"Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake.”– Francis Bacon
This is one of my favourite quotes on procrastination. I personally believe that life happens in this precise moment while I'm writing this article in this case - nothing else really matters because nothing else really exists until I shift my attention to it. You might have heard of the expression "being in the flow" or "being present". We go through this process each time we choose to stay focused on a task to a degree that we may lose track of time.
You might have noticed that I have said "we choose to stay focused" because it's really a choice. This means that even when we are not present in a situation (whatever that situation might be) we are still making a choice - we are choosing (consciously or subconsciously) to shift our focus to something else. We experience this when we procrastinate.
Procrastination or lack of motivation remains a hot topic as the number of people struggling with it continues to increase. Research has found that as countries modernise, they start to adopt a set of values typical of Western-free market economies. One major finding - as Piers Steel, the author of The Procrastination Equation, highlights in his book - was that the world has become more individualistic; another was that modernisation brings with it procrastination. Each one of us is constantly bombarded with distractions to the extent that we are being actively exploited at every turn by the very fabric of our society. No wonder why we find it hard to focus on what truly matters to us as temptations are all around us in a society that feeds instant gratification.
Acknowledging that each day can be a battle for some of us because of our proximity to temptations, is not enough. We also need to consider that we all might have the tendency to procrastinate because in our ancient times having an impulsive mindset helped us survive.
Surveys have confirmed that 63% of procrastinators are in the field of career success. From the very beginning, they struggle getting going, and they put off the job hunt. Only 29% of procrastinators consider themselves successful. There are of course various degrees of procrastination which don't only affect our careers. There's plenty of data suggesting that people who procrastinate tend to be less happy because instant gratification often comes at the cost of large, later rewards; they can be health risks because gratification is not delayed.
Putting things off causes inaction. Inaction causes a great deal of suffering because of the things we haven't done or haven't tried. Our possible selves remain in a state of potential, which makes us feel frustrated.
Why the heck do we choose to procrastinate? Are we just masochistic to the degree that we don't want to put an end to our suffering?
Motivation is not just about setting goals and developing behaviours to achieve those goals.
It's really what's happening beneath the surface. Johnmarshall Reeve says motivation is an internal process. Whether we define it as a drive or a need, motivation is a condition inside us that desires a change, either in the self or the environment. When we tap into this well of energy, motivation endows the person with the drive and direction needed to engage with the environment in an adaptive, open-ended, and problem-solving sort of way.
If we want to work on our procrastination, we need to look inward. At the very moment when we want to put something off, we need to step back and be honest with ourselves while maintaining a curious mindset. What's specifically holding us back from completing a task/doing what is important to us? Can we name those fears? Is it fear of failure? Is it fear of success? Is it due to low self-esteem? The emotional blockages can be many. We need to approach these blockages with self-compassion and curiosity so that we can start working on the root of our struggle.
There are plenty of exercises/techniques to help us with lack of motivation. In this article I will focus on one exercise that I tend to do with my clients in their career life - it can be applied to any other areas. It's a tool you can use yourself. You just need to stay open minded.
The exercise begins with visualisation. I believe in the power of visualisation. Visualisation has been been used for a very long time in sports. Muhammad Ali's quote "If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it - then I can achieve it" already shows that he believed in the power of visualisation. As neuroscientists teach, our brain can't tell the difference between what is real and whether we are just imagining it.
I invite you to close your eyes, take three deep breaths to create a safe space where you give yourself the permission to create your own dream. Just see yourself as being free. Try to imagine as much as you can what your life would look like if you stop procrastinating and do what is important to you. Imagine how you would feel. Imagine the people you are with. Imagine what that freedom would look like. What sort of fears came up while you were imagining your dream? Can you name those fears? Think about those situations where you were close to achieving your goals when something stopped you. What are those obstacles surrounding your goals? What kind of story are you telling yourself? Pay attention to the words you use to tell that story. How do they make you feel? What do they make you think about yourself? What sort of beliefs do they confirm? Now that you are asking yourself these questions, what emotions are you experiencing? What physical sensations are emerging? If you mentally contrast this picture with where you are now in your life, what's the gap? What actions can you take to fill that gap?
These are a few questions you can explore when you do your visualisation exercise. The objective is for you to become more self-aware and stop the robotic behaviour that is getting in your way. Procrastination will disappear when you start actively closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be. To start closing the gap, set yourself an ongoing series of challenging but ultimately achievable goals. Start small and pay attention to the incremental improvement, breaking down large tasks into more manageable bits. Take time to acknowledge your performance in a daily log. Keep note of your progress. Give yourself a small reward for your accomplishments.
It all boils down to how to stop those distractions and do the work so that we can improve our life and our career. Nobody is going to tell us that we had enough; we need to take responsibility (Nir Eyal). The more honest we are with ourselves, the better as we can stop blaming external factors and work on our own change. We want to focus on taking actions that move towards what we said we would do (provided what we said is aligned with our values). We get distracted when we choose to spend time and energy on those things that move us further away from what we want to become. Anything can really be a distraction if it pulls us further from what matters to us. It's not about avoiding the things that distract us; it's about asking ourselves if what we are choosing to do rather than focusing on what we need to do serves us. The only way to consciously know this is to understand what's going on inside of us. Is this trigger serving me or am I serving it?
My message here is that you can stop procrastinating the moment you accept to face whatever is creating the blockage in your inner world before addressing the issue at the surface. Don't forget to be gentle with yourself because quite often our brain is trying to protect us by causing us to escape the moment.