Otherwise known as the great enemy of productivity.
When you hear the word, your mind probably jumps to images of wasted hours, unfinished tasks, and looming deadlines.
The advice from the self-help world should sound familiar:
“Push through it!”
“Just sit your butt down and get on with it!”
(Oh, and if that doesn’t work, a pill might. I once received a sponsorship offer from a company that promised their supplement could “cure” procrastination).
This perspective on procrastination is misleading.
Procrastination isn’t just an obstacle. It’s a messenger.
It’s a fusion of your subconscious, your experiences, your fears—and sometimes your wisest self—trying to send you a message.
So before you rush to kill the messenger, try leaning in and deciphering the wisdom it holds.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating a lifestyle of endless postponement. My point is more nuanced. Before battling procrastination, seek to understand it. You’ll find that this supposed adversary is, in reality, an advisor pointing you towards more authentic and effective action.
To put that mindset into effect, ask yourself, Why are you procrastinating?
Most people would give one of three answers.
- Pursuit of perfection. Have you ever delayed starting a project because you’re waiting for that “perfect” idea or moment to begin? You might be so terrified of producing supbar work that you’d rather produce nothing at all. The logic is simple: If you don’t finish—let alone get started—you can’t fail.
- Desire for instant gratification. Why write that book, which can take years to complete, when you could answer an email and feel instantly accomplished? In this case, procrastination might be signaling the desire for short-term rewards.
- Your internal compass. Procrastination might be your internal compass telling you that you’re headed in the wrong direction. It’s not laziness. It’s an inherent signal that says, “This might not be for you.”
Misdiagnosing the cause of procrastination leads to misguided solutions.
For example, if perfectionism is at the heart of procrastination, “pushing through it” will leave the underlying fear intact. If you push through, you’ll end up producing work that’s tainted by anxiety. You’ll misdirect your creations toward what’s easy and what’s safe—into a zone where you’re likely to minimize mistakes. (I share some remedies for perfectionism on pp. 157-162 of Awaken Your Genius).
If you’re procrastinating because you’re seeking short-term rewards, pushing through it will leave that desire unfulfilled. You’re better off breaking down a big task into smaller components so you can get a sense of accomplishment. (“Draft Section 1 of Chapter 1” instead of “Write book”).
Or if your procrastination is a nudge from your intuition saying “Wrong direction,” then the generic “push through it” advice will send you down a path that’s not right for you.
So the next time you find yourself procrastinating, pause and reflect.
Ask yourself, “What is procrastination here to teach me?”
Rather than dismissing these pauses as obstacles, see them as opportunities for introspection and recalibration.
Sometimes, what looks like a roadblock is actually a roadmap in disguise.