A Research Paper By Heather Prentice Schmidt, Identity & Empowerment Coach, CANADA
The Role of Coaching in Tackling Procrastination
Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow. Mark Twain
Procrastination is traditionally defined as “putting off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.”It smacks of tardiness, sloth, and dilatory behavior. A common perception is that procrastinators delay decisions and actions as a conscious choice, out of laziness, weakness, or some other character flaw. Chronic procrastinators are often told that the solution to their woes is to adopt the Nike slogan and “Just do it!”
If it were only that simple, procrastination wouldn’t be such a prevalent and persistent problem in today’s world. Piers Steel, a researcher at the University of Calgary and author of the book The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, reports that 95% of us procrastinate to some degree and a 2007 study found that almost 25% of adults worldwide are chronic procrastinators. There is also evidence to support that procrastination is a growing problem in today’s tech-dependent, screen-filled, distraction-rich world  and is more common among younger adults (ages 14-29). Experts explain procrastination as a self-defeating behavior pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs.Procrastination includes an element of putting off intended action. Steel’s definition also acknowledges the costs of procrastination: “to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.”Note that not all delaying is procrastination.
While it may be comforting to know that you are not alone as a procrastinator, it can be sobering to realize just how much procrastination can hold you back. This paper will address some of the costs of procrastinating, as well as look at some of the deeper reasons underlying this common and costly way of life, concluding with some suggested strategies to help both our clients and ourselves as coaches move beyond its grip.
I prefer a more neutral definition of procrastination derived from its Latin roots of pro(forward, forth, in favor of) and crastinus (of tomorrow): unnecessarily putting off in favor of tomorrow what you could do today. This removes judgment and recognizes the complexity of procrastination in the modern world.
Research reveals not just one type of procrastination, but rather several types: avoidance, perfectionism, situational, chronic, and even productive procrastination, where we busy ourselves doing tasks that seem productive on the surface but do not advance our goals.
When we look more deeply at the act of putting off until tomorrow what could be done today, we begin to see a multitude of factors behind the delay: emotion, self-image, distraction, disorganization, poor habits, living on autopilot, exhaustion, overwhelm, and a lack of supportive systems or environment.Although the bottom line and the ultimate fix to combatting delay are truly as simple as “just do it,” understanding, acknowledging, and addressing the layers and complexity behind procrastination can help a client move from being stuck to action.
The Cost of Procrastination
Procrastination is a costly trap to fall into. While occasional procrastination isn’t as serious, chronic delay in working towards our life’s goals has serious consequences. When working with clients, understanding what they mean when they talk about procrastination involves understanding things like the degree/frequency of delay and the seriousness/magnitude of the impacts:
- How often do you put things off? Is it a once-in-a-while delay that can be understood in the context of that week’s particularly hectic schedule, lack of sleep, an unusual circumstance, or a deadline at work? Or is it a way of life and an identity?
- How is procrastination impacting your life?
- Is there a particular area of your life where you tend to postpone taking action (career decisions, health, work tasks, housework, finances, relationships, etc.)? Or is it a widespread issue?
- What do you say to yourself when you delay taking action on something? What feelings come up?
Procrastination often affects areas like health (postponing exercise, checkups, or eating better); finances (savings or investment); relationships (parenting, partnership, addressing conflict); lifestyle (entertaining, travel, learning, hobbies); living situation/home/environment; productivity; or self-confidence and self-image (grooming, wardrobe, self-care, identity).
It can create problems with mental health (depression, anxiety, constant state of stress and unrest, worry, fear, impostor syndrome, feeling ill at ease or inadequate, incapable, ashamed, or like a failure), as well as physical health. It prevents progress toward dreams and desires (starting a business, going back to school, making a career change) and leads to low life satisfaction scores. It limits what you can do and has a spillover effect of developing resentment toward tasks and people in your life. The damage done by procrastination often compounds over time.
The costs of procrastination are many: missed opportunities, inconveniencing yourself and others, long-term negative health and relationship consequences, not meeting financial goals or obligations, not preparing for the future, and the stress of always being late and behind and working frantically to meet last-minute deadlines. Chronic procrastination can erode self-trust and self-confidence, and even create self-hatred, shame, and deep pain of not living up to one’s intentions and potential.
What is procrastination costing you? Dare to stay out of excuses, blame, and victim mode and be fully honest with yourself.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
The old-school way of thinking is that procrastinators simply need more time management skills, more willpower, or a kick in the pants. This has given way to new and more comprehensive theories.
Emotional Regulation and Dopamine Addiction
Carleton University psychology professor Tim Pychyl asserts that “procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.”He proposes that “procrastinators are actually trying to avoid the negative feelings associated with that task.” It is the negative emotions that actually cause procrastination, with task avoidance being the strategy used to cope with the negative feelings.
Dr. Pychyl and his colleague, Dr. Sirois, postulate that procrastination can be understood as “the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.”They explain that “put simply, procrastination is about being more focused on ‘the immediate urgency of managing negative moods’ than getting on with the task.”
While avoiding negative emotions, such as boredom, frustration, fear of failure, dread, confusion, incompetence, helplessness, and anxiety, may bring relief in the short term, giving the brain a dopamine hit of the feel-good chemical, it leads to a vicious downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to escape. The momentary relief we feel when procrastinating and the resultant chemical “reward” the brain gains from avoidance is what makes the cycle especially addictive, habit-forming, and potentially chronic. Over time, the constant search to escape our negative emotions degenerates into feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and shame. Procrastination is not only the thief of time, but also of self-esteem, and chronic procrastinators often dig a hole so deep it seems near impossible to dig themselves out.
Present Bias: Discounting the Future Self
Procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.Dr. Hal Hershfield’s research explores how we perceive our “future selves” more like strangers than as parts of ourselves, so when we procrastinate, parts of our brain think that the tasks we’re putting off, and the accompanying future negative feelings, are actually somebody else’s problem.
Impulse Control: The Ability to Withstand Short-Term Pain for Long-Term Gain
A common explanation of procrastination in the popular press is perfectionism: we delay starting or finishing a task out of fear that our efforts won’t be without flaws. Piers Steel writes that the number one reason people procrastinate is impulsiveness, not perfectionism. He defines impulsivity as the tendency to live in the moment, wanting it all now. His research is distilled into an equation containing four basic components:
Expectancy: the likely reward (bonus, praise, success, etc.) for completing a task. When we expect bad things to happen, or to feel negative emotions, we put off a task (we don’t start writing an assignment we perceive to be difficult or make a request we worry might be rejected).
Value: the value of the task, such as whether we find the work enjoyable or what benefit (or harm) we think will come from doing it. The less enjoyable a task is, the more likely we delay.
Delay: the time until the reward is received. The timing of a task, according to Steel, is the greatest determinant of whether you will start it. Immediate rewards are more desirable than rewards that require you to wait. The closer the deadline, the less likely we are to delay getting started.
Impulsivity: how sensitive are you to delay? The more impulsive we are, the more likely we are to cave into present temptations/rewards and put off or delay the task and its distant future benefit. Impulsive people are less able to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. They tend to switch more readily from the task at hand to an option they perceive as more attractive at the moment. Without impulsiveness, there would be no procrastination, as we would always factor in the future rewards as being equal to the current payoff.
How Do We Shift From Procrastination Into Action?
Regardless of the reasons, root causes, or psychology behind procrastination, the only real solution is action. This is easier said than done when dealing with the emotional pain of chronic procrastination. Here are some techniques which may prove helpful in moving our clients and ourselves forward.
Awareness and Mindfulness
The first step to solving procrastination is awareness. Noticing and tracking our urge to procrastinate, figuring out when, how, and why we procrastinate and understanding our patterns and triggers is the foundational key to moving forward.
Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer in his book Unwinding Anxietyexplores the concept of habit loops. He walks the reader through how to identify our own procrastination habit loops, pinpointing the trigger (e.g., overwhelmed by a lengthy to-do list, guilt over an unfinished task, confused about where to start a big job, any task we are avoiding and the associated negative emotion or thought), the behavior (numb out with Netflix or internet surfing, clear off your desk or phone a friend, worry, avoidance, distraction, overplanning), and the result (immediate relief or pleasure, but the task is still undone, so we end up feeling more anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed). Brewer’s study shows that the awareness that stems from mapping out these habit loops (well-worn, grooved pathways in the brain) is foundational. It really gets us in touch with the current reward value or payoff from our behavior. He advises getting curious and asking ourselves “What do I get from this loop?” and then paying close attention to our body sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
Once we have removed the blinders of denial and can clearly see and feel what results from our behavior, the next step is to replace it with what he calls a Bigger, Better Offer (BBO). “Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do.” To rewire any habit, we have to give our brains something to replace the old pattern. In the case of procrastination, we have to find a better reward than avoidance – one that can relieve our challenging feelings in the present moment without causing harm to our future selves, and which is, in and of itself, not simply another form of procrastination. Brewer suggests mindfulness and cultivating curiosity as the best replacement. These go hand in hand.
The next time you feel tempted by the urge to procrastinate, Brewer recommends you bring your attention to the sensations arising in your mind and body and ask yourself a series of questions that can help quell the urge. “What feelings are eliciting your temptation? Where do you feel them in your body? What do they remind you of? What happens to the thought of procrastinating as you observe it? Does it intensify? Dissipate? Cause other emotions to arise? How are the sensations in your body shifting as you continue to rest your awareness on them?”Mindfulness helps us step out of the trigger-reward feedback loop by helping us get in touch with and feel our emotions.
When we train ourselves to consistently substitute curiosity for procrastination, we can start to notice the positive results from getting our work done, thus opening positive feelings of joy, wonder, discovery, and awe. The application of mindfulness and curiosity allows us to step out of the automaticity of the procrastination habit loop and into a growth mindset of look and learn. This opens the door to new behavior, grounded in the present moment, and brings a greater awareness of the reality of procrastination’s true costs and paybacks.
Gretchen Rubin’s work on procrastination, as outlined in her book The Four Tendencies, also emphasizes that knowing our own unique nature is empowering. She groups human behavior into four classifications (upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels) and outlines tips to overcome resistance tailored to each type. We are all wired differently, so personalizing the solutions is essential. There are no one-size fits and self-knowledge is the foundation of happiness and true success.
One technique to build awareness is to carry a small notebook or open a note on your smartphone, then whenever you notice yourself procrastinating, record why by completing the following sentence: “I don’t want to do (blank) right now because (blank). The result of me delaying this task is (blank)” and fill in the blanks appropriately. Keeping a detailed log of all the times you put off doing something will help you identify the habit loops most affecting your procrastination. Taking the blinders of self-deception off and looking at the truth is the best starting point for sustainable behavior change.
Acknowledgment and Acceptance
Acknowledging that growth and change are always going to take us out of our comfort zone is the next step. Understanding that our ego brain has an important role in trying to keep us safe by preserving the status quo, seeking to eliminate the potential danger and risk inherent in the unknown. Every time we level up in our life, be it by locking in better health habits or pursuing a new opportunity, the ego brain will raise alarm bells and put-up resistance. But remember, feelings are not facts. We cannot stay in the safety of our comfort zone and still move forward.
There are many books written on how to thank the ego for trying to keep us safe, then moving forward anyways, from Susan Jeffers’ classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyways, to Shirzad Chamine’s work on Positive Intelligence. Chamine instructs us on how to use mindfulness (with his PQ reps) as a technique to build up the sage brain (empathize, explore, innovate, navigate, and activate) and weaken the voice of the inner critic and our natural saboteurs, all of which have the sole job of trying to keep us safe. Susan David’s work in Emotional Agility is also very useful as she encourages us to feel our emotions, but not allow them to rule us.
Brene Brown’s writings on what to do with our feelings of shame and vulnerability are also helpful, especially in the case of chronic procrastination where there are many layers (shame, inauthenticity, hiding from self and others) to excavate in order to heal. Acknowledging and accepting our feelings of not-enoughness, fear of failure, comparison, and impostor syndrome, are an important part of being able to thank the ego brain for trying to keep us safe and then unhooking from the stories of can’t, not enough, fear, and limitation.
Self-Compassion and Kindness
Several studies show that self-compassion supports motivation and personal growth by decreasing the psychological stress that contributes to procrastination. Being kind to oneself also boosts motivation, enhances feelings of self-worth, and fosters positive emotions, such as optimism, wisdom, curiosity, and personal initiative. Self-compassionate people are happier, and healthier, have better relationships, achieve greater financial and career success, and generally feel better about their lives.
Self-compassion requires no external resources, just a commitment to meet our challenges with greater acceptance and kindness rather than self-flagellation, rumination, and regret. For example, one study found that when students are able to forgive themselves for procrastinating studying for an exam, they are less likely to procrastinate the next time they’re required to study. Self-forgiveness and the resultant kindness and compassion free us to move beyond our past maladaptive behavior and focus on upcoming tasks with fresh energy and perspective. When we sincerely care about ourselves, we will want the best for ourselves, and that is usually not procrastination.
Positive self-talk is a huge factor in overcoming procrastination. B.J. Fogg writes in his book about habit change: “I change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”We increase our motivation when we pay attention to our successes, reassign value to a boring task, and pump ourselves up with words of encouragement and positive thoughts. The good feelings released through acknowledging progress and proclaiming small wins fuel us through the next part of the task.
Celebrating the baby steps and not just the milestones helps keep the brain out of anxiety. Anxiety has a way of erasing the memory of positive emotions and successes in favor of focusing on the bad, so journalling and creating a digital or paper file in which to store positive memories and accolades gives us a tool to go back to when the brain enters its pessimistic or anxious state. Procrastination is actually a form of time-inconsistency, where our unconscious preference for immediate gratification trumps potential future rewards, so bringing immediate gratification into longer-term projects through daily celebration, ongoing recognition and appreciation, and regular feedback can be part of the antidote.
Self-forgiveness for past failings, combined with compassionate and positive self-talk, enables us to find the strength to start previously-avoided activities, thus building energy and momentum to see things through to the end. Half the battle of overcoming task avoidance is simply getting started, and self-compassion and kindness puts us in a frame of mind to want to start, opening the door for momentum to build. Self-compassion trumps self-criticism and self-punishment as a motivational strategy. It creates a place of safety and care, rather than fear, and when we feel safe, the ego brain will find less need to procrastinate in order to protect ourselves from change.
Clarity and Connecting to Your Why
The clearer and more connected we are to why something is important and meaningful to us, the more we are able to tap into our intrinsic motivation. Mustering the motivation to follow through on a task that is a should, a have to, or a people-pleasing or social-status-building activity isn’t as consistent or reliable as when a task is deeply connected to our values and identity. Having to do something only gets us so far, wanting to do something takes us farther, but prominently connecting the task to our overall life satisfaction, success, and happiness, can help the client or coach access an even deeper level of motivation to begin or see a task through to completion.
The importance of coaching agreement phase, where we ask our client to explore what is meaningful about their stated, desired outcome, is one of our best tools to strengthen the likelihood of action and follow-through. Plugging into a client’s values and priorities will help them weather the inevitable obstacles, as well as build commitment, courage, and conviction to act in the face of resistance. Reframing things in the context of the larger picture of values, goals, and where a to-do item fits on our wheel of life, also allows us to find meaning in activities we’d normally avoid.
There are many books written on this topic, such as Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results. Truly connecting to why something is important and expanding the perception of the task to connect it to those values and life purpose can enhance motivation and reduce procrastination. For example, the boredom of a mundane household chore that might easily be put off takes on new power and meaning when viewed as part of one’s ability to develop deep connections with family and friends through curating a warm, inviting, cared-for home where gatherings and meaningful conversation can occur. Writing a paper can be daunting and easily put off, but when seen through the lens of graduating from a program then using that knowledge and certification to serve others and solve pressing problems, can shift a person from stuck to motivated. Cementing in our goals and dreams by connecting them to the core of our being is an essential tool to help us get through the less exciting tasks.
Resolving conflict between competing objectives can also help boost motivation. We likely cannot have top success at work while never missing a child’s sporting or school event. It’s difficult to have a life of comfort, ease, and relaxation each evening and still reach our goals of achievement, vibrant health, and mastery. Working to resolve the values conflicts and eliminate the tug-of-war that results from trying to pursue two opposing things at the same time, will help resolve procrastination, as well as acknowledge the natural friction that arises between staying safe and comfortable, while also moving forward into the unknown. The clearer we are on what we want and why we want it, the less likely we are to procrastinate, and when we do, we’re able to tap into that clarity and conviction to navigate the inevitable obstacles as they arise.
Chicken or Egg: Examine Your Identity
Remember, procrastination is a habit, not an identity, and we can harness the power of identity to tame it. James Clear in Atomic Habits suggests that we change our identity first and then change our habits. The habits will then catch up with the identity piece. He counsels that our identity could be getting in the way of our attempts at habit change (if we see ourselves as fat and lazy, it will be more difficult to motivate ourselves to get to the gym, than if we view ourselves as fit and health-conscious.) If we adopt an identity that aligns with who we want to become, we interrupt the thought-feeling-action-result cycle at its onset. If you tell yourself over and over that you are stuck, you don’t know what to do first, you can’t do it, and you’re a procrastinator, then that identity will be your reality. You need to go back to the root thought and shift your identity (I am an organized, capable, competent person who can figure things out and make my dreams happen) in order to be able to break out of the endless negative loop and feeling of stuckness and helplessness that has become your engrained belief.
The first step in contemplating what kind of a person you aspire to be is to ask yourself a series of questions, such as What kind of person do I want to be? What am I good at? What do I want to be known for? What do I want out of life? What am I interested in? How do I want others to see me? What am I most proud of? What kind of a legacy do I want to leave? What would I want to be said about me at my funeral? Getting clear and specific on what kind of a person we want to be will give us something to aim for.
Believing that we can change is foundational to overcoming chronic procrastination, and seeing ourselves in a more empowering way will support our belief that habit change is possible. Combined with the deeper connection to our why, strong, intentional identity statements are a powerful tool to overcome habit resistance and procrastination. Empowering identity statements like “I am the kind of person who…” (eats healthy, goes to the gym, is a writer, cares for the environment) help us overcome task resistance.
Confirmation bias is the mechanism by which the brain seeks evidence for what it believes to be true. What we believe to be true about ourselves and our life might not be the whole truth, even when there seems to be evidence to support our perceptions. The reticular activating system engages us to look for proof of our beliefs. So if we shift our identity to a statement of I am organized, productive and efficient, and away from I’m a lazy procrastinator, our brain will naturally look for evidence to support our new identity, thus entering a virtuous cycle of positive behavior and breeding more positive behavior.
What kind of person do you want to be? Who are you? How do you currently see yourself and how would you like to see yourself? What language are you using to speak to yourself and about yourself? We cannot expect to overcome resistance and procrastination if our identity conflicts with our stated intentions. Affirmations and daily I AM statements can help to lock in a new identity. Harness confirmation bias to empower and support you in the battle against procrastination.
Rest and Rejuvenation
The old adage of not being able to pour from an empty cup also plays a role in preventing procrastination. Fatigue is the number one reason given for procrastination. It increases task aversion, saps interest, and makes the difficulty excruciating.One’s failure to start or follow through on a task is often explained in varying degrees by not having the energy, strength, stamina, or capacity to undertake the task at hand.
Self-care, rest, sleep, good nutrition, exercise, pacing, and pausing during one’s day, combined with self-compassion and mindfulness, aids in overcoming procrastination. When you hit a wall, step away, step aside, move your body, change your scenery, do something to refill your cup, and replenish energy for the next task or push. The Pomodoro technique builds in a short rest after a sprint of work. This pacing tool allows you to avoid burnout, as you refresh yourself along the way. Knowing what generates energy and what drains it (people, activities, places, thoughts, etc.), then acting on this knowledge, is essential to eliminate fatigue as the barrier to action.
Getting caught up in procrastination tends to crowd out enjoyment in favor of suffering. Scheduling enjoyment without feeling guilty for doing so is part of the mental self-care that will combine with physical care to ensure we have the energy to overcome procrastination. Rest is more than just sleep, according to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith. She outlines seven types of rest required for rejuvenation: physical (active and passive), mental (journaling/brain dump, meditation), sensory (unplugging, calm surroundings), creative (engaging with nature or the arts, an inspiring playlist, to reawaken awe and wonder), emotional (time, space, and courage to be authentic, time alone), social (minimizing toxicity and maximizing positive, supportive people), and spiritual (deeper connection beyond the physical/mental, creates a sense of belonging, love, acceptance, and purpose).
Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, identifies stress as perhaps the number one threat to self-control. The likelihood of procrastination increases when we’re under stress, as stress reduces the amount of willpower available to us to do what we know we’re supposed to. Willpower is not an unlimited resource, and it’s physical as much as it is psychological. The mind-body connection can be harnessed and trained to increase the amount of willpower available, helping us surmount the inertia of procrastination and get started on a task. Physical strategies like exercise, deep breathing, stress reduction, surrounding yourself with positive people, honoring your body’s needs, and other rest and rejuvenation strategies can boost willpower, alongside self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
Set Yourself Up for Success: Systems, Routines, Habits, Environment
Some procrastination can be attributed to disorganization and not having the systems or tools in place when they’re needed. Not knowing where to find a misplaced application form, having a hard drive or a filing cabinet clogged with clutter, or simply missing a pen or an eraser, are all barriers to performing the next task. In this case, seeking help to set up systems, routines, and a physical environment that supports action is key. Many resources are available to solve these issues, including external alarms and reminders, routines, calendars, lists, and a multitude of software and apps to support our executive functioning and “outsource our brains.”
Systems that automate or routinize basic tasks not only remove barriers to action but also eliminate the need to use up scarce willpower to decide when and how to do basic tasks. Procrastination is all about habits. Letting go of old, familiar habits that may no longer be serving us is not always easy, but there are many books detailing new research to better understand how to make, break, and replace habits, full of strategies to support our quest for change. Habit trackers can help keep us on track, as what gets measured gets managed. Monitoring your progress and tweaking your systems and environment along the way is iterative. The concept of not breaking the chain of wins is another habit change technique to use, along with habit stacking.
Time tracking can furnish an objective understanding of where you are currently spending your time, as well as provide a more realistic sense of how long a task actually takes. Our brains aren’t always good at estimating accurately. Knowing where our time goes can help us set more realistic goals and create a doable schedule. Metacognition and task analysis can also help identify where the stumbling blocks are and how best to tweak a workflow or apply past lessons learned.
Nir Eyal’s work, detailed in his book Indistractible, gives several tips for how to deal with the inevitable distractions that get in the way of our stated intentions. He proposes tools like time boxing, software to block websites and build in penalties or incentives, temptation bundling, external pacts that have you pay a penalty if you don’t follow through on your intentions, accountability partners and body doubling, barriers to access (lengthy complex passwords, inconvenient placement of television remotes or junk food), and setting up the environment to reduce temptations. These all increase the likelihood of progress toward your goals. He also advises us to sit with our urges when we feel distracted, riding the urge like a wave until it passes, (surfing the urge). He recommends that we each learn what distracts us from our goals and then set up our schedules and environments to keep these distractions at bay, or at least create the most friction possible between us and our temptations.
Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits also contains many tricks to help overcome bad habits and cement in the good. She also advocates making our desired habits as easy as possible, while creating as many obstacles between us and our bad habits. James Clear echoes this idea when he advises us to prime the environment to make the next action easy and the bad behavior difficult.
Motivation isn’t the same thing as self-discipline. Freeing yourself from needing to feel motivated before you are willing to start is half the battle towards achieving your goal. The more you can build in automaticity and make things non-negotiable through creating routines and locking in habits, the less you need to struggle with mustering motivation on a minute-by-minute basis. In many cases, motivation follows action. Another useful tool is pre-paving. We know that the urge to procrastinate will inevitably arise. If we plan in advance what we want to do when we feel distracted, we will be more prepared to deal with the inevitable. One way to do this is intentionally planning using the if… then technique, in which we plan for each of the various distractions we anticipate: If I feel the urge to procrastinate in this way, then I will do this other thing. Building obstacle-overcoming strategies directly into the plan boost success.
Setting your environment up for success is one of the most important techniques you can use in overcoming procrastination. Laying things out the night before, getting supplies ready so you can hit the ground running, removing temptations, and making things that support your goals prominent in your environment can all help boost your chances of success. Being more organized can erase one form of procrastination. Other techniques to boosting order include capturing the cluttered thoughts and to-do items taking up real estate in your brain into a trusted system, turning a to-do list into a schedule, extracting your MIT (the most important thing) or your top three priorities for the day, “defining done”, timeboxing, and setting firm deadlines to keep perfectionism at bay.
Enabling habits, routines, and environments to support productivity and progress toward our dreams is key. Harnessing the many, many tools available to us is an essential part of overcoming procrastination, and when paired with the mindset and emotional issues addressed earlier, the tools become more effective and sustainable.
The Bottom Line: ACTION
Whatever the task, the only solution to procrastination is action. David Allen in his GTD method, laid out in his book Getting Things Done, advises breaking projects into a series of smaller steps, then focusing only on the next action. Lowering the size of the next action until it matches the amount of motivation you have at the moment is a great way to get started and create momentum. Giving yourself permission to do small steps instead of demanding perfectionism is liberating. Clarity on what the next step is in the midst of a large, complex project, will allow us to engage the Portuguese proverb: think of many things, do one.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. When a large project or task is daunting, focusing on the smallest next step can bring enough relief to overcome the resistance to taking the first step. Focusing on the next action helps calm our nervous system and engage the thinking part of our brain instead of allowing the amygdala to hijack the prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness meditation reduces the volume of the amygdala, the part of our limbic system responsible for the body’s flight or fight stress response (triggering our ego brain to keep us safe), and the part of the brain where procrastination lives. By taking the focus off the emotion and onto the next action, we enact a similar relaxation response as when we are focussing on our breath. Meditation thus becomes a transferable skill, allowing us to gently and deliberately bring our focus back to the task we face, just as we are able to return to our breath during meditation.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Finding a way to break our large tasks down into manageable chunks helps combat procrastination that stems from being overwhelming. The anticipatory dread of starting a task is generally more painful than actually doing it. Overcoming the initial resistance and getting started can unlock the power and momentum to keep us going. One technique is to set a timer for two minutes, start, and break through the initial resistance. Once started, we are usually able to stay in motion. The law of inertia states that an object at rest remains at rest, so do whatever it takes to get the object into motion. You can also apply Mel Robbins’ anti-procrastination strategy laid out in The 5 Second Rule, counting down 5-4-3-2-1 like a NASA rocket launch, in order to combat the hesitation and overthinking that are blocking you from taking the first step.
At the end of the day, action is the key to pattern interrupting the negative spiral habit loop of procrastination. The energy that is shifted and unlocked when we simply get started begins to compound; then consistent, persistent action will compound over time to yield huge payoffs. The overwhelming weight of actions left cumulatively undone will give way to thepositive compounding effect and set in motion a positive snowball of energy.
The Role of Coaching in Overcoming Procrastination
Coaching can help combat procrastination in many ways. Coaching draws out and enhances self-knowledge, one of the foundational pieces to overcoming procrastination. Getting a client in touch with their strengths, personality types, preferences, and tendencies can help set them up for success. Working with our nature is always more powerful than working against it.
Coaching can help shift perspectives and reframe situations. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) tools can help explore the connections between thoughts, feelings, behavior, and results. Helping a client change their thoughts about an activity can change their feelings and attitudes, and ultimately their actions and results.
Positive Psychology tools can help a client see the positive in themself and the situation, embrace positivity and optimism, find meaning in everyday activities and relationships, focus on gratitude, connect with and harness strengths, values, and self-compassion embrace and enhance overall life satisfaction and wellbeing. The coach can help a client build a growth mindset and see new possibilities.
The coach can also help identify when it might be necessary to seek professional help (e.g., unresolved trauma, undiagnosed depression or anxiety, other mental health issues) or testing for what might be getting in the way of success (ADHD, working memory, or executive functioning disorders, cognitive flexibility, etc.). Sometimes just talking over our thoughts, feelings, and processes with someone who’s not directly involved can help us see things in a different light and break through to the other side of what’s getting in our way. We can become desensitized or numb to the effects of procrastination in our lives, unable to see objectively how lingering procrastination is limiting us from seeing our problems for what they are and opening our eyes to possible solutions. A coach can help reconnect us with our inner power and innate capacity to change.
The biggest benefit of coaching to overcome procrastination is that it helps the client personalize and apply the many tools, tips, and techniques they see in the media or learn at training seminars and workshops. A coach can help a client personalize this information in the context of self-knowledge and harness the right tips for maximum benefit. We know our clients are infinitely capable and have the answers within them to solve their procrastination. A coach can partner with to help a client connect with their inner knowing, resourcefulness, and motivation.
Goal Setting: Its Importance, Rewards, and Value
Life is a journey, not a destination, and when we can find joy along the way throughout our tasks, bringing mindfulness, curiosity, joy, wonder, and a spirit of experimentation to our obligations; building in self-compassion and kindness; and employing all the tools, strategies, and systems to overcome the logistical challenges and set ourselves and our environment up for success, we have the best chance at a happy, fulfilled life, where we set goals and dreams and have the skills and mindset to go after them, all the while living grounded in the present moment.
Don’t delay, start today!
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. (Penguin Publishing Group, 2015).
Brewer, Judson. Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. (Avery, 2021).
Chamine, Shirzad. Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours. (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012).
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Dalton-Smith, Dr. Saundra. Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity. (FaithWords, 2019).
David, Susan. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. (Avery, 2016).
Eyal, Nir. Indestructible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. (BenBella Books, 2019).
Fogg, B.J. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. (Harvest, 2021)
Jeffers, Susan. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway: Dynamic Techniques for Turning Fear, Indecision, and Anger Into Power, Action, and Love. (Random House Publishing Group, 2006).
Keller, Gary, and Papasan, Jay. The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results. (Bard Press, 2013).
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. (Penguin Publishing Group, 2013).
McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. (Crown, 2020).
Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. (Harper-Collines, 2011).
Robbins, Mel. The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence With Everyday Courage. (Savio Republic, 2017).
Rubin, Gretchen. Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. (Anchor Canada, 2015).
Rubin, Gretchen. The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives, Too). (Harmony, 2017)
Steel, Piers. The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. (Random House Canada, 2010).
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/procrastination For a variety of definitions from an assortment of sources, see https://getmoredone.com/procrastination
Steel, pg. 11
 Steel pg. 11, endnote 3, and a study cited at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/
 Found in Piers Steel’s book. Technology is a major driver of procrastination. We’ve seen a five-fold increase in procrastination over the last few decades because modern temptations are alluring and we have a hard time resisting them.
From Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health: The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling by Dianne M. Tice and Roy F. Baumeister, found at https://www.jstor.org/stable/40063233
From Steel’s book, as well as his website at https://procrastinus.com/procrastination/the-definition-of-procrastination/
Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and blogger at Psychology Today, and author of the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. https://www.procrastination.ca/who-we-are/ and additional resources at https://www.procrastination.ca/media/
 From https://www.eatthis.com/news-the-secret-trick-to-beating-procrastination-says-top-psychologist/
 From https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/learning from the 2013 study written up in https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/91793/1/Compass%20Paper%20revision%20FINAL.pdf
Habit loops are also explored in James Clear’s Atomic Habits and the concept was originally introduced in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit
 Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety, page 123
Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety, page 165
Summary of Brewer’s questions taken from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html. More details are provided in his book Unwinding Anxiety.
Inspired by https://online.rmit.edu.au/blog/how-make-2022-year-you-stop-procrastinating
 See https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/03/gretchen-rubin-the-key-to-your-happiness-depends-on-these-2-things.html for more questions to ask yourself and more perspective on self-knowledge.
I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination (utexas.edu)
 From B.J. Fogg’s book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything
 A concept I read about in James Clear’s work at https://jamesclear.com/time-inconsistency
 Dr. Kristin Neff is a pioneer in the study of self-compassion, being the first one to operationally define and measure the construct almost 20 years ago. She has many tools, exercises, and other helpful resources on her website at https://self-compassion.org/ and in her books.
 More information on confirmation bias at https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-confirmation-bias-2795024
 Steel’s quote in https://www.njlifehacks.com/the-procrastination-equation-piers-steel-summary/, with more information at https://www.junhanchin.com/posts/procrastination-equation-piers-steel
See Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith’s book, Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, as well as her TED Talk and accompanying article (https://ideas.ted.com/the-7-types-of-rest-that-every-person-needs/). Ideas and how-to tips found at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/nov/25/the-seven-types-of-rest-i-spent-a-week-trying-them-all-could-they-help-end-my-exhaustion
 From https://jamesclear.com/reset
 Outlined by David Allen in his Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.
 Adapted from the Agile approach to project management and software development, when you define in advance the criteria that must be completed in order for a project to be considered “done.”