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  • Writer's pictureJill Lynch Cruz

The Real Reasons You're Procrastinating – and How to Get Moving!

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

The first step in overcoming procrastination is to recognize why it’s happening so you can avoid the pitfalls and develop better coping strategies. Here are some surprising procrastination traps to avoid and helpful strategies to get you moving toward your goals.

In the many years I’ve been supporting women attorneys and leaders with a variety of career and leadership-related goals, one of the most pervasive obstacles to realizing their full potential is chronic procrastination. We all procrastinate to some degree. But the vicious cycle of self-defeating behavior associated with chronic procrastination not only undermines our potential, but also causes unnecessary stress and erodes our self-esteem and confidence.

The first step in overcoming procrastination is to recognize why it’s happening so you can avoid the pitfalls and develop better coping strategies. Here are real scenarios experienced by many of the women I’ve served through the years. I’ve changed the names to protect identities, but, frankly, their stories could probably be our own...

Two months ago, my client "Anna" was asked to give the keynote for a prestigious legal industry event. This was a golden opportunity for her to showcase her subject matter expertise, so she immediately felt the pressure to do well. However, every time she sat down to write, she couldn’t get beyond the first sentence.

She planned to dedicate sufficient time and energy to accomplish this important goal, but instead found herself distracted by less important tasks. With just two days remaining before the big event, she’d made little to no progress. Feeling the mounting pressure, Anna finally kicked it into high gear. For two days she worked frantically around the clock to draft an acceptable speech. Yet instead of feeling relieved when she finished, she berated herself for her laziness and lack of discipline.

Anna is a talented attorney with a strong work ethic. So how did this happen?

Anna isn’t lazy or undisciplined. Rather, she procrastinated as a way to cope with the anxiety she felt about this high-stake’s speech.

When we procrastinate, we put off doing things we intuitively know we should do to avoid the negative emotions associated with a stressful, difficult or boring task.

So, when Anna found herself scrolling through her Facebook feed or answering personal emails, instead of working on her speech, it probably allayed the anxiety that often accompanies the immense pressure to perform well.

Like Anna, this is also why many of us delay starting projects until right before the deadline. While we may think it’s because we work best under pressure, it’s really just part of a larger procrastination issue. When a deadline is fast approaching, we (finally) get moving because the fear of missing this deadline and it’s likely negative consequences becomes greater than the anxiety associated with completing the task itself. However, these last-ditch efforts often end with a suboptimal result – one that carries with it frustration, guilt, and shame.

So if this scenario sounds familiar, you may be asking yourself, How can I stop procrastinating and start accomplishing more of my most important career and life goals? The key to overcoming this problem is first recognizing your own procrastination triggers and reactions. Here are 3 common procrastination traps you may face and strategies to get you moving toward your goals.

1. Your Goal is Too Overwhelming

Is there something in your life you really want to accomplish or achieve, but you know the undertaking would be enormously challenging and complex? This was “Maria’s” situation as she desired to open her own law practice. For years, she hoped to eventually transcend her current work situation, which she found less than satisfying. She dreamed of becoming her own boss. However, she never managed to get her dream off the ground.

Maria's inability to take action wasn’t for lack of time or energy, she just felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of this undertaking. She didn’t know where to begin. Whether the goal is writing an important article, preparing for a complex trial, or initiating some major change in our career, many of us procrastinate because of the acute anxiety brought on by the ambiguity and uncertainty of the task. This can be especially true with self-imposed, open-ended goals. In the absence of hard deadlines and other forms of accountability, these important, yet not urgent, goals can easily be put on the back burner.

How to Get Moving: Borrowing from the strategies outlined in successful habit formation, it’s easier to make progress toward a larger goal by breaking it down into more discrete tasks. Try keeping tasks small and lay out each step in a reverse calendar format. Working backward from a real or self-imposed deadline will help thwart procrastination because it provides a manageable path and achievable timetable. This methodical approach can also help maintain positive momentum. The feelings of incremental accomplishment – no matter how small – can be the critical fuel to keep you moving forward.

2. You Don’t Feel Fully Prepared

When it comes to pursuing a stretch goal, how often do you hesitate to jump in until you feel fully prepared? This was the rationale offered by “Emily” who was hesitant to pursue a high-profile leadership role in her organization. While she was well-qualified, she felt she needed a little bit more experience and training before putting her name in the hat for this opportunity.

Obviously, some preparation is necessary, but it can become a form of procrastination when it continues to be the reason you’re not moving toward your goals. This form of procrastination is rooted in self-doubt and an often-seen reason women hold themselves back in their careers. Indeed, research has demonstrated women are much less likely than men to apply for positions when they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications.

How to Get Moving: If you are holding yourself back because you’ve convinced yourself you’re not fully prepared or qualified, critically evaluate any limiting beliefs that are getting in your way. Few of us feel fully prepared when taking on a large or new endeavor. There are usually too many unknowns to be totally certain. However, sometimes the best approach is to just jump in headfirst even when you don’t feel quite ready. Instead of searching outside yourself for what you think you’re missing, learn to trust what you already know and have. Be confident whatever gap you feel you have, you’ll figure it out in normal course, just as you’ve already likely done throughout your career.

3. You Struggle with Perfectionism

One of “Sara’s” unmet professional goals was to write an article for a legal publication. While she had many creative ideas, she struggled with putting her thoughts in any sort of coherent writing. She felt paralyzed by her inner critic, judging every word and sentence she wrote as somehow “not good enough.” After several cycles at writing, editing and starting over, she became so frustrated with her lack of progress that she put off this goal indefinitely.

This form of procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism, which is rooted in fear of failure and judgements from others, especially if the risks to reputation or self-esteem are high. Putting our talents out there on display for the world to see can be especially scary for many, but in particular for perfectionists, who fear appearing foolish, incompetent or worse…average.

Because perfectionists fear being unable to perform a task flawlessly, they become paralyzed from initiating any action. Their impossibly high standards can also impede their ability to complete a routine task quickly and efficiently, such as the email you may have revised six times today before sending.

Perfection-based procrastination is a key reason many women’s talents “die on the vine” for fear of being judged and seen as somehow lacking.

How to Get Moving: Overcoming perfectionism-based procrastination can be challenging, but possible when you can let go of the unattainable standards and negative self-judgments keeping you stuck. Clinging to the need to display perfection in everything you do sets you up for failure and damages your sense of self-worth. Identify which tasks truly require a heightened level of time and attention and those where “good enough” is good enough. Also, a healthy dose of self-compassion is the antidote to harsh self-criticism. Making mistakes is normal and part of being human. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure - just a perfectly imperfect human.

Regardless of the reasons behind your tendency to procrastinate, know it’s just a habit. The good news is with a little effort, this habit can be broken. If you’d like more information on how I can help you stop procrastinating and get moving toward your goals, please contact me. You are also welcome to schedule a complimentary coaching session to experience the power of coaching to help you "get out of your own way" so you can realize your full potential.

Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, CPC, GCDF, SPHR

Executive Coach & Career Development Consultant


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