Why Do We Procrastinate?

I’ve recently spent far more time procrastinating than I’m comfortable with. So I was fascinated to hear Oliver Burkeman discuss why we procrastinate on Rangan Chatterjee’s wonderful ‘Feel Better Live More‘ podcast. I can’t resist sharing these tips as I’m sure you’ll find them helpful too. 

In episode 260, in a conversation about Burkeman’s new book ‘Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals’, Burkeman said that when we procrastinate we’re trying to avoid encountering our limitations. In other words, we have a fear of failure.

Photo by cottonbro

He described how he procrastinated on writing a chapter of his book by scrolling through social media or cleaning. On the surface, this seemed weird – why did he choose to do something that’s not meaningful? But then he realised:

For me to actually write a chapter is to risk that I don’t have what it takes to write the chapter. Or I don’t have enough time to finish it by the deadline. Or it won’t be well received…

The one way to feel totally in control of some project that you really care about… is never to start it. Because then you’ve got this beautiful mental image of this song you’re going to write… or book you’re going to write and it’s pristine. Nothing can go wrong with it as long as it is completely unreal.” 

Wow! This really resonated with me. How about you?

We all do it…

I suddenly understood why I sometimes spend far more time fiddling about on my phone or the internet, rather than buckling down to develop my current animation idea. It’s fear. Fear it won’t be good enough. But doing nothing won’t make it good enough. Consistent work will do that. 

Noticing that we’re doing something (i.e. procrastinating) and understanding why we’re doing it is the first step to making a change. Because we can then use self-compassion to comfort ourselves and then get back to the hard work that needs to be done. 

On another episode of Rangan Chatterjee’s podcast, psychologist Dr Julie Smith talked about the gap between our urges and action. First, notice the gap, then pause, take a breath and ask ourselves:

How can I act on my values instead?

I love this. I’m sure we all want to act on our values rather than our urges. But first, we have to notice them. I’ve been meditating regularly over the past few months. Not a lot, just 10 minutes per day, but it’s already made me feel more mindful of my thoughts and urges. We can’t stop doing something unless we realise we’re doing it. Take some time to stop and think about – articulate – what are your values? Why do you want to write? Jot this down and keep it handy and look at it next time you feel the urge to procrastinate.

If you want to stop procrastinating but aren’t stopping when you feel the urge, here’s another technique that might help.

Use an elastic band

This is a little trick that some psychologists recommend to help people manage anxious thoughts. The idea is that you wear an elastic band around your wrist and every time you notice an anxious thought you snap the band against your skin to remind yourself to stop. 

I think it could also be helpful with procrastination. Every time you feel that urge to scroll Twitter or check your emails snap the band and then remind yourself of your goals and values. These sorts of strategies have to be used again and again to become effective – but the good thing is, they only take a few seconds. 

I hope these tips help you procrastinate a bit less. Do let me know how you get on. 


By the way, if you find this blog post helpful, do sign up for my newsletter. I send out an email every couple of weeks with tips on all aspects of writing, productivity, habits, blocks and different ways of marketing yourself and your writing. You’ll also get a free 14-day writing course – perfect for kickstarting a writing routine. 

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