Productivity systems often focus on how to do the work. However, it is crucial to understand why we are struggling to do the work in the first place. Often, our procrastination triggers are emotional rather than rational, which makes it hard to analyse them in an objective way. Learning about the most common triggers can help in identifying and mitigating them.
Tim Pychyl, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, defines procrastination as “a purely visceral, emotional reaction to something we don’t want to do.” The higher the emotional aversion to a task, the more likely we are to procrastinate. And this aversion can have many sources.
Why you procrastinate
Not all procrastination triggers appear at the same time. Researchers have identified four different phases we need to go through in order to complete a task: inception, planning, action, and termination. We need to decide to get started, to decide how we will complete the task, to execute the necessary steps, and to define when the work is done.
The first four triggers of procrastination tend to appear at all stages of completing a task, whereas the other four can happen even after we have decided to start the work, or even after the work has started already.
- Boring. Sometimes, a task is just not intellectually stimulating enough, and we feel boredom just at the thought of working on it. The idea of boredom is an extremely strong procrastination trigger, which can often prevent us from even getting started on a task.
- Frustrating. Perceived frustration can lead to higher task aversiveness. You may be trying to design a website using a buggy online tool, or trying to find information with a slow Internet connection. Frustrating tasks are often linked to a lack of control and a feeling of helplessness, which may lead to procrastination.
- Difficult. Some tasks are intrinsically harder than others. Solving a complicated math problem, memorising a list of vocabulary words in a foreign language, figuring out how to use a new tool… The higher the level of difficulty, the more likely we are to procrastinate by working on easier but less important tasks instead.
- Stressful. Tim Pychyl explains that “stress disrupts goal achievement by causing an individual to procrastinate by delaying the initiation of the necessary goal.” Our stress could be caused by external pressure, impostor syndrome, or just being generally prone to anxiety. Whatever its source, stress can cause us to delay starting working on a task.
- Ambiguous. In order to perform a task, we need to have a clear idea of the work that needs to be done. Vague instructions from a manager or lack of personal clarity as to what you are trying to achieve may trigger your procrastination.
- Unstructured. Even if the final goal is clear, we may not know exactly how to get there. Ambiguous tasks are unclear as to what needs to be done, whereas unstructured tasks are unclear as to how the work needs to be done. They are both likely to increase our aversion towards the task.
- Unrewarding. Some tasks may lack intrinsic rewards. For instance, working on a long report and not getting any feedback or recognition can feel unrewarding. We tend to avoid these tasks because we don’t feel like we will get anything in return for our work.
- Meaningless. We are more likely to procrastinate when a task is lacking personal meaning. Of course, what tasks are meaningful will vary from an individual to another. Cleaning up your desk may be linked to your self-identity because you consider yourself a tidy person and you know it will make you feel more comfortable at work, whereas someone else may see it as a meaningless task. Procrastination can arise when we don’t find personal meaning in a task — which can happen even after we have started the work.
It is pretty rare to encounter all of these triggers in one and the same task, but there is often a combination of reasons that can lead to procrastination. But don’t despair: there are ways you can deal with these triggers so you can do the work you want to do.
How to manage your procrastination triggers
Procrastination, when acknowledged and managed, is not bad: it’s a signal something is wrong and you need to change the way you approach a task. There are three simple ways you can deal with your procrastination triggers.
- Consider the source of your procrastination. Before you try to overcome your procrastination, it may be worth understanding why you are procrastinating in the first place. Many times, tasks you are dreading to do can be either abandoned or delegated without any negative consequence. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to define which tasks are either urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, or neither urgent nor important. Only try to overcome your personal procrastination with the ones that are urgent and important.
- Adapt to your resistance levels. Does working on a task for three hours feel like a mountain you will never be able to climb? Make the task itself more manageable by breaking it down into chunks. Very often, the inception phase is the hardest. You just need to get started. Apply the Ten Minute Rule to trick your brain by talking yourself into getting started.
- Reverse your procrastination triggers. Each procrastination trigger can be reversed to stop procrastinating. If a task is boring, try to make it more fun; if a task is difficult, find someone to give you a hand; if a task is unrewarding, treat yourself after you complete it. You can also spend a bit of time defining a specific goal and a detailed plan for ambiguous or unstructured tasks. It will make it much easier to keep started and stay productive.
Again, procrastination itself is not bad. It’s a symptom which needs to be understood and addressed. Whenever you find yourself procrastinating, review the list of eight procrastination triggers to identify the ones that apply to your situation. Then, apply one of the three simple strategies to figure out how to best move forward.