally, procrastination actually comes from the desire to do a perfect job.
It’s when it feels like your self-worth is on the line, to the extent that you can be paralysed by even starting the task.
The feeling that by making a mistake, or not producing something of a high enough standard, you’ll be seen as incompetent. Or that you will feel like a failure.
The thing is, perfectionism is all but impossible. And it’s actually detrimental to your wellbeing, including high stress, anxiety and depression.
Of course, the ability to procrastinate is now even easier due to the multitude of distractions we have around us. Studies show that, for those that use computers to do their work, concentration flits between tasks, on average, every 40 seconds.
What can you realistically accomplish in this length of time?
Our primitive minds are wired in a way that is constantly on the lookout for novelty. We weren’t designed to focus solely on one thing at a time. Our ancestors survived by being aware of many different things at once, and to be alert to potential threats. It’s why the human race survived, and didn’t get torn apart by packs of lions before it had a chance to develop.
But whilst our brains haven’t really changed since the Stone Age, those who are truly successful in the modern world have trained themselves to focus deeply on one thing at a time.
Focusing has become one of today’s most elusive skills.
For those of us that procrastinate because of perfectionism anxiety, there’s no magic cure. However, one thing I’ve tried to do is to start SOMETHING. Even something as small as opening a document and giving it a title means progress has been made.
Take things in baby steps. If you’re writing a report, add headings to frame your piece. Then, write down any major points that you want to make.
More often than not it’s STARTING that’s the hardest part to tackle. But once you get going, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
When it comes to focusing, here are a number of things I’ve also found that help:
- Be consistent – set a time of the day, each day to do ‘deep’ work. It’s far more difficult to focus fully ‘on the fly’, as it takes time to move your attention from lighter, habitual tasks to those that require full concentration.
- Eliminate distractions – phones, emails, instant messaging services etc. are productivity black-holes that drain attention by their mere presence. Turn off notifications, shut them down, or even better (with your phone), put them in a completely different room, so the temptation to just ‘check in’ isn’t there.
- Set deadlines – this can eliminate the chances of striving for perfectionism and provide much-needed time-limited focus. If you’re not good at keeping to your own deadlines, make yourself accountable by getting someone else to set one for you.
- Practice self-awareness – make a record of every time your mind wanders. Try and quickly write down the distraction so you can come back to it later on.
- Take your time – it’s important that you don’t expect miracles; it takes time to build up your ability to focus. Start small and slowly increase your deep-work stints each week, until you get to where you want to be.
Whether you are a procrastinator yourself, or you manage someone that is, be supportive of the challenges you/they face. When you frame the process as ‘building good habits’, rather than ‘breaking bad habits’, it’s a lot more positive to approach.
Finally, if you do find perfectionism has become an issue, I’d thoroughly recommend seeking help. You can self-refer for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions via the NHS website.