When you look at most people’s list of bad habits they want to break, procrastination is typically one of them. Procrastination is hardly a new trend; it’s been around for centuries. According to Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a master of procrastination (I mean, a master scholar of procrastination), the earliest documented reference of procrastination is in a sermon written in 1682.
What makes procrastination so robust? What makes it so hard to wipe out even though we know how much it affects not only our productivity but our peace of mind? If you struggle with procrastination and wonder why you haven’t been able to break the habit, consider these three things that keep procrastination flowing in our bloodstream.
1. Things Get Done
Procrastination means not starting to do the work until you are dangerously close to the deadline. And then, pushed against the deadline, you start working at a frenetic pace. Fighting the deadline gives you a powerful adrenaline rush. While you couldn’t be bothered with the task before, now you are full of energy. You focus your attention entirely on your almost-late project and ignore everything else. Your body can go for hours without sleep or food—copious amounts of coffee will do just fine.
Eventually, your last-minute frantic action pays off: The work gets done!
This way of getting things done gives you a false sense of confidence. It makes you believe that you can get any job done, regardless of how late you start. The thrill of achieving something that seemed so impossible—like creating an entire presentation for an important meeting in just one night—gives you an unforgettable high. You feel proud, relieved (and probably exhausted). But you did it! And maybe you can do it again … and when you think you are able to get anything done, regardless of how late you start, you have no motivation—no reason—to stop procrastinating
2. Life Goals Have No Deadlines
Procrastination means waiting till the last minute to get things done. But that only works when you know when the “last minute” is. Without a clearly defined and well-established deadline, you risk never getting the task done. Of course, not everything we have to or want to do come with deadlines.
Consider life goals. Life goals have no deadlines. Early in our lives, there are some rough deadlines. People expect us to start crawling by 10 months, and start talking by about 24 months. We’re supposed to start primary school at about age 6 and finish high school by around 18. And at least some of us have to come to terms with the fact that our parents won’t be supporting us financially forever, so we know that at that point, we need to get a job.
Later in life, the deadlines get even looser. No one tells you exactly when you should start dating, for example, or what age is too late to marry. With more idiosyncratic goals, like taking the next step in your career, starting your own business, writing a book, learning French, becoming a mentor, or helping a charity, the deadlines are non-existent. No deadline means no pressure. No pressure means no action. And no action means no goal.
3. You Think Procrastination Is a Problem
We tend to think of procrastination as a problem—as a bad habit or an irreversible personality trait that will constantly drain our potential and get in the way of our achievements. But procrastination may not a problem at all. It may actually be a solution—a solution that your brain generates in response to the need to take action.
Procrastination is the tendency to delay taking action. It is the disconnect between intention and implementation. To translate a plan into action, your brain analyzes a vast amount of information from your internal and external environment, and makes decisions about what to do next. When you have all the information you need, you start working on a plan. If you don’t, your brain stalls. And that’s when you experience procrastination.
This could be a critical shift in your thinking: Instead of considering procrastination as a big problem, a habit you need to break, or a hardwired part of your personality, think of it as an alarm, or a red flag—a sign that something is missing. Something is preventing you from getting started and getting things done.
Your job is to discover what that is. When you discover it, the odds will be in your favor.