When you think of procrastination, it’s usually when you first start on a goal or a project. There’s either a lot to do or much you don’t know about, so the hesitation seems understandable. Yet, why do we drag our feet even on things we’ve been working on for some time or as we’re nearing the finish line?
To illustrate, let’s take the case of Emma, who is excited about learning artificial intelligence (AI). With all the talk about AI tools boosting productivity, she feels it might be helpful in her office job and increase her chances of promotion. Her enthusiasm is high, but lacking a computer science background, she feels she lacks the technical competency to advance as an expert. She figures she can make that up by taking some online classes. So, she starts gathering information. She’s a bit overwhelmed as a lot is out there, and isn’t exactly sure what to focus on.
But she eventually sorts it out and identifies a respectable certification program, which will give her the know-how and provide external proof of expertise. She takes off, busying herself with coursework. While she finds the subject enjoyable, she struggles as this differs from what she’s done in the past. The program also runs for 6 months, making it a huge commitment.
Yet, she’s determined and stays the course through grit and persistence. Nearing the end of her program, Emma knows she must do well on a final project to get the AI certification she desperately covets. The assignment requires the student to apply what they’ve learned to an area proposed by the instructor. It will push her to the limits of her knowledge and demonstrate whether her 6 months was a worthwhile investment. So, while she’s near the end of her journey, the stakes are also at their highest. It’s make or break.
As you can see from the above, different stressors pop up depending on where you are in the pursuit of your goal. Initially, you can have fears, knowledge/skill gaps, feelings of overwhelm, or a combination of them. Towards the middle of your journey, you might feel frustrated as things become more challenging than expected, or you start to doubt whether the effort is worth it. And then, as you reach the end, you can feel enormous deadline pressure or just burnout.
The point is your reasons for procrastination evolve as you progress. Unless your solutions address the shifting dynamics that power your stalling, you will be one step behind.
This article explores what factors dominate the different stages of your goal pursuit and suggests the proper countermeasures to overcome procrastination so you can start, keep moving, and eventually finish the things that matter.
Scary Start: Dealing with Change
When embarking on something new, you can experience excitement and fun, but also discomfort and anxiety. The latter is especially true if what you want differs from anything you’ve done in the past. The underlying blocker often revolves around how you respond to change.
Brainstorming what might be getting in your way when starting a goal is helpful. Some common factors that inhibit you from taking action are the following:
- Lack of concreteness: often, we know the feeling we want from achieving a goal, but the specifics of what that goal is or the work to get there may not be well-defined or even known. This lack of definition makes it hard to take action since you either don’t know what to do, what to go after, or both.
- Analysis paralysis: the Internet is a double-edged sword when gathering information. The good news is you can find answers to almost anything. The bad news is the combination of information overload – there is more out there than our ability to consume – and the quality of content varies from awesome to misleading. Together, both make it hard to decide what to do. This overwhelm dampens the initial motivation.
- Uncertainty in the success of the goal, plan, or both: it would be great if what you chose came with a guarantee. But the reality is uncertainty will always be there. You can try to reduce that by more research, but the same factors that plague analysis paralysis are still there. In fact, by learning and seeing more, some develop a fear of commitment based on a fear of better options (FOBO) or a fear of missing out (FOMO). They hesitate to start since it might mean committing to a path “prematurely.”
- Lack of urgency: when dealing with a lot of uncertainty or unknowns, it’s hard to set a deadline since you don’t know how long it will take. But not having a due date also creates a lack of urgency, furthering the cycle of procrastination since you have no pressure to find the answers you need to move ahead.
- Fear of disappointment: for some, ignorance is bliss. The longer you postpone taking action, the longer you can live in your dream world and not deal with your vision tainted by reality. After all, ideas look great inside your head, so why ruin it?
- Lack of immediate gratification: one challenge when you commit to action is opportunity cost; when you make a choice, you can’t do other things, in particular, engage in efforts that provide quick satisfaction. Many meaningful goals and projects take time, and knowing this, you can hesitate to start.
As you can see, many elements can get in your way from the beginning, and some interact and feed upon one another. Hence, it’s essential to identify your dominant blockers and address the concerns driving them. From the list above, fears and lacks are common, but analysis paralysis is an example of having an excess of something. Together, the fears-lacks-excess can feed off each other and create additional blockers. This network effect can make procrastination challenging to address since there is rarely just one cause.
To help kickstart your efforts, try the following tactics to knock out several of the culprits:
- For any goal, list what success looks like. What are the things that, if you achieved them, says you crossed the finish line. And note that your goal can come in a range of “flavors.” Sure, being #1 is unassailable, but what else would you settle for that would be good enough if it were easier or involved less pain.
- List why you picked this goal or project; what are the benefits you hope to gain from its successful completion. Write that down somewhere as a visual reminder to motivate you. And when you struggle or hesitate, remind yourself of the why.
- If setting a deadline is too hard, select a start date and budget how much time you want to spend looking for answers and deciding. Recall there will always be more data than you have time to consume. You have to limit what you gather and decide based on that. And sometimes, some things are uncovered after you start. So, be open to revising your decision. You can’t know what you don’t know. If you discover something that changes your priorities later, then adjust.
- Lay out an action plan. The point of a plan is, ironically, not to follow it meticulously but to direct your efforts toward a goal. It will be imperfect; it will be incomplete; it will not be the most effective or efficient. But it’s rare for it to be disastrous. The point is to start moving and acknowledge that flaws exist. The focus is to learn from them, adapt, and move on.
- Key to the action plan is to be detailed enough to know what you need to do and break large tasks into smaller ones that you can do in 15 minutes to an hour. The idea is to lower the barrier to starting.
- Limit what you spend your energy on via prioritization. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should – ideally, any action you take to eliminate future tasks or make them easier should be emphasized.
- Sometimes, you hesitate because you lack the needed resources, knowledge, or skills. The traditional approach is for you to acquire them directly, but that may not be easy. Consider thinking outside the box and whether you can hire others who have what you need (leverage their skill and knowledge at the cost of time/money), barter (exchange with others what you need, offering them what you have), or assess if that missing element is a must-have – can you substitute it with something in your knowledge/skill inventory. Your proxy may not be perfect, but it may be good enough to get started.
- Celebrate small wins like simply starting. You need to lower the fears and concerns by creating a positive mental environment. Use rewards as a motivator.
In short, you want to reduce the barriers to starting by tackling the underlying concerns, thereby reducing the power of the things holding you back.
Messy Middle: Facing Reality
Getting started is generally the hard part. Once you get going, you might think your momentum should be enough to push things through. So, what incites procrastination in the middle stage of goal pursuit?
A common theme is the friction caused when the ideal meets reality. Some of these blockers are listed below:
- Loss of the initial drive or enthusiasm: excitement is a great motivator, but if the goal is long-term or there are no immediate rewards, your motivation can start to tank, making it hard to do what’s needed.
- Plateau effect: you’re moving, but progress seems slow, leading to feelings of stagnation. You get frustrated that you must invest more energy to keep pace.
- Competing interests/distractions: again, an issue for longer-term projects and goals; by choosing this effort, you’re saying no to other things. If exciting opportunities keep popping up or you suffer from shiny object syndrome, this can be tiring.
- Encountering obstacles: the classical friction when things are more challenging than expected. Over time, even if you overcome each obstacle, it can start to erode enthusiasm.
- Task aversion: when you have to do tasks you don’t enjoy, this can be draining.
- Decision fatigue: as you start moving, you find forks in your path, requiring you to make choices, and you may not have clarity on the right one to follow. After a while, the decision-making starts to wear you down.
Some remedies to maintain your momentum:
- Remind yourself why you’re putting in the blood, sweat, and tears: the value of the goal and the benefits you gain by completion.
- Pivot how you look at progress. If you’re before the halfway point on your journey, focus on your gains. Look at how far you have gone from where you started. This reminds you that your efforts have moved the needle. You’re not standing still but pushing ahead. If you’re past the midpoint, start looking at the finish line and shrinking the gap. You see the light at the end of the tunnel and want to get there.
- Leverage the sunk cost fallacy. You’ve already committed, so see it through to the end. When you run into roadblocks, use them as opportunities to learn and increase your mastery. When your brain struggles, it means you’re learning something new. That’s a good sign. While it may not seem like it, you’re gaining from the pain. (Neural rewiring for new skills and knowledge is something your brain doesn’t do unless it has to, so the discomfort is normal).
- Use the friction as an opportunity to build up your grit.
- Set a deadline if you haven’t set one. Having an end date lets you know that your current state is finite and will end for better or worse.
- Celebrate your wins, however big or small. Use rewards to boost your flagging motivation. Do something fun when completing each task so you get positive reinforcement for taking action.
By employing these tactics, you keep both your progress and motivation moving.
Final Finish: Are We There Yet?
Procrastination in this stage is a bit of a paradox. You’re approaching the finish line, so why would you hesitate to make the final push? Many of the inhibitors in this stage tend to fall into one of two categories: the first centers around the anxiety of reaching your journey’s end and its associated consequences; the second relates to burnout – the overwhelming fatigue generated from having worked on something for so long or putting in so much effort. Some specific players are the following:
- Anxiety about completion: this can be caused by a mixture of fear of failure, success, and change. Failure is straightforward because you’re afraid your efforts aren’t good enough and will make you look bad when you reach the end. Success may seem strange, but it is linked to increased responsibility and fame. Having an element of the imposter syndrome, you feel that even if you complete the goal despite the initial glory, it’s a fluke. And now that you’re in the spotlight, people might see your previously hidden flaws. Fear of change happens when you’ve been grinding on something for a long time, and you’ve become comfortable with the habits and routines and don’t want to see it end.
- Diminishing returns: similar to the plateau effect, sometimes, as you approach the end, there isn’t much left to do but polishing. And if you have perfectionist or detail-oriented tendencies, this may seem exhausting and neverending as you’re constantly tweaking. Fatigue sets in as there is always something to improve.
- Complacency: like fatigue, you’ve worked hard for a while and fought off the distractions long enough, so why not live a little? After all, the job is almost done, right? Do you have to be as intense as you were before? The danger is you take a break and then don’t come back.
In terms of fixes, this is where having a deadline helps, especially with the latter 2. Having a due date forces you to get it out. But if you don’t set one or keep pushing it back, then you’re going to have to address the underlying anxiety. This can involve asking what is about the completion that scares you: mistakes, success, change?
If it’s fear of mistakes or failure, recognize that nothing is perfect, and if you’ve tried to address known issues, you’ve done what you can. You can’t manage what you don’t know or don’t control. If things go wrong, try to remediate and chalk it up as a learning opportunity. You now know what to do the next time around. And there is a corollary that if you don’t finish, then you have nothing to show for your efforts. You must ask whether releasing something imperfect is better than a perfect construct that never sees daylight.
Another element is that some goals have a shelf-life, meaning that the longer you wait, even if it’s superior in quality, the value can diminish with time (e.g., if you’re starving, you may not be willing to wait for the 1+hours to have the world’s most fabulous paella). Alternatively, what if the worth is tied to a window of opportunity? If you miss that chance, you might have to wait awhile for it to come again, if ever. For example, in most of the world, patents are usually given to the inventor who applies first vs. who invented it first. So, if someone spends all their time addressing their invention flaws before applying, they risk getting scooped by the person who applied first after building a kludgy prototype. (Some folks even patent the idea before they make anything).
For fear of success, consider why it bugs you: the additional recognition, responsibility, or risk of exposure as an imposter? For the first two, recall that these are opportunities, and you can manage how you respond to them. You can negotiate a staging plan that allows you to take on more incrementally but over a preferred time period. Or if you feel the pressure is too great, ask for help.
On the issue of imposter syndrome, focus on your wins and the reasons that led to them. Also, assess why you feel your success is undeserved and what evidence backs that up. You want to move from emotional speculation to actual data. What you may find is that you’re deserving. Related, some folks achieve expertise in areas outside their domain despite lacking formal credentials. To illustrate, James Clear, author of one of the most definitive books on habits, Atomic Habits, is not a psychologist, yet his insights have helped thousands of people.
As to the fear of change, you get comfortable when you’ve been working on something for a while. This one is tough, but consider you risk stagnation if you don’t change. Reflect on your motivations and the benefits you had hoped to get from your goal. It’s good that you enjoyed the journey, but you must arrive at your destination at some point. Consider what you liked and see if you can recreate those conditions to spark your next goal or project.
Another mental pivot is that instead of viewing this stage as an “end,” reimagine it as the graduation of one stage and the beginning of another.
Use the proximity of the deadline and the above tips to muster enough energy to make that final push across the finish line and then celebrate that win!
General Tips for Addressing Procrastination at Any Time
The above techniques are geared towards specific stages in your goal pursuit. In addition to the above, here are some general tips to overcome procrastination at any point:
- Break tasks into smaller ones that take an hour or less. Large tasks tend to be intimidating. By decreasing their size, you make them more palatable.
- Don’t be afraid to use rewards. While intrinsic motivation is generally better, the practical reality is that we can’t always rely on it to kick in. If something needs to get done and you don’t want to, using the lure of reward to get you moving is fine.
- Minimize distractions. You don’t need shiny objects to squander your attention from what you need to do. Hide your smartphones, minimize how many browser tabs or windows you have, and limit your workspace to what you need to get the work done.
- Use timeblocks. Often, starting is the hardest. Use Pomodoros or smaller time elements to muster your limited energy for a focused period. Sometimes, you’ll get carried away and do more; other times, you just do the bare minimum. The point is that you made the effort. Don’t criticize what you should have done. Assess what worked and what could be improved.
- Problem-solve over self-criticize. If something isn’t working, try to figure out how to fix it rather than self-blame, which doesn’t address the issue.
Combining the above tips and tackling the specific obstacles for your stage increases the odds of pushing forward on your goals.
Summary of Takeaways
The nefarious thing about procrastination is that it isn’t static. We often think the start is challenging, but procrastination evolves as you progress in pursuing your goal. Thus, it’s essential to recognize its chameleon nature and adapt to maintain momentum. Some key recollections from this article:
- Overcoming Initial Hesitations: In the early stages, procrastination often stems from uncertainty, lack of clarity, and fear of change. Counter these by making your goals and plans detailed enough that you know what to do, setting a start date, and breaking down tasks.
- Mid-Course Challenges: As you progress, losing initial enthusiasm, decision fatigue, and encountering obstacles can hinder momentum. Maintain it by reminding yourself of the value of your goal, using setbacks as learning opportunities, and leveraging intermediate rewards.
- Final Hurdles Before Completion: Approaching the finish line can trigger anxiety over the outcome and fear of change. Overcome these by focusing on the benefits of completion and viewing the end as a new beginning.
- General Strategies Against Procrastination: Break tasks into smaller, manageable chunks, reward yourself, minimize distractions, use time blocks, and focus on problem-solving over self-criticism.
With the above in place, you have all the necessary tools to tackle the procrastination chameleon.
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