It’s 8:45pm, and yet again I find myself doing the mindless ping ponging on my phone. I check email, jump over to see if I have any texts, then swipe three pages over to my folder I’ve named “lame apps”, swipe another two pages, and find the Instagram app. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I do. I scroll until I see “you’re all caught up”. And if I’m really tired, I might even reconcile my budget or skip over to the Facebook app. By 9:30 I can hardly keep my eyes open and I have to decide…do I do it all again? Or do I finally get up and brush my teeth.
(Okay, I’ll admit, last night it was lights out at 8:30 not 9:30…)
I know you’ve all done this. It’s procrastination at its finest. I’m too tired to get up so I do something that will make it worse rather than face the thing that will make it better. And it’s not like I don’t know I’m doing it, either!
Despite my loathing for this routine, I spend countless hours defending procrastination. I see procrastination as a useful signal to show us what’s really going on. It’s often a symptom of something more important. In this article I’d like to go through 6 different things procrastination might be telling you, and some tips to resolve each one.
1. You need more time to think something through
This is the really great kind of procrastination that usually goes along with creative projects. Our brains take time to solve problems, and they work on them even when we’re not actively trying to solve them. Sometimes you get ideas at the most unusual times. For me, it’s usually when I get a chance to sleep in in the mornings.
My partner Ryan who runs a painting studio will often get stuck somewhere in one of his projects. He has learned that if he just keeps going and tries to work through it, he’ll mess something up. If he steps away and does something else, maybe for a few days, he can come up with a solution more easily.
Writing these articles would usually be a big source of procrastination for me, so I try and prevent that by working through the idea on Thursday. Then on Monday morning, when I sit down to write, I’ve had the weekend for my brain to think things through and I’m ready to go.
One of my clients who is an interior designer needs regular empty space in her calendar to feel inspired and energized. Without those breaks away from the work itself she feels overwhelmed.
If you know this is the kind of procrastination you need, then take it! (But maybe look at the next 5 first.)
2. You don’t know why you’re doing the thing in the first place
If you feel like the task is pointless, you’re very unlikely to prioritize doing it. This could be as simple as you genuinely don’t know the point, or deeper because you’ve lost track of your vision and goals along the way. It can be easy to get caught up in doing things because we “should” do them or because someone told you it was the right way, but if you’re not bought in, you’ll find yourself procrastinating.
I see this happen a lot with people in their marketing. They decide they want to try a strategy, they put in some initial effort or they hire someone to teach them, but it peters out faster than they can say Saskatchewan. They did it because they wanted clients, but when the clients don’t come immediately they give up on the strategy because they didn’t really understand the strategy or believe in it in the first place.
This also happens with business owners picking the wrong business model. Clients come to me when the way they’re doing business isn’t working anymore. Sometimes they’re overloaded with private clients, or maybe they have services that are burning them out. When we go back and look at their vision they realize that they’ve built a business model that ties them down or has them working way too many hours. When we adjust their services to be more aligned with their vision, they feel a lot more energized to do the work instead of putting it off.
Realigning with your vision and goals is key here. Take a look at what you’re procrastinating and see if it is out of alignment. If it is, it might be time to take some brave action to get yourself back on track.
3. There isn’t a hard deadline
This doesn’t always fall under the category of procrastination…sometimes it’s just legitimate time management. If you don’t have a deadline, and you’re putting a less urgent project off in lieu of more urgent projects, or projects that will make you money, then this makes sense.
The tricky part here is when the project is really important, maybe you’ve even been paid for it, but there isn’t a clear end date. Many people work well under pressure, and if you don’t have a deadline then you’re losing out on a powerful source of motivation.
But not creating a deadline in and of itself could be the signal that you’re procrastinating something. You can look at the other kinds of procrastination in this list to see if any of them resonate with the reason you haven’t set a deadline.
Test out creating a real deadline for the task. Make it real by telling someone or making a public commitment. You’ll quickly see the true nature of your procrastination once you have a deadline.
4. You haven’t broken the task or project down into small enough parts
This is one of the biggest reasons for procrastination, and it’s actually the easiest to solve. Yay!
When a tasks is too huge or complex, our brains just don’t know how to tackle it. When it looks at the task it gets overwhelmed, so it tries to find something easier that it knows how to do. This is a big reason why we end up checking email or scrolling social media when we should be doing something more important.
The way to fix this is to break the task down into doable chunks. Laura Posey of Simple Success Plans recommends that each task should take no longer than 30 minutes to complete. When your to-do list has only doable tasks on it, then you’re a lot more likely to complete them.
An example from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, is imagine on your tasks list is “mom’s birthday”. There’s nothing specific about that, it’s not at all actionable, and your brain will have no idea what to do with that. Instead, the tasks should look like this:
· pick a venue — my house or Rhonda’s?
· call bakery and order a cake
· ask Camila to bring balloons
· make guest list
· borrow folding chairs from Gil
These are much more doable and don’t overwhelm your brain. You’re more likely to actually complete them and not procrastinate.
The same applies to your business. If on your task list you write “launch new program” you’ll have no idea how to actually get started. By breaking this down and following the other tips in this list like having a deadline and connecting it to your vision, you’ll find it a lot easier.
If you struggle to break it down, this is a great time to talk to someone who has done it before. They will have advice on any steps you might be missing or don’t understand. You could also speak to a coach or thought partner and have them help you talk through how to approach the project.
5. Your self-doubt is running the show
This is the other most common reason for procrastination that I’ve seen in my clients, and it’s the one almost no one else is talking about. Conventional wisdom says that if you’re procrastinating then there’s something wrong with you. You just need more willpower or you’re being lazy. Even if you agree with the other types of procrastination on this list, you will still beat yourself up if you don’t know about this kind of procrastination because it’s the one not many people understand. Of course, it’s more complex and takes time to overcome, so it can be more frustrating.
Often, we don’t acknowledge the role self-doubt plays in our business. The truth is, running a business is an incredibly vulnerable and risky thing to do. Even if you’ve been doing it for a long time and you’ve grown accustomed to being your own boss or having fluctuations in income, your self-doubt is bound to boil up to the surface periodically.
Your inner Protector is trying to protect you from some sort of risk, and one of the tools it uses is procrastination. The longer it can keep you from doing “the thing”, the longer you will be safe, it thinks. So it will find all sorts of things that seem important for you to do instead of the thing it thinks is risky. For example:
· working on updating your website instead of actually telling people about it
· making graphics or PDFs instead of posting or sharing
· adding in more and more detail instead of passing the finished product to the client and risk them not liking it
· needing to research even more instead of finishing your article/book/program
· spending hours worrying instead of sending an overdue invoice reminder to a client
· signing up for another course and doing the work for that instead of planning and launching a cool new idea (that’s what I’m stuck in these days)
This kind of procrastination is really hard to spot because your Protector is going to tell you that it’s any of the other kinds of procrastination. It will make you think you’re not doing “the thing” for a very logical reason and you’ll spend lots of time doing anything except “the thing”.
6. You simply don’t want to do the task
Sometimes there truly isn’t something deeper going on (but make sure your Protector isn’t tricking you into thinking this). Sometimes you procrastinate because you just don’t want to do “the thing”. I procrastinate cleaning the gutters because they’re a pain in the butt to clean (even though it was way worse waiting until dusk and doing it in the freezing cold and dark before our first major snowfall last autumn). I procrastinate doing the dishes, even though I know I will eventually run out of clean dishes or counter space and have to do them anyway.
The good news is, there isn’t much in my business I procrastinate for this reason because I’ve tried to build my business in a way that works for me. Even if I don’t particularly like doing something, I’m connected to why I’m doing it and the tasks are broken down so they’re reasonably easy to tackle. I believe this is possible for everyone in business and that you can have your business exactly the way you want it.
But that doesn’t mean the other 5 kinds of procrastination don’t make a frequent appearance!
Let’s learn to appreciate what our procrastination is telling us and remember than it’s a lot more than laziness or lack of discipline. Let’s dig a little deeper and find out what’s really going on before we judge ourselves so harshly.
If you liked this perspective and want a little more permission to run your business your way, you can subscribe to the newsletter I send most Mondays here.