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There are explainable reasons as to why you procrastinate at work. But how can you break the stressful cycle? Getty

“Winners take time to relish their work, knowing that scaling the mountain is what makes the view from the top exhilarating.”—Denis Waitley, motivational speaker and writer

You’re behind on a deadline, but instead of sitting down in front of your screen, you go for a long walk, worry stalking you the entire way. You’re anxious about a looming presentation and attend happy hour instead of burning the midnight oil. Procrastination is a self-defeating pattern of behavior we all do at some point to survive under pressure. Chronic procrastination, though, has productivity and career costs and leads to negative effects on our mental and physical health. Call it a friend without benefits because it helps you avoid the inability to complete something but the avoidance can sabotage your career.

You have ambition and drive, yet you find yourself stalling or postponing action on a project. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Instead of planting yourself in front of the screen, you watch yourself organize your spice rack, re-arrange furniture or engage in unnecessary cleaning. You call yourself lazy because you can’t get motivated despite the looming deadline. But you’re not really a couch potato because you’re being productive. You know you’re not focused on your priorities, but you stall anyway. You recognize you’re procrastinating, and you’re getting antsy, catapulted into a swirl of adrenaline and cortisol stew. The deadline passes, commitments pile up and your inner critic beats you into smithereens, attacking you with ugly names, making you feel lousy. Now you must reckon with the second layer of pressure that adds insult to injury.

The Science Behind Why We Postpone Work Tasks

A recent study showed that people procrastinate because the desire for immediate positives is stronger than the desire to delay negatives. If you dread responding to your inbox of emails, you’re more likely to put it off until later. But if you look forward to your yoga class, you’ll want to do it as soon as possible.

Procrastination is also a form of short-term mood repair—an emotional response to work stress according to research—that protects you against fear of failure or judgment by others. Postponing a task is how we try to reduce the stress of “Can I do it perfectly?” “Will my boss like the outcome?” Or “What will my team think?” You’re doing something against your “thinking brain’s” awareness, but you do it anyway because it relieves stress. It’s not rational or logical because it takes effort and energy to procrastinate, but your efforts still are going in the wrong direction. A study of 2,000 decision makers by online retailer Zulily showed that both planners and procrastinators are driven by a common motivator: stress. Planners formed an organized method of action in advance while procrastinators intentionally put off tasks—both a way of managing stress. Planners showed more control over their emotions, less stress and more positive emotional, health and life outcomes than procrastinators who had less time for themselves or a social life.

Many workers say, “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” Postponing brings relief in the short term while undermining your happiness and success in the long run. If you avoid the looming task you temporarily avoid the judgment and self-doubt. It’s much more fun to go watch a sunset than sit in front of a blank screen with your heart beating a mile a minute. It’s a paradox because the avoidance of pressure actually amplifies the pressure. The closer you get to the deadline, the more distressed and paralyzed you feel, and in the long run stalling erodes your productivity and adds to chronic stress.

7 Strategies To Break The Cycle

  1. Flip Your Perspective. Instead of thinking negatively of the dreaded work task, consider the long-term benefits. Instead of dreading the climb, contemplate how good you will feel at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. When a project feels like an uphill struggle, focus on the positive aspects of finishing it before the weekend so you can enjoy the days off. In the end, considering the long-term benefits moves you closer and quicker to the finish line.
  2. Avoid Labeling Yourself.Calling yourself a procrastinator gives you tacit permission to act as a person worthy of the label, and you repeat the habit of putting off tasks. Learning to think of your procrastinator as a part of you, not as you, referring to it in the third person as he or she and talking to it, separates you from it. Stepping back and observing this part with an impartial eye lessens the self-judgment and keeps you from clobbering yourself. The procrastination no longer dominates your decision-making, and you notice a heightened ability to scale the obstacles.
  3. Chill Your Musturbation. If you’re like most people, you have a relentless voice in your head, bludgeoning you with oppressive words (the psychologist Albert Ellis dubbed it musturbation) such as “must,” “should,” “ought” and “have to”: “I must win that contract,” “I have to get that promotion,” “This project should be perfect.” Bowing to oppressive language, fuels dread and procrastination. Translating self-imposed pressure into language that reflects choice such as “I can,” “I get to,” “I want to” or “I plan to” liberates you from the shackles of dread and procrastination, enabling you to proceed with the task.
  4. Curb Your Perfectionism. Perfection’s iron-fisted grip causes you to set unrealistic goals, try too hard and avoid the impossible target you set for yourself. Out-of-reach expectations cause you to see failure even in your triumphs. You’re less likely to procrastinate when you see goals as doable and reachable. Writers often deliberately pen an imperfect first draft—known as “the shitty first draft”—in order to bypass their perfectionism. Permitting yourself to perform a task imperfectly tricks the emotional brain and reduces any resistance to completing the task. When you permit yourself to make a mistake, the finished product usually turns out better than you had imagined.
  5. Set Priorities. Simply choosing one item from your to-do list that you can accomplish quickly then completing it can give you a jump-start and lift the burden of procrastination. You can face your commitments head-on and early instead of waiting until the last minute. If you have several items on your list, you can distinguish between essentials and non-essentials and work through the tasks that need immediate completion one at a time.
  6. Take Micro-steps. Breaking down the work project in short time chunks of five minutes keeps you from feeling overwhelmed by the big picture. Studies show that taking doable micro-steps helps you realize the task isn’t as difficult as you thought, allowing you to break through postponement and move to completing your task. Although taking the first step can be the hardest, once you complete it (perhaps just sitting down and opening your computer), it can get you going.
  7. Reward Yourself. Your brain is hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and it loves a reward. After you complete a small portion of a task—not before you complete it—give yourself a payoff. Instead of watching your favorite television show before completing a portion of the task, plan to view it after finishing a part of it. This approach boosts your motivation so you can enjoy one of your favorite activities afterwards. 

Author(s)

  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Founder and CAO of ComfortZones Digital and Author of 40 books.

    ComfortZones Digital

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is Founder and Chief Architect Officer (CAO) of ComfortZones Digital--the digital companion to mitigate workplace stress. He is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." www.bryanrobinsonbooks.com.