What the Procrastination Lifecycle Can Teach You about Overcoming Procrastination
Understanding the 20 typical behaviours of procrastination so that you can get out of the procrastination cycle
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Procrastination has been a lingering problem in my life. It’s affected my work, my writing, the projects that I want to work on and more. Once, I purchased some solar powered lights from Costco, thinking that it would be a great addition to my home. I bought the lights in 2019. Last month, I returned the unopened box. When I returned the lights to Costco (who thankfully accepted and refunded me for it), the Costco sales rep told me that I was being “extremely ambitious”. I laughed, but deep down, it was a problem with procrastination.
Whenever I encounter a problem in life, I look towards non-fiction books to give me advice, like a student to a teacher. I have lots of great books about discipline, time management, doing the work, getting things done and more — except none of these really took a look at procrastination itself. So instead, I went to the academics to find what studies have been done on procrastination. I found a (2013 paper from the University of Southern California Law School that looked at procrastination as a ‘wheel of suffering’)[https://core.ac.uk/reader/76622831]. They had looked at law students, and identified the typical behaviours that a student went through as they procrastinated, and mapped these into a wheel:
The “Wheel of Suffering” from the Understanding the Procrastination Cycle paper by Meehan Rasch and David A. Rasch
Some thoughts about the wheel
When you take a look at the wheel, you may realize that there are certain behaviours that you do when you procrastinate — I know I recognized many behaviours in my life: delay start, pep talk, daydreaming, avoidance, worry, self-criticism, rationalizing and “I’ll do better next time” are familiar. As the law students engage in each behaviour and go around the wheel, it becomes engrained, eventually becoming automatic. Students at this point automatically go through the cycles without conscious awareness.
What I’d like to do, and what the paper does not go into, is each of the behaviours and to give you specific tactics for addressing each. That way, you can take a look at some of the behaviours that you exhibit, and then look at the specific tactics to get out of the cycle right away. The authors note that you can leave the cycle at any point so you are not forever trapped in the cycle, if you find yourself exhibiting any or multiple behaviours.
How to address each behaviour on the wheel
1 — Unclear, unrealistic goals
Have you ever made the resolution to lose weight or to exercise every day? These goals may be unclear — how much weight do you want to lose? By when? — or unrealistic — did you exercise before? How can you go from not exercising at all to exercising every day?
Strategy: (Scott Adams has a great post about goals vs. systems)[https://www.scottadamssays.com/2013/11/18/goals-vs-systems/] and the takeaway is that systems are much better than setting a goal. Instead of “lose 5 pounds by December”, establish a system of “be active every day”. You can fail goals, but by applying the system every day, you set yourself up for greater success.
2 — Denial of problem
With the lights I bought from Costco, I thought that there was an issue of not having enough light outside at night. But after buying the lights, I decided that this was not a problem. Funny how procrastinating can make you deny the problem.
Strategy: Recognize when you are in denial of a problem, and then think about what has changed from when you decided it was a problem, to when you decided it wasn’t one. Is it the fact that something has changed or are you procrastinating? This may also be a good opportunity
3 — Delay start
As you start writing your book, you notice your dishes need washing. And then you notice that the research on your desk should be organized. This is the behaviour that I exhibit the most when I procrastinate. I’ll open up a blank page to write and then open up another tab to watch Youtube videos or to play bullet chess.
Strategy: I like using the Pomodoro technique here. Tell yourself that for 25 minutes, you will write and then you can take a break. I’m still working on keeping my breaks to five minutes, but working for 25 minutes is better than sputtering around trying to get work done right before the deadline.
4 — Fear of Failure
What if you spend hours working on a project, only for it to fail? I used to have similar discussions with fellow management consultants. We would work on these brilliant reports or presentations. We would give the client all of our research, analysis and findings. Many of these reports or presentations became shelfware — that is, they ended up on a shelf somewhere never to be used. I asked one management consultant whether they would do a project if they knew it would not end up being used, and they said no.
Strategy: When I was asked the same question, I said yes. The point of the project was not the outcome or the result, at least for me. For me, it was about going through the project, learning to improve my work, and then using those learnings to do better projects in the future. You can take a look at your work in the same way. Also related: (Seth Godin’s new book The Practice)[http://tiny.cc/moxusz] talks exactly about this process.
5 — Anxiety
We all get anxious in different ways. Sometimes, I even get anxious about what would happen if my project or book is a huge success. “Oh my gosh, I’m going to have people stalking me everywhere I go” or “I’m going to have to hire someone to do my taxes”. Later, I realize that I’m being a bit too optimistic, but that does not mean I do not get anxious for the next project I do.
Strategy: Anxiety is a natural response of what is to come. Take things one step at a time. Remember, if there is something you can do about it, there’s nothing to worry about. But if there is nothing you can do about it, there’s also nothing to worry about.
6 — Resentment
At the beginning of major projects is when I see some of this behaviour. People resent the fact that they are on the project, and they look to see if they can switch projects. Or you may resent the fact that you are a writer and have to write every day.
Strategy: Practice gratitude every day, and be grateful for the opportunity to do good work, or to be able to write every day. I know it sounds like a weird thing to do, but I find that the best way to eliminate hate is to cultivate more love in your life.
7 — Missed Goals
Delaying your work means you have less time to do your work, and as a result, you may feel fear that you will miss your goal (and then end up Rationalizing #19) and thinking that you should work on something else instead where you can meet a goal.
Strategy: Similar to the Strategy for #5, take it one step at a time and focus on the process. You may end up missing your goal, but if you don’t do your best, you will never know what you may have accomplished.
8 — Pep Talk
The interesting thing about giving yourself a pep talk is that people (or the law students, as the authors found), think that this is something that can help them get out of the procrastination behaviours. The authors identified this as a quick-fix that ends up being part of the wheel of suffering. Maybe you find that you are not on track, so you tell yourself that if you put in overtime and weekends, you can get your work done.
Strategy: A little pep talk does not hurt, but if you find yourself constantly giving yourself a pep talk at crucial moments of your work, it might be a behaviour of procrastination rather than a solution to your procrastination. I don’t give myself pep talks, instead, I like to remember the ‘why’ of the work that I’m doing. I’m writing this book so that I can help others develop better habits. I’m writing this article so I can help people overcome procrastination. Going back to why you started the work in the first place can be a great motivator for work.
9 — Daydreaming
As a writer, I often daydream as a way to come up with new ideas. But sometimes it goes too far and I end up dreaming about different things unrelated to writing or the topic at hand.
Strategy: Daydreaming, I believe, is part of the process of writing, especially around brainstorming and coming up with new ideas. Rather than try to stop any daydreaming from occurring, I like to limit the amount of time for ‘creativity’. I’ll set a timer for thirty minutes to daydream and research, and then once time is up, I will set to writing, even if I have not completely analyzed different ideas I have. Many writers use ‘TK’ (and you can use it in Medium too!) to note down places where further research is needed, exact quotes need to be added, essentially any place in your writing that you know needs further work, and add it in to not disrupt their writing flow.
10 — Avoidance
This in combination with Delay Start can be insidious. If you start to clean or organize before doing hard work, or feel like you need to do more ‘research’ even though you have already done lots, these are all behaviours that you may do to avoid the important work that you need to do.
Strategy: Whenever I find myself avoiding work by doing other things, I find it hard to stop doing those other things, especially because those other things need to be done anyway (washing dishes, cleaning the desk, etc.) So instead, I try to prepare my environment the night before. If I know that I have a long writing session in the morning, I’ll take care of all of the dishes at night. I’ll clean my desk and make sure all of the things I need are at hand. Any little thing that might distract me, I will take care of so that when I get to my writing session in the morning, the only thing that I can do is my writing.
11 — Worry
It is natural to worry. Worry about how you might be able to complete the work on time, and to a certain quality. Worry about not being able to accomplish your goal. Worry that your book won’t be received well by audiences. If nobody has told you already, don’t worry!
Strategy: I could give you a lot of inspiring quotes or anecdotes about people worrying, but I’ll go back to the same strategy in Anxiety #5: take it one step at a time. Do all the things that you can control, and don’t worry about the things you cannot control.
12 — Lying
Lying paired with rationalization is something that you may have seen. “Oh it doesn’t take that long to do” or “I can write 50 pages a day to meet the deadline”.
Strategy: Maybe you really can write 50 pages a day to meet that book deadline. Or that something does not take as long as you estimated. No matter what, take a realistic look at what you are lying about. Factor that in to the next project or work that you do. If you can really write 50 pages a day, rather than the conservative estimate of 10 pages a day, use a happy middle of 25 pages for your next book. But also recognize the stress of having to try to write 50 pages a day. And if you can’t write 50 pages, think about that the next time you try to lie to yourself about your abilities to do work.
13 — Self-Criticism
Have you ever told yourself that “you are lazy” or “you are not a writer”? When you procrastinate, you may find yourself criticizing yourself for not being able to get work done. But remember that procrastination is something that affects everyone in one way or another, and you should not hate on yourself for procrastinating.
Strategy: Remember your previous accomplishments. Remember that book that you published. Remember the previous projects that you completed and how great it felt when you were done. Any time you criticize yourself, you are only looking at the negative moment at that point in time, but your life is also filled with many positives.
14 — Overwhelm
With this huge project, where do I begin? How can I just ‘start a business’ in a weekend? Do you often feel overwhelmed at the start of a big project?
Strategy: One strategy that you can use is to break down these complex steps into smaller steps. At one point in my life, I purchased a goal journal called The Goal Tiger. It asked for my five year goals. Then it asked me to break down those five year goals into one year goals. Then it asked me to break down the one year goals into monthly ones. And then it asked me to break those down into weekly goals. And then finally, it asked me to break them down into daily goals. At the time, I had lofty five year goals that I could not see how I could achieve. But breaking it down in this way means that I can focus on the goals day by day and then pivot and adjust as needed.
15 — Deadline
How do I complete this by x date? How can I get it done in time? Whenever I think of deadlines, I like to think of a great Douglas Adams quote:
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. — Douglas Adams
I know a former colleague who thrived on deadlines. If they did not have a deadline, they would never get work done. But give them a deadline, and they could move mountains.
Strategy: Realize that a deadline is there to give you that extra ‘push’ needed to get things done. A deadline may be intimidating, but see it in a positive light instead as something to aim for.
16 — Anxiety Threshold
Do you ever get so anxious that you feel you cannot ‘perform’? I remember reading about Elizabeth Gilbert who, after the success of Eat, Pray, Love found that she could not write her next book because she gave herself the pressure of trying to make it even better than Eat, Pray, Love.
Strategy: Does your next project have to be even better than your previous one? Use Elizabeth Gilbert’s strategy, which was to just get the next book out of her system. Whether or not it was better than her previous books was not her concern, and if it was a failure, at least she got it out of her system so that her next, next book did not have that same expectation from her critics. I would even suggest going one step further and say that you should be outcome independent. If your work finds raving reviews, great. But focus on the work and becoming better each time because eventually, you will find success in some form.
17 — Binge
Netflix anyone? Or rather, random Youtube videos? I don’t think I have ever opened up Youtube intending to watch one video clip and then stopped after watching that clip. I inevitably click related videos until I end up wasting away hours mindlessly watching random topics.
Strategy: I go back to the same strategy for Delay Start #3, using the Pomodoro technique. If I time box the amount of time for my break, I’m more likely to cut myself off from endlessly watching Youtube clips. Of course, you need some discipline here to stop yourself from just clicking and watching, but the 5 minute timer helps jolt you out of the break and getting back to work.
18 — Disappointment
Have you ever felt disappointed in yourself or in others for procrastinating? I know I have. One of my former colleagues always procrastinated. Rather than getting the work done early, he waited until the last minute to get things done.
Being disappointed then leads to behaviour #20: “I’ll do better next time”.
Strategy: Focus on the positives. One of the things that I learned from Tina Seelig’s book What I wish I knew when I was 20 was the idea of keeping a failure resume. The failure resume is a way of helping you keep track of your lessons learned, just like how you would do with projects. Then every once in a while, you review your failure resume so that you can learn from your mistakes. In a similar way, every time you feel disappointment, note it down, either in a notebook or journal. Why did you feel disappointed? What can you learn from this? How will you avoid it in the future?
19 — Rationalizing
Rationalizing is often paired with any one of these behaviours to help make your procrastination less damaging. You tell yourself that you cleaned the dishes instead of writing and that you “at least have a clean house”. Or you tell yourself that you cleaned your desk because otherwise “a messy desk represents a cluttered mind”.
Strategy: Rationalizing is our mind’s way of making procrastination less damaging than it is. Sometimes I will find myself rationalizing away my bad behaviours. But if I can catch myself doing this, I will pause for a moment, let myself rationalize, and then let the feeling pass through me. “Yes, I do have a clean house” and then my mind will go to the unfinished work ahead of me. In other words, I let myself feel the feelings of rationalization, and then get back to work.
20 — “I’ll do better next time”
You probably tell yourself this any time you complete a project. I have noticed that every time I complete a project, we make the same mistakes and people’s health end up paying for it each time in overtime and weekend work.
Strategy: You may have heard of the post-mortem, which is when you take a look at a corpse to determine the cause of death. Here, I would like to suggest a pre-mortem. A pre-mortem is an exercise on determining the cause of death before the project starts. Ask yourself and your team, if this project fails, what would have been the likely causes. If you are interested in how to run a pre-mortem, check out this atlassian article: (how to run a project pre-mortem)[https://www.atlassian.com/team-playbook/plays/pre-mortem]. Doing a pre-mortem helps to bring some of your past lessons learned knowledge to the forefront, and to uncover risks or issues that your team may be hesitant to bring up in the middle of the project.
Procrastination, if you are not careful, can become a habit for any important or hard work that you do. The trick is in recognizing what behaviours you exhibit (through the wheel of suffering above) and then finding ways to address those behaviours (using the strategies above, or your own adapted ones) and getting yourself out of the cycle.
Note this article was originally published on Medium.