When You Just Don’t Want To…

When You Just Don’t Want To…

I am guilty of this myself, so I feel safe asking you if you have a project that you keep on the back burner? You know the one. You need, actually you have to do it, the deadline is getting really close and it is making you so uncomfortable that you almost don’t want to think about it. It has become such a distraction that it is getting difficult to do the regular things you need to do, e.g., return clients’ calls, meet your friends for lunch, deal with this or that important issue. It all kind of piles up.

Can you try and feel how much less guilt, frustration, and stress you would have if you could just magically make yourself finish that thing sitting there on the back burner? Frankly, any of those things that you just don’t want to do. Imagine how much happier and more productive you would be.

Well, let me give you the good news. It is possible to learn to quit putting things off; you just need the right plan. Building the right plan for you will be based on just why you’re procrastinating in the first place.

Cause #1 You put it off because you are afraid that you’ll mess it up.

Solution:  Adopt a “prevention focus.”

There are lots of ways to look at any task but there are only two basic directions for you to go. You can do it because you when you finish, you will wind up better off than you are now. It will be an achievement or triumph. It could feel like this for you:

  • If I complete this project successfully, I will impress my boss
  • If I work out regularly. I will look amazing

Psychologists call this a “promotion focus” and research indicates that when you have that particular kind of focus, you are motivated by the thought of making gains or enjoying accomplishments. Most people work best when they feel eager and optimistic and a promotion focus can make you feel that way. Sounds great, right? Well, if you are always afraid that you’ll mess up your assignments, promotion is not the correct description of focus for you. Apprehension and uncertainty undercut promotion focus motivation from the get-go. What you are left with is a situation where you are less likely to take action at all.

What you require is a way of looking at what you need to do that isn’t immobilized by doubt, preferably one that flourishes on it. When you have a prevention focus, rather than thinking about how you might wind up better off, you see the assignment as how you can hang on to what you’ve already have, how you can avoid loss. In the case of prevention-focused people, successfully completing a project is to see it as a way of keeping the boss from being pissed off or not appreciating the person you know yourself to be.

What you require is a way of looking at
what you need to do that
isn’t immobilized by doubt,
preferably one that flourishes on it.

Working out regularly is a way to not “let your body go.” Basically you are avoiding a negative outcome. Decades of research indicate that prevention motivation is essentially enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it can quickly become apparent that the only way to avoid danger is to finish the project now. The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.

I know this might not sound like a great way to get things done, particularly if you are usually more of a promotion-minded person, but there’s no better way to get past your anxiety about messing up than to give serious thought to the serious consequences of just doing nothing. Go on, scare the shit out of yourself. How does that feel? Yep, if you are like most people, it works. Give it a try, see if this is your cause of procrastination.

Cause #2  You put stuff off when you just don’t “feel” like doing it.

Solution: Act like Mr. Spock on Star Trek and ignore those feelings. They’re really going to get in your way.

In the book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, the author, Oliver Burkeman writes that a lot of times, when we say “I just can’t get out of bed early in the morning“ or “I just can’t get myself to exercise,” what we really mean is that we can’t get ourselves to feel like doing these things. Think about it; no one is forcing you to stay in bed late every morning. Nasty, scary bouncers don’t block the entrance at the gym. Physically, nothing is stopping you—you just don’t friggin’ feel like it. Burkeman asks pointedly:

“Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’
doing something in order to start doing it?”

Give this some consideration because it’s really a big deal. Along the path of life, lots of us bought into an idea—without consciously realizing it—that to be motivated and effective we have to feel like we want to take action. Think about all the things you don’t feel like doing that you have to do. Who said that you need to be eager in order to do them? I really don’t know where this came from, because it is bullshit. Yes, you need to be committed to what you are doing, or your goals. You have to want to see the project finished, or get stronger, or get an earlier start to your day. But you don’t need to feel like doing it. That is raw self-indulgence.

Mr. Burkeman writes that some of the most creative and productive artists, writers, and visionaries became successful partially due their dependence on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how unimaginative (or, in many instances, hung-over) they might have felt. One artist observed:

“Inspiration is for amateurs.
The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

So if you are just sitting around, putting off tasks just because you don’t feel like it, remember that you don’t actually need to feel like it. There is nothing other than you stopping you. As my old boss in the nursery business used to say during harvest time, “that tree won’t dig itself!”

Cause #3  You put it off because it’s hard, boring, or otherwise unpleasant in some way.

Solution:  Use “if-then” planning.

Does this sound like you? “Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner.” Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place, right? Research indicates that people regularly overestimate their power for self-control, and rely on it way too often to keep them out of trouble.

Do yourself a life-changing favor and accept the fact that your willpower is limited and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do the things you need to do. If you are tired, things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful can get pushed aside. Instead of pushing them back—or blowing them off altogether—use “if-then planning” to get the job done.

Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what direct steps you need to take to start or finish a project. It’s also making the decision of where and when you will take the steps you lay out for yourself. It goes like some version of this:

“If it is 1 p.m., then I’ll stop what I’m working on and start to work on the report Jimmy asked for this morning” or
If my boss doesn’t reference my application for a raise at our meeting, then I will raise the issue before the meeting is over.”

So think about it; by figuring this out beforehand and deciding exactly what you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it, you leave yourself no room for pondering about what or how to do it when the time comes. None of the” do I really have to do this now?” or “can this wait till later?” or “maybe I should do something else instead.” It’s when we deliberate over things that willpower becomes essential to make the tough choice. That being said, if-then plans noticeably reduce the burdens placed on your personal willpower. Your if-then planning will ensure that you’ve made the right decision way ahead of the critical moment. In fact, if-then planning has been shown to increase rates of goal accomplishment and productivity.

Here are three strategies that I’m offering to you:

  • Thinking about the consequences of failure
  • Ignoring your feelings
  • Engaging in detailed planning

Don’t sound like the fun solutions out there like “Follow your passion!” or “Stay positive!” “If you can conceive it you will achieve it!” But they have the clear advantage of actually being effective, which as it happens, is exactly what you’ll be if you use them. They work.

And who among us doesn’t want to be more effective?


Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.