I was a time management tutor at a university for two years. Most of the students who came to me for help described themselves as master procrastinators. These students were also highly intelligent, talented, and hardworking.
In fact, my students were often so driven that they could work on a project they enjoyed for hours without even considering the time spent. But for some reason, the half hour required to write a paragraph for a less enjoyable assignment could seem insurmountable.
When we think about our own procrastination, we often feel guilt. We criticize ourselves as disorganized, distracted, or lazy. But these descriptors aren’t accurate. If we choose to, we could just as easily point to instances in which we were organized, focused, and diligent.
This is because procrastination is not a character flaw. It’s something that is situation-specific, and we are all susceptible to it.
Recently, psychologists have changed the narrative around procrastination by demonstrating that it’s not a time management issue but an emotion management issue.
Many of us schedule a task, but then end up procrastinating even if we have nothing else we need to get done within that time. Rather than being a product of poor organization, procrastination comes from the desire to avoid the unpleasantness of a particular task.
However, we don’t only avoid tasks that are unpleasant or painful. We often procrastinate even when it comes to the tasks we usually enjoy doing.
Imagine a novelist who spends their days in the company of their prose, plots, and characters. Working on their book is overall a rewarding activity. It’s their chosen career path, after all.
But some days, they wake up, realize they’re on a particular chapter, and do everything they can to avoid writing it. Sound familiar?
It’s not that writing is unpleasant. Something about writing in that situation is unpleasant.
The question, then, is what about a particular situation makes us perceive the task as unpleasant? We have to define what causes us to avoid something we would normally be happy to do.
One thing that struck me during my time as a tutor is that many good students begin to struggle with procrastination in their first semester of college. Diligent, high-performing high school students turn into frazzled young adults who can’t seem to pull it together. What’s behind this dramatic transformation?
I realized the big transition for freshmen is a new relationship to work. As they choose majors to study, their preferences begin to dictate the work they engage in.
As we enter adulthood, work becomes more deeply connected to our identity, and with this comes added pressure to succeed.
Here is a revelation about procrastination that came from working with college students: When my students found an assignment impossible to complete, it was either because they cared about it so much that they were paralyzed by fear or because they didn’t care about it at all.
These are the extremes on the spectrum of how we relate to our work as adults: We care too much or not at all.
Let’s go back to the example of the novelist procrastinating on their next chapter. I bet that particular chapter falls into one of two categories:
On one end of the spectrum, the work feels so high-stakes that the risk of failure is paralyzing.
On the other end of the spectrum, the work feels irrelevant and far removed from purpose or passion, despite its necessity.
Our perception of a specific task is what causes us to procrastinate, so curbing procrastination is a matter of changing the way we think about the task.
To do this, we first have to understand the difference between situations in which we avoid a task and situations in which we accomplish a task.
If caring too much and caring not at all are at two ends of the spectrum, we have to find the sweet spot in between. These are the situations when our tasks are inviting, rather than adversarial.
Let’s return to the novelist. How must they feel about those chapters they’re eager to write?
Likely, they are excited to see their ideas materialize on paper. They’re confident about their abilities and have clarity about how they’re going to proceed. They are curious to explore the story and express ideas.
These four attitudes comprise our approach to work that we perceive as inviting. This is the work we care about, but not so much that we are afraid of it.
Remember, the same task can be either inviting or adversarial, depending on the meaning attached to it.
You could write two articles of 1,500 words, and finish one easily while avoiding the other like the plague. Even though it’s the same amount of work, your perception of the work is what dictates your approach toward it.
To discover what meaning you’ve attached to a particular task, you can start by noticing if you lack any of the attitudes of the eager novelist.
Instead of being excited, confident, clear, or curious, are you bored, fearful, confused, or blocked? If so, determine what about the task is making you feel that way.
Of course, you won’t always experience all these attitudes toward any given project. A book idea might have you excited and curious but lacking the clarity and confidence to know how to begin. Your next step is then to identify which of the productive attitudes is lacking and to deal with that one specifically. I provide some examples of how to do this in the next section.
Overall, it’s not possible to fake excitement about something you’ve decided is boring or difficult. You have to uncover why it’s boring or difficult and work on changing this perception.
Here are some ways you can alter your perception of a task in order to acquire the attitudes that will make you productive. You may be dealing with only one or two of the procrastination attitudes, so you can find a solution for any particular one below.
All of us have tasks we’re less than excited about. It could be anything from intensive research for an upcoming blog post to getting your financial paperwork together.
Often, though, once we start doing the task, we realize it’s not that bad. We tend to overestimate the length of time something will take or how horrible it will be.
If you’re dreading spending hours researching, ask yourself how you know it’s going to take hours. What if you stopped and challenged yourself to see how much information you can find in twenty minutes?
This brings an element of excitement. It also changes your perception of the task from “tiring hours of research work” to “quick research interlude.”
When it comes to other mundane tasks, like getting paperwork in order, we can start doing them in a fun environment.
Create a practice in which you sit down with a coffee and snack to do your paperwork, so you have something to look forward to every time it’s on your to-do list. If the task is more mindless, put on your favorite podcast or music in the background.
This transforms the tasks you see as mundane into activities to look forward to. You start to perceive them like a recess in your work day—all while you’re actually being productive.
A lack of confidence often comes from a sense of intimidation by a task. Usually, this is an issue with a larger project, but not necessarily with all aspects of that project.
Before you decide to give up on the project for the day, can you identify one part of it that you are familiar with and is, therefore, less intimidating? Just finishing something can build your confidence by proving that you can do it.
With bigger work projects, we often feel a bit lonely, as if it is us against the project. Especially when you’re a beginner at something, it’s very natural to feel unsure and helpless.
One way to deal with this is to reach out to someone who has experience with the kind of work you’re intimidated by. Ask a peer for advice, feedback, or answers to some of your questions.
By sharing your grievances, your struggle becomes communal instead of private. The perception of your task changes from being an insurmountable obstacle to something you can get through because others have gotten through it before you.
Confusion about a task can come from not having a plan for executing it. Often, the cure for our procrastination in this case is not about working harder but working smarter.
Make an outline and a plan before starting any multistep endeavor. If you’re still stuck or unsure about some part of it, start with the aspects you do have clarity about and ask questions about the aspects you don’t.
If you are confused about a piece of writing work for someone else, perhaps you need clarification about the requirements. Do you need to speak with an editor or client? Do you need to reiterate your own expectations to them?
If you’re dealing with a trouble spot in a piece of writing, it can be helpful to explain it aloud to someone before you grapple with it in writing. Communicating something verbally is a great way to prove that you really know what you’re trying to say. In fact, talking aloud is a proven way to process problems and find solutions.
We’ve all tried to muddle through a work task when we didn’t really know what we were doing. We probably would have saved ourselves time and stress if we had just made sure we had received clarity before starting.
Rather than avoiding the task altogether, we can chip away at it by taking steps to gain clarity. By the time we have this clarity, the task will be more inviting because we will know what we have to do.
As we become more and more experienced in our careers, we start to believe that everything should become easier and more efficient, and this is usually the case!
Unfortunately, when we’re hit by writer’s block, we feel helpless that our usual methods aren’t working for us.
Here we have to remind ourselves what it was like when we were beginners. We have to return to approaching our work in an exploratory way and give ourselves permission to be newbies and experiment.
Sometimes, it’s important to change your approach to make your brain think about solving a problem in a new way. Adding new constraints can create a new dynamic between you and your work, forcing you to get creative.
If you are bored with a task or routine, ask yourself what about it is boring to you. Can you jot down even two alternative ways to approach this task?
If you start perceiving a task as an experiment, you allow yourself to start having fun with it again.
Sometimes, we expect something to be unpleasant because it was unpleasant last time. But what about it was unpleasant? What was the best part? What was the worst, and how can we make it better?
There will always be tasks that are less pleasant than others, but it is possible to mitigate this unpleasantness by becoming aware of the reasons behind our feelings toward the task.
Sarah Blake is a poet, musician, and content writer from Toronto. Driven by a fascination with personal development, she writes to support people with unconventional careers and lifestyles in building something from nothing. Sarah holds an M.F.A. in poetry from The New School’s creative writing program. Her poems explore how environment and place affect the formation of self-identity and relationships. You can find her on Instagram @sarah0blake and read more of her writing at sarahblakecreative.com.