Why do we Procrastinate or Lack Motivation? And what can we do about it?

5 min read

Education & Career Trends: July 18, 2022
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

We always choose the comfort of an activity that evokes feelings of confidence, satisfaction, or joy to the discomfort of an activity — the one we’re procrastinating about.

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As a therapist and executive coach, motivation is a common topic that enters my virtual office. I can assure you that even your high-performing CEO, surgeon, and attorney struggle to develop their slide decks before the eleventh hour. Brilliant and accomplished as they are, they can’t seem to figure out why they can’t just “get it done.”

Are motivation and procrastination really problems for you?

I used to work at a college, where students sought counselling for procrastination often. When I asked them “What’s the most distressful part of [discussed challenge]?” their answer was some version of “I shouldn’t procrastinate.”

As we unpacked the alleged problem further, they realised procrastination was just part of their process. They always “got it done,” they just worked best under pressure. Trying to start or complete something weeks in advance just ended up being an exercise in self-criticism and guilt. They were better off just being honest with themselves that they’d be cramming for 2-3 days before the deadline and giving themselves permission to enjoy their freedom until it became crunch time.

There are people with unrealistically high, perfectionistic expectations, which lead them to believe their need for breaks, fun, or sleep means they’re “unmotivated.” So, it’s worth asking yourself if motivation and procrastination are really problems or if the real solution here is being kinder to yourself and having more realistic expectations.

Believe or not, procrastination is your body’s way of trying to keep you alive!

Why we suddenly feel compelled to reorganise our desktop or clean out our inbox?

You see, unconsciously, we’re always seeking comfort (pleasure) and avoiding discomfort (pain).

We’re always going to choose the comfort of an activity that evokes feelings of confidence, satisfaction, or joy to the discomfort of an activity — in this case, the one we’re procrastinating about — that evokes feelings of overwhelm, frustration, or boredom. This can motivate us to do other tasks that once seemed boring or daunting, such as cleaning our inbox!

It’s only when the potential discomfort around not doing the activity outweighs the discomfort around doing it that we’re motivated to do get past our procrastination.

Here are six strategies to help you get past procrastination and follow through on a task:

1. Increase certainty and confidence around the task.

  • On the topic of perfectionism, unrealistic and unclear expectations are often the reason for our paralysis or procrastination.
  • Confidence precedes action, whereas uncertainty or overwhelm create anxiety that erodes confidence and perpetuates avoidance.
  • Aim for “good enough” unless the task really warrants perfection.
  • By making our expectations clear and realistic, we increase our confidence and potential for follow through.

2. Create a reward system for yourself.

  • Wonder why gamification — and treats — work so well? Because we’re seeking the pleasure of the reward that comes after completing the task.
  • Sometimes that reward is simply the feeling of relief, but consider implementing your own rewards as well.
  • Give yourself small rewards for taking action. E.g., work for one hour and you get 15 minutes of scrolling time.

3. Generate accountability by having a ‘disciplining system’.

  • On the other side of that coin, you can gently ‘punish’ yourself for not completing a task.
  • Wanting to avoid that cost associated with skipping an activity, or letting down your accountability buddy, are enough to motivate you to follow through.
  • As a proactive measure, you can commit to making a small donation to a charity of your choice if instant gratification gets the best of you.
  • You can also find a friend with a common goal who can hold you accountable.

4. Visualise how you’ll feel after completing the task.

  • Because we’re driven by instant gratification, we tend to focus more on the discomfort of starting the task than on the relief, satisfaction, and gratification of completing it.
  • By momentarily cultivating the feelings we anticipate experiencing after the task, we’re motivated to experience it in a more enduring form.
  • Ask yourself, “How will my state shift from what it is now?”
  • Close your eyes and try to feel in your body the sensations associated with having completed the task.

5. Eliminate distractions and other sources of comfort that pull you back.

  • If we remove sources of pleasure (i.e. distractions) from our environment, we’re no longer choosing between the undesirable task and something interesting or enjoyable.
  • We’re now choosing between the undesirable task and boredom, which — especially when filled with thoughts like “I should be doing X”— is likely even more undesirable.
  • The easiest way to remove distractions or sources of comfort is to change your environment.
  • For example, join a co-working space or take yourself to a coffee shop.

6. Practise awareness.

  • The simple awareness of our human tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain — coupled with mindfulness in the moments where we’re vulnerable to it — gives us the agency to choose the temporary discomfort of taking action.
  • When you notice that you’re procrastinating or struggling with motivation, check in with yourself and ask how you’re acting on your primal instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

One important note: This article is referring to your run-of-the-mill demotivation and procrastination, not their more stubborn manifestations that come along with ADHD, depression, burnout, grief, and heartbreak. While these tips will still be helpful if one of those experiences applies to you, you might also benefit from exploring professional therapy or coaching and medication.

Have you checked out yesterday’s blog yet?

Trends Driving the Education Industry in 2022

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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