The other day, I told someone about a member of my family who has diabetes, and they immediately started asking me about what kinds of candy she’d eaten too much of. I was taken aback by the assumption that if she has diabetes, she must have eaten too much of something. It’s true that diet can be a factor in the onset of type 2 diabetes. But genetics and family history and other factors also play a role. It’s not caused by just one thing.
The reality is that a lot of human problems are like this. We like to think we know what’s at the root of our troubles, but often we can’t pin it down. Overly simple explanations cover up the real range of causes. While there can be some comfort in making things seem easier to understand, it can also make it harder to address the problem.
When you call yourself “lazy,” you may be doing the same kind of thing. It’s not an unreasonable explanation of why you’re not getting as much done as you should, but it’s probably not the whole picture. There are a number of variables that contribute to procrastination, including environment, mood, physical condition, and all of these things can be controlled to some degree.
Do you really procrastinate on everything? Or are you more diligent and responsive at some times than at others? Why is it that you procrastinate only on some things only some of the time? “Laziness” as a personality trait can’t explain that variation. So, if you think that your personality is to blame for your procrastination, you might be missing out on opportunities to better yourself. The problem is complex and so the solution needs to combine multiple approaches.
The most important step you can take toward overcoming your procrastination is to start catching yourself in the act and, in an objective, non-judgmental way, analyze why it’s happening. Become aware of yourself. Notice what kinds of feelings you have when you’re procrastinating. Are you tired? Bored? Worried? Something else?
A mood is a mood. It’s something that comes over you and not usually something you can control or wish away. Still, if you’re aware of how your moods are affecting your work, you can manage them and work around them.
For example, feelings like disappointment and frustration can make you want to throw in the towel and declared defeat before you’ve even really started. If you recognize that you’re acting on emotion, you can slow yourself down and reflect on what is making you want to give up. Don’t try to fight that urge. Just observe it and try to understand it. What are you reacting to? Is it something you could have avoided? Are you blaming yourself? Or making excuses?
Depending on what the causes are, you may find that just thinking it through in this way breaks the spell. In other cases, you may need to do something to improve your disposition.
Sometimes you really do just need a break. It’s not a crime to step away from your desk for a few minutes to regather yourself. That may be exactly what you need to regain control.
Be careful, though: a “break” can quickly turn into a binge. Instead of opening the Netflix app, choose an activity you can easily peel away from.
A walk around the block? A five-minute cat nap? Just sitting quietly observing your thoughts? Any of these are better than turning on a TV show or a video game. Passive behaviors make it harder to get back to action, and these things are designed to get their hooks into you, entice you to make a commitment.
Commit to yourself instead. The purpose of your break is to come back to your work in a resolute mood, with a determination to follow through. Don’t do anything that will draw energy away from that line of attack.
Another way to ease the transition into a task is to build some ceremony around it. If you’re finding it hard to crack your history book, try making it part of a physical, ceremonial routine. Clean the surface of the desk before you open the book; line your other books up neatly; light some candles; recite some familiar, encouraging words, or a prayer. The details are up to you. But associating the activity with some calming routines that you enjoy can make it less galling to begin the actual work.
Finally, we tend to associate procrastination with our resistance to the next task. But the real problem may be with how we behave when a task is completed.
What do you do after you finish a piece of work? Do you open Snapchat and scroll through your feed aimlessly? Or do you sit back and take a few deep breaths to clear your mind before opening your planner? What actions leave you feeling refreshed and ready for the next task? What leaves you with a lingering feeling of self-doubt?
Athletes are coached on a mental skill called “Next play speed,” which is a measure of the ability to move mentally from the end of one play to the beginning of the next one. Instead of gloating over a success or anguishing over a failure, a great athlete can immediately flip the switch in their mind and reset their disposition to match what’s happening now on the field of play.
In the same way, when you reach a stopping point in your work, either because you’ve completed something or because you’re stuck and need to find some help, you want to be able to move as quickly as possible into the right mindset for whatever is next.
A good technique I learned from Tony Stubblebine is to open a planner or journal, record the results of your work, and write a sentence or two about what’s next. The point is to have some consistent habit for marking the conclusion of your work on one project or task and begin a conscious transition into the next one.
Be aware of yourself. Take appropriate breaks. Develop personal rituals or ceremonies around your tasks. Improve your “next play speed” by changing your habits around completing a piece of work. Practice these techniques every day and you might find that you’re not as lazy as you thought.