Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of Dr Richard MacKinnon's series exploring reasons we don’t take action when it comes to our own development.

One of the common reasons we don’t take action – even when it’s going to benefit us – is procrastination. It can help explain why you haven’t taken action on that development plan, for example.

You know you ‘should’, you know you ‘need to’. But suddenly you have a whole pile of others things to focus on instead. And once again, activities that contribute to your personal or professional development are left to one side.

Why do we procrastinate?

Unfortunately, there are many paths that lead to procrastination. We may have a level of anxiety associated with the task (“Ugh, I’ll start that tomorrow when I don’t feel so worried). We might want to do a ‘perfect’ job (“Today’s just not the right day to give this justice”). Or we might just be unclear on what is to be done (“I don’t even know where to start!”).

We can also fool ourselves into thinking we’ve made more progress than we actually have. So having a think about your development and downloading the WiseAmigo app is a useful first step. But it’s just the first step. What comes next?

You’ll notice none of these are rational reasons for putting off activity that will ultimately benefit us. This really underlines the irrational nature of procrastination. And how we’re just telling ourselves stories in order to avoid action.

Whatever the reason, procrastination emphasises short-term relief from unpleasant feelings and thoughts. All at the expense of making progress on something much more important.

How to beat procrastination

Everybody procrastinates to some degree. And procrastination is, basically, a habit. So if we want to procrastinate less, we need to break the habit and we start by being honest with ourself.

For example, what’s the story you’re telling yourself about delaying action? So if you were to say it out loud, would a colleague agree with you? Or might they raise an eyebrow and suggest you crack on?

If we’re clear on why we’re avoiding an important activity, we can explore what’s in it for us to make a start. Ask yourself “What’s the win here? If I bite the bullet, what will I get out of it? How will I feel when this is done?”

Be clear on your goals. Lessen the emphasis on the short-term pain (boredom, hard work, things you’ll miss out on). And focus on the longer-term success.

Some other tips you might like to try:

  • If you’re feeling anxious about the task, just make a start. Identify the very next step (or the very first step!). No matter how small, and take it. See how that feels? Now you’ve started, so you might as well finish.
  • Give yourself a time-limit. Maybe just 15 minutes. Set an alarm on your mobile phone and then work on the task. Promise yourself you’ll stop when your alarm goes off and see how much progress you’ve made.
  • Unclear on where to start? Look at your goal and slice it up into actionable next steps that will get you there. For example, booking a holiday is a project. It’s made up of lots of steps (deciding on the location, the airline, the budget, booking accommodation etc). If you’re faced with a series of projects in your to-do list, it can be very daunting and increase the likelihood of procrastination.
  • Don’t be afraid to make each task on your list a tiny step in the right direction. And the completion of each step is motivating. So slice the project like salami and suddenly it’s just a collection of very do-able steps.
  • If you’re frustrated with your own procrastination, find an accountability buddy. Explain the progress you’d like to make. Be specific about what you’re going to do, and then ask them to hold you to that commitment.

We discussed the topic of procrastination over on the ‘My Pocket Psych’ podcast in episode 7. You can listen to the podcast on all the major platforms (iTunes, Google, Spotify) or stream it from our website: WorkLifePsych.com/podcast.

Richard is a Chartered Psychologist and Coach and is the Managing Director of WorkLifePsych, a team of workplace psychologists specialising in people development. They provide coaching, development programmes and training to employees globally, across a range of industries. Richard is particularly interested in the three complementary themes of wellbeing, productivity and professional effectiveness.

Richard co-hosts the fortnightly podcast My Pocket Psych alongside Pilar Orti of WorkLifePsych. Each episode focuses on an aspect of working life and attempts to bring clarity by translating the science into something listeners can put into action. Click here to listen now: worklifepsych.com/podcast.

Development is a journey. The WiseAmigo app and community are here to help you along the way. Join the WiseAmigo community, create a Spotlight, discover more insightful content and reflect on your development journey today!