You and Procrastination

Author: Yugal SehgalOriginally published on May 24, 2020

Recently I spent 7 hours and 11 minutes playing a particularly interesting mobile game, effectively spending a full working day doing nothing productive. I am not an avid gamer, but at times I do get much too enthusiastic about it. This was one of those times. I ended up falling behind - and piling up - on existing work.

When I finished the game (emphasis on the word "finished"), I felt little joy. The guilt of slacking on work was stronger than any sense of achievement I had throughout the game. Instead, I dreaded the upcoming day because now I had more work to do and one less day to do it.

Sprees like this aren’t alien to me. I've been guilty of binge watching for hours at a time (usually at the expense of work), finishing a season or two in one long - draining - sitting, only to regret doing so after the fact. Procrastinator's remorse, let’s just call it.

Chances are, you are familiar with the feeling. You’ve been there, done that.

As a seasoned procrastinator who's also a part-time procrastination researcher (although I just can't seem to get myself to do that for some reason), I have found that you can try many tricks to ward off procrastination but it almost always finds a way to come back to you.

With the number of distractions and consumption avenues available to us, it’s easy to give in to their temptation. There’s always a meme to share, a video (or series) to watch, a message to respond to, or a game to play. We’re awash in distractions. Even scarier is the idea of being too exhausted from it all that you do nothing for hours.

This usually stems from fear; fear of failure, fear of confrontation, fear of missing out, or some other form of insecurity that has no grounding in reality.

You’re not inherently avoiding work when you procrastinate, you’re avoiding the negative feelings associated with it.

A cartoon illustration by the author. © Yugal Sehgal

I often find myself putting off drawing because I fear I may not do a good job of it. Or, I evade writing by indulging in short-term engagements (like gaming) to cover for my insecurity and under-confidence in my skills.

But the more you let yourself do that, the more power you give to these irrational fears, and the more they take hold of you. Once that happens, it’s very hard to break off of them. The resulting guilt often leads to more procrastination, which can increase your stress, affect your sleep quality, make you consume more junk food, and even lead to depression. That is the vicious circle of procrastination.

You’re not inherently avoiding work when you procrastinate, you’re avoiding the negative feelings associated with it.

So, how do you nip procrastination in the bud?

Considering the clutches of procrastination are so strong, you need to force yourself out of it.

What that means is you have to get yourself to do the things you’ve been (intentionally) putting off. Chances are, a few minutes into it you’ll transition into the workflow and notice that it isn't as dreadful as you imagined it to be.

An effective way to do that is to plan ahead by scheduling the work in advance, that way you’re mentally prepared for the upcoming task and it loses some of its associated fears.

If you're swamped in work, try taking it one task at a time.

In addition, try removing temptations that are likely to distract you. Notice I said “remove”, not “resist”. What that means is, if it’s your phone that contains many (or all) of your sources of distraction, go ahead and put it away while you work. If it’s not near you, it isn’t likely to distract you.

All of this works even better if you’re working on a deadline and are accountable for your work.

Great! Now how do you overcome procrastination?

Well… you don’t. While it has its fair share of detriments, procrastination can be a positively powerful force if you know how to make it so. That starts with understanding that procrastination is a universal human condition and not a character flaw, so don't beat yourself up for it. A right amount of it, one that doesn’t end up becoming a tendency, can actually be quite fulfilling and rejuvenating. For it to be so, you have to earn it.

Think of procrastination as a luxury. The ability to indulge in your favourite pastime without regard for anything else, in many ways IS a luxury in our busy, all-consuming lives. And the thing with luxury is, you appreciate it more when you’ve earned it.

Watching the next episode of your current series, spending an uninterrupted hour on social media, or gaming your way to the next level would be very fulfilling after a day’s work, when you’ve achieved your goals for the day and in the process saved future time and anxiety by not piling it up. This gives you the choice to spend the rest of your time doing what you love doing, guilt-free. Sure it may be for a shorter duration, but wouldn’t you be glad to be having all the fun without all the dread that comes with it?

Over the long term, this can transform into a healthy routine where you have space for both work & play in your life. Your future self will thank you for it.

The ability to indulge in your favourite pastime without regard for anything else, in many ways IS a luxury in our busy, all-consuming lives.

Procrastination is a deep rooted phenomenon that feeds on itself and manifests in the form of habit. And not a good one at that. 

A wise person once said, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.”

Breaking the chains of procrastination isn’t too hard, you know what you need to do to break them. All you have to do is just not procrastinate on it.

Yugal Sehgal writes about life, mindfulness, and people. He lives in India. Follow him and @drawcuments on Instagram.