I have a love-hate relationship with deadlines. I love them because they push me to get something done by a certain date, but I hate them because when I have a deadline I’ll procrastinate until the night before to really start in on it.
I procrastinate because I know I’ll ultimately get it done, but it causes me a lot of stress and anxiety thinking about that deadline looming over my head. So while in a lot of ways deadlines are motivators, they also bring the procrastinator in me to life.
Luckily, I work in a place that doesn’t have hard and fast deadlines. Instead of feeling like I have until a certain date to finish something, I get to do my own priority management and work efficiently through my tasks. It wasn’t long ago, however, when deadlines played a huge role in my life.
At least the public school system I went through from kindergarten through college put a deadline on everything. From reading assignments to projects, permission slip forms to club enrollment, there’s not one thing that happens in a school building that doesn’t have a due date associated with it.
I would always, at least to some degree, put off important assignments until the last minute. Tests would be scheduled for Friday and I’d wait until Thursday to do the assigned reading for it. Projects were due on a Monday and I’d wait until the weekend before to start. It was almost like I couldn’t help but to wait until there was no other choice but to sit down and get it done, otherwise I’d miss the deadline.
From conversations with friends & colleagues, I’ve learned that this is a common issue for people. Most of the people I’ve spoken with about this agree that having time management lesson plans or a class on time management would have helped curb their predictable procrastination behavior.
While we’ve written about individual time management techniques students can have (like maintaining a time management chart for assignments), today we’re compiling some insights on procrastination to help you get past that roadblock of waiting until the last minute.
Understanding Why You Procrastinate
When we make the decision to procrastinate on something, it is just that: a decision. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, we’ve made the choice to sabotage ourselves as opposed to regulating ourselves.
Dr. Joseph Ferrari of De Paul University says that procrastination isn’t a time management problem, but a learned behavior. From some vantage point, we procrastinate to avoid whatever pain we associate with taking action.
In addition, procrastinators typically have a fear of failure (in whatever form failure comes in) and like to wait until the last minute because they would prefer that “others think they lack effort [rather] than ability.” The saddest part to me about procrastination, however, is the lies we tell ourselves about why we’ve procrastinated:
…I work better under pressure
…I’m more creative when I wait until the last minute
…I’ll have more time to focus on this tomorrow
We procrastinate as a response to having poor self regulation and tell ourselves lies to justify it. In order to change this ingrained behavior, procrastinators have to decide they really desire to have better self regulation and see the stories they tell themselves for the lies that they are.
Procrastination as a means to Comfort
If we procrastinate because we want to avoid pain, then in some way we are seeking to stay comfortable. The pain we’re avoiding is the failure we associate with taking action.
If you are a shy student, then you avoid getting your presentation together for class for fear of presenting in front of a crowd of people. If you’re a student who struggles with reading then you procrastinate on your reading assignments until the night before the test because if you were to read every day then you’re reminded every day of how much you struggle.
That’s right. You’re not actually putting off an assignment because you “work better under pressure”. You’re putting it off because when you take action you are outside your comfort zone (or actively reminded about being outside your comfort zone).
If you realize that this is what you’re doing when you procrastinate, how do you make the switch to start embracing that nervous feeling of being outside your comfort zone?
How Procrastinators can Embrace the Uncomfortable
Once you’ve identified what uncomfortable feeling you’re avoiding by procrastinating, put a plan in place to deal with the pain you’ll face. By meeting the pain eye-to-eye and identifying what’s the worst that can possibly happen, you are well on your way to taking action.
Take a good, hard look at the pain. Don’t make it bigger than it actually is, but don’t shrink it just to make yourself feel better either. Just understand it as it is and sit with the potential of feeling that pain for a solid minute. You have a choice to either go through this pain (a new method, you haven’t tried before) or to procrastinate in order to “work around it” (the old method, you’ve tried before, and has got you to the point of reading this time management blog).
Only you can come to terms with the costs and benefits of each decision you make. I just recommend that you be honest with yourself about what you’ve tried in the past and whether your past decisions have really “worked.”
If you’re sick of the toll procrastination takes on you, then decide that you’ll face the pain instead of searching for comfort.
The Change isn’t Easy
For a procrastinator to make the switch from perpetual procrastination to consistent action is far from easy. It’s about as difficult as navigating your way to the front of a general admission concert when you get there late. It’s possible, but definitely an art form.
When you maneuver your way up to the front in a crowded venue, you can’t move with offensive lineman like momentum and knock all the other attendees down (well you can but you may find yourself in the center of a mob). Getting up to the front is a slow process where you search for a small opening, take a step forward and keep your eye on the lookout for another small opening.
Similarly, in making the transition from procrastinator to action taker, don’t try to make the change too fast. Be gentle with yourself. You behave this way for a reason that’s long sense been ingrained as “the right way to behave”. Trying to change this rationale too quickly will result in you feeling like you were just knocked down by that lineman.
Choose just one thing, a small thing, that you would typically procrastinate on and ask yourself what’s the pain you’re trying to avoid by procrastinating. Question whether or not avoiding that pain is really working for you and if you really want to be the type of person who avoids it. If not, then make the decision to face it and not procrastinate this week. If that’s too much for you, try another small thing next week and see how you feel.
When change is hard, trying to make it too quickly can give you a whiplash feeling. Be wary of this because if you aren’t easy with yourself in times of transition it can compromise the whole process of transition.
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