10 August, 2015

The root cause of procrastination, and how to tackle those lingering to-dos

After a few days traveling, when I returned home this weekend, I was reviewing my to-do list. And I noticed that there were some items that continued to linger on the list for a couple of weeks. There were some things that I had kept on postponing and I was feeling guilty for doing so.

I casually mentioned this to my daughter, who told me that they had been taught in school to do the not-so-fun homework first (well, at their age, not sure if any homework is fun :)). They had been told to “Eat the Frog”. In fact, as I learnt, it was Mark Twain who had said; “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

So, my message this week is on procrastination – why we delay doing certain things and how we can take real steps towards changing that.

Why do we procrastinate? 

Chances are that you are going to say that it is because you are too busy. More often than not, you are putting something off because you’ve just got too many other things to do. You are being distracted from this work, by other work. But if you just use being busy as an excuse, you are never going to make much progress. Because you will only get more busy.

You need to dig a little deeper and be more honest with yourself. Why is this particular task not getting done, whereas others are? There could be a number of reasons. Is it that you don’t have the information you need? Is the task itself too cumbersome? Does it simply bore you? Maybe you don’t think it is important enough? Maybe it takes too much effort? Does it involve an uncomfortable conversation that you would much rather avoid? Are you unsure about being able to deliver on it? Have you tried doing it and failed before? Are you just getting distracted by other things?

Peter Bregman, in his article The Unexpected Antidote to Procrastination, draws an interesting parallel between surfing – where every ride ends in the same way, by falling in the water – and why we put off doing certain things. As he sees it, if we could, like the surfers, be okay with the surprise of the wave, knowing that it must end in falling, then we would be likely to take more risks.

How does that tie in with procrastination? Here’s what he has to say:

That difficult conversation with your boss (or employee, or colleague, or partner, or spouse) that you’ve been avoiding? You’d initiate it. That proposal (or article, or book, or email) you’ve been putting off? You’d start it. That new business (or product, or sales strategy, or investment) you’ve been overanalysing? You’d follow through. And when you fell – because if you take risks, you will fall – you’d get back on the board and paddle back into the surf. That’s what every single one of the surfers did.

So why don’t we live life that way? Why don’t we accept falling – even if it’s a failure – as part of the ride? Because we’re afraid of feeling. Think about it: In all those situations, our greatest fear is that we will feel something unpleasant. What if you have that scary conversation you’ve been avoiding and it ends the relationship? It would hurt. What if you follow through on the business idea and lose money? It would feel terrible. What if you submitted the proposal and you were rejected? It would feel awful.

Falling is scary. It shakes our belief in who we are and what we are capable of. So, we shy away from such situations.

Author Mark Manson, in his blog post Everything you wanted to know about procrastination but were too lazy to figure out, talks about just this:

We all have a set of beliefs of who we are. Generally speaking, we protect these beliefs. So if I believe I’m a nice guy, I will avoid situations that could potentially contradict that belief. If I believe that I’m an awesome cook, then I will seek out opportunities to prove that to myself over and over again.

Generally, the hardest things for us to do in life are full of emotional resistance. Whether it’s putting in the time to study and make good grades, or finally moving away from our hometown, or shutting up and starting to write that idea that we’re always telling people about, we avoid these things because in some way they threaten to contradict the beliefs we have about ourselves. The kid doesn’t study because she believes herself to be a rebel and a loner. The man doesn’t leave his hometown because he secretly believes he’s not good enough to be successful anywhere else. The woman never sits down to write the book because ironically, the possibility of failure would threaten her belief that she’s smart and capable of anything.

You can read his post on

Procrastination has a lot to do with fear and the way that makes us feel. But as Bregman points out, more often than not, our fear doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonisingly long time. Think about it. The longer you put something off, the more you will have to deal with the apprehension and fear of it.

For smaller things, this may be okay. But when they are larger and start snowballing, that’s when the worry starts. It can take a significant toll on your productivity, not to mention the way you feel and what that does to the relationships associated with this.

So, you simply have to make a start. There is no other way. Be honest with yourself on why you are procrastinating. Once you have the answer, here are tips on how to get started, that you might find useful:

1. Evaluate the cost

Sometimes, when you’re busy avoiding doing something, you don’t quite end up thinking about the consequences. It could work in two ways. Taking stock of what this procrastination could work as a motivator – Can doing it make your team more productive? Would it result in more business? Will it give you more visibility? It could work in two ways. It could also just scare you into hurrying it up – Could you lose business? Will you be moved off a team? Will you, personally, lose money?

2. Set interim deadlines

If you’re finding a large task too daunting, then just break it up into smaller, more manageable,  bite-sized chunks and set yourself a series of interim timelines. That way, once you start and get some of it done, chances are that you will find it easier to move ahead. The ‘Do Something Principle’ as Manson calls it, which involves starting out with the simplest part of the task. Like if you have to go to the gym, just start by putting on your gym clothes. Or if you have to write, then like he says, what works for him, is opening up the document and writing just one sentence. The rest follows. You can also celebrate your small wins on the way.

3. Put down time for it

Calendar it in, or it won’t get done. Give yourself a set time – make it short, because it works better that way – and start. The more palatable you make it, the easier it will be. You can give the 10 minute timer tip a try. Start working on it for just 10 minutes and then stop. That should be enough time for you to get into the groove.

4. Bring it to the top of your To Do list

Bring it to the top of your To Do list and keep it there, where you can see it. Don’t move on to anything else till you have made some progress on this. Holding off on your other tasks, may push you to start getting this one done.

5. Reward yourself

Indulge yourself a bit. Set rewards for your small wins to make them more fun. It could be anything – a quick coffee, the movie you have been meaning to watch, a game with your kids – but laying that out, could keep you motivated enough to get through the task you’ve been avoiding.

So, what are your “frogs”? What are some things that you have been postponing? Why not start your day with these “frogs” and see if it makes a difference?


  • Sanjivani Sadani says:

    Your posts are such a bright start to a Monday. The thoughts that you share are an inspiring start to the week ahead. Thank you so much!

  • Priyanka Bhosle says:

    Set SMART goals or rather “specific, measurable, aggressive, realistic, and time-bound” goals. Creating SMART goals will increase one’s odds of completing projects in a timely manner and make a person more productive in the process.

    • Vivek says:

      Hi Priyanka, thanks for sharing your suggestion. Have you used SMART goals with success? Sometimes, I find having 5 dimensions a bit too much and prioritisation becomes tricky.

      • Prakash Maharaj says:

        Brendon Burchard, the American writer, suggests otherwise on setting goals. He says that too many people have lost the real ambition of greatness by just setting smart goals. He describes smart goals as very small goals, predictable with small plans which really stunt us as to how our life progresses. These goals hardly spark any imagination, comprising just left brain activities of spreadsheets, numbers and finding logic with accumulated heap of old memory with no drive to inspired thinking. These goals make you do the same mundane task with no behavioural trigger to accomplish anything new. Any uninspiring goal would not bring any change. Smart goals don’t care about human aspirations and are devoid of any dreams to turn them to reality. These goals may or may not have prerequisites for positivity. These goals do not let us build or create any method as they are just tasks. So, smart goals are actually dumb goals 🙂

  • Nilesh Deshpande says:

    This is an awesome article. Honestly speaking, like on a typical Monday morning when we have to catch up on many things from the last week, I had to procrastinate reading this article as well! I couldn’t read it before 11.45am.

    But after reading it, it was quite clear to prioritise things!

    Nice and worth reading article!


    Nilesh Deshpande

  • Dilip Pawar says:

    Procrastination needs radical changes in one’s work behaviour. The tips you gave are really helpful. Thanks!

    • Vivek says:

      Thanks, Dilip. It may not need radical changes in one’s behaviour if one can dig deeper into the reasons for procrastination and try to address the root causes as opposed to the symptoms. Also, sometime taking small steps rather grand strides helps.

  • Sunita Devrani says:

    ‘my frog’ here I come. Thanks


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