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The (real) secret to overcoming procrastination

When was the last time you procrastinated? Submitting your expense reports last month? Going to bed last night?

What can you do to overcome procrastination -- whether it’s doing something you dislike, such as expense reports, or something you long to do, such as getting a whole night’s sleep?

I have an entire shelf dedicated to books on time management, including my audio program recorded over 20  years ago titled "Overcoming Procrastination: A simple plan to help you get off dead center and start right now." But while we share clever and pragmatic ideas, my colleagues (including the most famous ones) and I miss the mark.

Given my work in motivation science today, I would offer a different course of action to overcome procrastination. Instead of focusing on how-to techniques, I advise you to explore the real secret to overcoming procrastination.

Become mindful of when and why you procrastinate

Most time-management techniques are a waste of time without awareness of the underlying cause of your procrastination.

Notice that when you put something off, such as those expense reports, it’s probably because of suboptimal motivation. Motivation is at the heart of everything you do -- and everything you don’t do but should (or wish you did). Procrastination is understandable when your motivational outlook is disinterested because it lacks values alignment or a sense of purpose, or when your outlook is tied to tangible or intangible rewards or is imposed (fear-based).

Suboptimal motivation doesn’t generate the high-quality vitality needed for moving forward. The solution for overcoming procrastination caused by a suboptimal motivational outlook is to apply the skill of motivation. Shifting from suboptimal to optimal motivation generates a spark of energy that builds an internal fire for carrying you past the finish line with vitality to spare.

But what explains putting off things you acknowledge you want -- and maybe long -- to do?

Maybe what you think is procrastination, isn’t

Take sleeping as an example. Putting off going to bed at night has become such a phenomenon in China, according to the BBC, that they have a phrase for it: bàofùxìng áoyè—or “revenge bedtime procrastination.”

People worldwide can relate to feeling a lack of control over their daytime lives and refusing to sleep early in exchange for some sense of freedom during late-night hours. Sleep deprivation has been declared an international health issue, yet more and more exhausted people put off sleeping. 

But what they call procrastination isn’t. People aren’t procrastinating on going to bed. They are attempting to compensate for what’s missing during the day. Adults spend 75% of their time awake connected to work.

As I’ve shared from my study of motivation science, if you don’t experience your basic psychological needs for choice, connection and competence at work, you have little chance of compensating for them outside of work. When you fulfill your psychological needs, you flourish. When your psychological needs are thwarted, you languish.

What feels like procrastination could be an ineffective attempt at compensating for what’s missing somewhere else in your life

Notice the explanations people gave in that BBC article for procrastinating on badly wanted and needed sleep. Their nightly “procrastination” attempts to compensate for the choice, connection and competence they don’t experience during the day.

Some of their reasonings:

  • "Putting off bedtime to claim some precious personal time – even though they know it’s not good for them.
  • A few hours of "my own time" is necessary to survive.
  • During the workday, one worker "“belonged to someone else" and could only find themselves at home and after lying down. "This revenge bedtime procrastination was sad, he wrote, because his health suffered, but it was also 'great' because he got a bit of freedom."
  • “It is a revenge to get back some time for yourself.”

Over-stretched workers who step up during challenging times, busy parents looking forward to their child’s bedtime, people juggling multiple side gigs to pay the rent, and hybrid workers with a bedroom office – all are desperate for ways to disconnect from work and stress.

Their strategy is to put off bedtime to do something “fun,” delay going on a healthy diet to down a well-earned glass of wine or use COVID-19 as an excuse not to exercise and binge on Netflix instead.

But they are not procrastinating in the traditional sense of the word. More likely, people are striving to regain their lost sense of control (choice), increase their lack of meaningful or values-based activities and relationships (connection), or counterbalance being overwhelmed by challenging circumstances (competence).

The real secret to overcoming procrastination?

The real secret is realizing that you are not procrastinating but compensating for the choice, connection and competence missing in the rest of your life.

There is no such thing as work-life balance. But an imbalance of psychological nutriments is a debilitating reality. No matter what you are doing, you need to create choice, connection and competence. If you don’t experience those three needs at work, you have little chance of compensating for them outside of work.

A bit of advice: If you are procrastinating on something you genuinely want to do, stop focusing on it. Look at the rest of your life. Notice if you’re missing choice, connection or competence. Recognize that your “procrastination” is a reflexive reaction -- and ineffective strategy -- to compensate for those three needs.

At the end of the day, you cannot fulfill your psychological needs with choices that disconnect you from your health and well-being, eroding the competence you need for building resilience and embracing radical change.

At the beginning of each day, focus on making choices that connect to meaningful values and build your competence for facing everyday challenges. Then, go to bed early and have a peaceful night’s sleep.

 

Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.”

Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit SusanFowler.com.

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