The 3 Types of Procrastination and How to Beat It

June 22, 2016

I sat at my desk, email message alert pinging with each new arrival, joining the disorganized mosh pit of communication. I knew I needed to wade into the fray and start making sense of the mess, but instead I let one episode of Cutthroat Kitchen roll into the next on auto play. Next thing I knew, it was past midnight and my inbox didn’t look any better than it did before dinner—it was worse.

It was then I knew that I was in deep. I had fallen into the bottomless pit of procrastination.

Related: 3 Ways to Improve Your Willpower and Stop Procrastinating

Before I started studying productivity and goal setting, I thought all procrastination was created equal—that it was simply what you did when you were avoiding something else. But as I picked apart my own procrastination techniques and spoke with dozens of my clients about what was getting them off track, I realized that all procrastination is not created equal. And before you can eradicate or circumvent your delaying tactics, you must understand where it’s coming from.

Let’s look at how you can identify the three main reasons for procrastination, as well as simple ways to overcome it.

1. Overwhelm

You stare into the abyss that is your financial records from the past year and you think, There’s just no way I’m getting this done by April 15! I think I’ll go golfing instead. Sound familiar? Then you’re well acquainted with overwhelm procrastination, which is the urge to avoid projects that are just too big or that you’re not sure how to tackle. You can’t find a way into the project or task, so you just put it off. Many a Ph.D. thesis has been abandoned due to overwhelm.

What to do: One of the biggest mistakes people make with regard to goal setting is to try to tackle projects without breaking them down into small, concrete steps you can take immediately. I counsel my coaching clients to break any large project or activity into actions that can be finished in 15 minutes or less.

For example, if you’re applying for a line of credit for your business, your first step might be to make a list of five banks you’ll approach. Your next step might be to call and get the name of a commercial lending officer. If you need a tool, a piece of information or something else before you start, then that becomes your first step.

2. Fear

Sometimes we avoid taking action for the simple reason that taking the next step requires us to push ourselves into the unknown. Asking for a raise, calling on a new customer, submitting a book proposal to an agent or publisher... we put these things off because we don’t know what might happen, so we assume the worst.

While this strategy might have helped keep our cave-dwelling ancestors alive, it’s not doing much for our own state of mind or achievement.

What to do: We have to learn to fool ourselves into thinking all is well and there’s nothing to worry about. Again, taking tiny steps can be the solution.

Instead of telling yourself, I need to apply to law school, break it into smaller, less threatening pieces, such as, I’m just looking up the dates for the LSAT or I’m going to create a list of online law programs. Small steps allow us to tiptoe past the three-headed guard dog lounging in front of our well-being without alerting him that something important or dangerous is occurring.

Related: 7 Motivational Quotes to Help You Face Your Fears

3. Lack of Benefit

Humans are comfort-seeking animals. In order to motivate us out of couch-potato status (literally or figuratively), we must see a clear benefit in pushing ourselves into discomfort. In other words, if we don’t think going to the gym is going to bring us a tangible benefit, we won’t do it. Why rock the boat when we’re so comfortable right where we are?

What to do: We need to amplify the pain of inaction and simultaneously inflate the reward of action so it’s crystal clear that we must move to get out of the way of the meteor that’s headed directly at us.

If your reward isn’t big enough to make you act, ask yourself, What will happen if I don’t change? Where will I be in a month, a year, three years, if I continue on this path? Make it a full surround-sound, Technicolor vision of what life will be like if you don’t change your trajectory. Then do the same for a “success” vision. Describe exactly what you’ll gain if you move in a new, better direction, and then focus on the contrast or gap between the two.

Seeing exactly what you’ll feel and look like a year from now if you keep eating a pint of Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche every night might be enough to get you to set down the spoon and head out for a walk around the block instead.

When you’re faced with a project you just can’t seem to tackle, no matter how many times you write it on your annual plan or put it on your to-do list, it’s time to go deep and figure out exactly why you’re avoiding it.

In my Netflix binge case, I was avoiding diving into my inbox because I thought it might just mean more work instead of less; in other words, I didn’t have a compelling benefit for wading in. Once I realized that, though, I was able to focus on how bad I felt every morning when I saw 300-plus emails in my inbox, and how good and in control I’d feel when I got the unread messages down to under 20. Sure enough, once I played up the contrast, I was able to put Cutthroat Kitchen on pause and dispatch 100 messages in a matter of minutes. And I was right; it felt really, really good.

Related: 7 Ways to Get Out of Your Own Way and Get Things Done

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