Let’s Talk About… Procrastination

By Jeremy Godwin

What is procrastination? How does it relate to mental health? And how do you overcome procrastination so you can get things done? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health — the weekly podcast about looking after your mental health, with simple ideas you can put into practice immediately.

So, get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 1 May, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 129, and thanks so much for joining me!

I’m Jeremy Godwin and I talk about looking after your mental health. I had a breakdown in 2011 which led me into a period of severe anxiety and depression, and that took me on a journey of learning more about my mental health. So I went and did a degree in psychology and sociology, and now I focus on delivering what I couldn’t find: simple advice on how to look after and improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges. Each episode I look at one specific topic and explore how to improve that aspect of your wellbeing.

This episode is all about procrastination and I’ll be talking about what procrastination is, why understanding it matters, and how to deal with procrastination in a healthy way. So, let’s talk!

Introduction

I write well over 6,000 words a week, which is a lot. Between this podcast, my weekly YouTube videos and the short videos I do daily on my @jeremygodwinofficial account on Instagram (where I share Life Advice That Doesn’t Suck, if you’re interested — my account is linked in the episode description) the point is that I’m pretty much writing most days… and, quite frankly, there are some weeks where that’s exhausting. To put that into context, that means I’m writing more than a quarter of a million words a year; even just saying that makes me want to have a cup of herbal tea and a good lie down!

Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s just really hard to find the willpower necessary to do the things that we want to do or need to do, and it’s usually when you’re on a deadline with something that suddenly it seems like a really good idea to reorganise your cupboards or do four loads of washing rather than actually doing the thing that has to be done. I said back in Episode 126, about self sabotage, that I wrote every single one of my essays on the day it was due during the four years I did my degree a few years back; I’m not particularly proud of that fact, because it really did make my life a lot more difficult than it needed to be, but I’m nothing if not honest about my own struggles with things. Take this topic for example; I have been meaning to write about procrastination for quite a while now but I keep on putting it off! 😁 You’re very welcome, and if you’re a regular listener then you’ll know the humour will probably only get worse from here! 

So let’s explore some definitions and let’s talk about…

What is procrastination?

At its core, procrastination is the act of knowingly and intentionally putting off something that needs to be done (and it can often be a habitual behaviour). 

Procrastination used to be seen as an issue with time management but there is now more and more understanding that it actually has much more to do with your emotional state; in other words, procrastination is an emotional issue, not an efficiency issue. As a world-class procrastinator myself, I can say that it’s never about time for me; often it’s just hitting a wall of exhaustion because I haven’t allowed myself enough time for self care and general rest. 

Maybe you feel bored or overwhelmed by your workload, maybe you’re exhausted and in need of a break, maybe the task is complicated or maybe you’re worried about failing; there are multiple possible emotions that could be contributing to a strong desire to do anything but what you need to do. More often than not, especially when it comes to work, it’s not necessarily a case of pretending the work doesn’t need to get done (because we know it does), but it’s more likely that we feel a bit overwhelmed by it and so our mind decides it would be better if we just did one nice little thing for ourselves first before we put our head down and get the job done… only it doesn’t work like that, does it? Because that is how you end up going down a rabbit hole online and before you know it you’ve lost half a day doing everything other than what you need to do.

When we’re dealing with stress, a heavy workload or tasks that we might not particularly enjoy (or all three), it can be common to go into avoidance mode (which I discussed in Episode 99 about avoidance), however let’s face facts here: putting things off only delays the inevitable and creates added stress.

Procrastination can be quite commonly experienced by people with different types of mental health issues. According to an article by GoodTherapy, and I quote:

“Procrastination itself is not a mental health diagnosis. It can, however, be a characteristic feature of some mental health issues [such as]: 

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder ([or] ADHD): People with ADHD often have extreme difficulties with time management and organization and tend to procrastinate more often than other people. When ADHD co-occurs with bipolar, this may be particularly likely.

Depression: One common effect of depression is low self-esteem, which has been linked to procrastination. Individuals who doubt their ability to satisfactorily complete a task may be more likely to avoid or delay starting on it. [and…]

Anxiety: Those who experience anxiety may tend to become preoccupied by fear of failure. Lack of confidence in one’s ability to complete a task can lead to procrastination in order to avoid failure in the short-term.”

And you’ll find that linked in the transcript, which is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes (and it’s also translated into Spanish). Source: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/procrastination 

So why does it happen? According to that same article, and I quote, “Some research suggests that procrastination is closely linked to mood. People may procrastinate when stressed or overwhelmed in the hopes that their future self will be better equipped to tackle a certain task. For example, people who have very high-stress jobs may often turn to procrastination as a coping strategy.” And, again, that article is linked in the transcript.

Now, while I absolutely love my work and I feel genuinely honoured to get to create content that I love which also helps people, there are some days that I absolutely struggle to get going; just ask my poor audio editor and the person who does the Spanish translations of my transcript, because they’ve both had last-minute messages from me where I’ve run out of time because I’ve been on the struggle bus that week (you’ll know when it happens because I’ll usually apologise to them in the next episode, like how I’m saying sorry now! To be fair I was feeling unwell last week which slowed me down so it’s not like I didn’t have a reason, but anyway…).

Here’s a general conversation that goes through my head sometimes: 

Me: I’m not in the mood to write

Also me: But you’re on a deadline!

Me: But I don’t wanna think about mental health today!

Also me: But you have to!

Me: But I want to watch YouTube and spend three hours learning about the Crossrail project in London!

Also me: Well, why don’t you spend at least a few minutes outlining what you need to write this week so you can make life a bit easier for yourself? You have people depending on you!

Me: Uuuurgh, fine. But I’m buying myself something as a treat.

And that, dear listener, is how I’ve ended up with nine new pieces of clothing in the last month (having said that, I actually needed new clothes as we head into the cooler months!). And yes, that was a real thought process that I went through this week (well, last week when this gets released) so if you want to know anything about the Elizabeth Line in London then I’m your nerd! 

Even just writing this episode today, I let my attention wander at least three times by reorganising my desk, designing a new logo (because I saw an example of one I liked in a research article and felt the need to adapt it for myself), and reading the news online (and I hate reading the news, but apparently my mind was more interested in that than what I was supposed to be doing!). 

What’s the point of all of that stuff I just shared? Well that’s a good question that leads me to the next part of this topic…

Why understanding procrastination matters

And it matters because when you understand and address the emotions behind procrastination, you begin to get more done. The thing is that procrastination is a very specific form of self sabotage where you actually make life way more difficult for yourself than it needs to be (and I talked about self sabotage in Episode 126), and so understanding why it happens for you is key to overcoming it (and I’ll explore that in a bit more detail shortly).

Before I do, I want to be very clear about something: procrastination does not mean you’re lazy, it just means you have some emotional stuff to work through. I think it’s so easy for us to fall into a habit of criticising ourselves for not being able to run at full speed all the time, but the reality is that sometimes you can… and sometimes you just cannot. It doesn’t make you a bad person; it just makes you a person. 

I mentioned before that procrastination can commonly be associated with conditions like anxiety and depression; for those of us with anxiety, we can be prone to worry (something I covered in Episode 95) and that means that we can find ourselves avoiding tasks because we’re nervous about what might go wrong. Or for those living with depression, you might struggle with low motivation or general exhaustion which can lead to avoiding tasks because you just don’t have the energy to do what needs to be done. And, of course, those with ADHD may be likely to get distracted easily.

According to an article by Healthline, and I quote:

“Here’s the thing about procrastination: The negative emotions you associate with a given task don’t go away when you avoid that task. They feed on themselves and grow, rapidly. […] Procrastination creates a cycle that’s difficult to escape, because the temporary reward of putting something off reinforces your desire to do it again — even though it creates more problems. A procrastination habit can eventually complicate the emotional concerns that triggered it in the first place.” 

And the link for that article is in the transcript (https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/chronic-procrastination#link-to-mental-health). 

So, the more that procrastination becomes a habit, the more it can create serious issues in multiple areas of your life. To quote the GoodTherapy article I mentioned earlier, “Long-term procrastination can lead to chronic stress, difficulty with school and work, and trouble in relationships. People who procrastinate may end up working late or avoiding time with family or friends to make up for lost time.” And again, that’s linked in the transcript.

So how do you manage procrastination? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…

How to deal with procrastination in a healthy way

Alright, so I’m going to start with some general mindset tips around procrastination and then I’ll dive into specific things you can do if and when you’re faced with a bout of procrastination. 

So, talking about how you treat yourself, my first tip is stop punishing yourself — because procrastination and self-criticism often go hand-in-hand, and it’s just not going to do you any good to beat yourself up mentally for a bit of faffing about. If you punish yourself it doesn’t actually change anything for the better; it just makes you feel worse about yourself! So, show yourself some kindness and understanding because you’re only human. That doesn’t mean you let yourself off the hook — because at some point the work needs to be done — but it does mean that you choose to see procrastination as a learning opportunity instead of a failure. Speaking of learning, my next point is…

Notice the emotions — and this is about self awareness (which I explored in Episode 62) so that you can know yourself better. I talked earlier about some of the different emotional reasons that might sit beneath the tendency to procrastinate, so take the time to consider what it is that is really going on for you. Why? Because that knowledge is necessary for my next point, which is…

Deal with the emotions — because this is about tackling the root cause of the issue, rather than just the symptom (and procrastination really is just a symptom). I know that a lot of why I’ve been procrastinating with my work is that I’ve had so much on that I was wrecked by the time I get to writing the podcast episode for the week, which wasn’t a particularly smart way to do things especially since my podcast is the most important thing I create every week! So now I’ve restructured my work so that the podcast comes first, and then I’ve let go of a whole bunch of things that weren’t as much of a priority. That’s helped with the emotions because I no longer feel overwhelmed and I also don’t feel so rushed with creating the weekly episode, so I can take my time if I need to. And that leads to my next point… 

Work with your emotional state as much as possible, not against it — and this is about being more in tune with what you’re feeling so you can manage your emotions more efficiently and effectively. For example, I know that I have days where I struggle with writing because it requires me to sit down and be highly creative for several hours in a row… and that can be very exhausting! If I’m in that headspace, I’ve discovered — quite by accident — that doing a little bit of visually creative work (like setting up my social media posts for the week’s topic) helps me to be productive in a way that feels less rigid and disciplined than writing. Fun fact: I’ve started doing that for these episodes, where before I even start writing I create five key points that I know I want to make for the topic and I turn them into the socials for the week, and that actually energises me creatively to want to expand on those points… which, in turn, helps me to start writing the episode. Instead of resisting and causing yourself torment, find a different way to come at things so you work with your feelings rather than against them. Alright, next…

Challenge your beliefs — and by this I mean your general thoughts about yourself, about the task at hand, and about procrastination in general. Why? Because thoughts are not facts (and I think I might have said that once or twice before in this show!). It’s easy to tell yourself that procrastination is a failure or that you’re just not disciplined enough, but thinking negative thoughts about yourself isn’t going to change the situation… it’s just going to make you feel worse, which will probably result in you procrastinating even more. If negative thoughts begin to circle around in your mind, pause and gently breathe through it for at least 10 to 15 seconds and then remind yourself that your thoughts are not facts (and remind yourself that procrastination is not a failure, it’s just a challenge you need to deal with because your head and heart just aren’t fully in it at the moment). I talked about thoughts in Episode 123 and mindset in Episode 31, so check those out for more ideas on challenging your beliefs. Next…

Know your priorities and focus on them — because when you are clear about what really matters to you and what doesn’t, you can put things into context and reduce some of the pressure you put on yourself (or, even better, remind yourself of why pushing through the wall of procrastination is necessary so you can make progress on something that is important to you). I do this with the book I’m working on at the moment; each weekday morning I’m sitting down to review and edit a chapter of about 4,000 words which is pretty tiring, however I know that it needs to be done to achieve the bigger goal of getting the book finished (and you’ll be hearing some news on that in the next month or so!). If I’m really struggling then I might decide to let myself do just a half chapter rather than a full, because at least I’m still making progress on something that is really important to me… so think about how you can be clear on your priorities and factor them in to your own thinking. And that leads to my next point…

Consider the big picture — because it might seem easier in the moment to put things off, but that choice has a flow-on effect into many other areas of your life. For example, I know that if I delay getting an episode written it then throws me out for the next day or two which, in turn, throws out my YouTube production schedule and a whole bunch of other things. Or, for a different example, consider this: if you’re putting off having a conversation with another person because it feels a bit icky or uncomfortable, remember that the longer you leave things the trickier they tend to be (and also, and this is really specific but bear with me, remember that if you put off dealing with issues then you’re actually tolerating or even accepting the situation as it is, and what you accept is what you get — because nothing changes if nothing changes). So for the sake of your future self, a little bit of short-term pain now will yield you a lot of long-term gain… so, rip that Band Aid off! 

OK, so now let’s talk about what to do if you’re in the middle of procrastination and I have a few tips to consider, starting with… 

Use the five minute rule — or you might know this as the two minute rule if you’ve read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits; basically, it means to push yourself to do just a few minutes of work because, quite often, it’s the initial hurdle of getting started that holds us back from doing what we need to do. And this is a helpful one because, very often, when you get started you’ll keep going! And if you don’t, hey! You still did a few minutes of work which is better than nothing! I just did this today with this episode; I was struggling in the morning because I was tired but I pushed myself to do just five minutes of reviewing articles and making some notes about what I might want to say about this topic, and before I knew it it was lunchtime and I had written more than half of the episode! Sometimes just getting started feels like the most monumental thing in the world, but if you only focus on doing a few minutes of work then it feels less overwhelming. Speaking of, my next tip is… 

Break things down into small steps — because then you can just focus on the current step without overwhelming yourself with everything that comes after. I said about what I did this morning and the fact that I pushed myself to just review some articles; what that did was that it made it feel less of a big deal because it just involved one little step rather than having to think about writing thousands of words. Take things one step at a time and don’t get ahead of yourself. Next… 

Remind yourself that ‘done’ is significantly better than ‘perfect’ — because perfectionism can go hand-in-hand with procrastination (which I discussed in Episode 98, about perfectionism), but quite frankly there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ so all you’re doing is wasting your time, effort and energy. Get it done rather than exhausting yourself trying to make it perfect, because that is futile. OK, next…

Trade punishments for rewards — and by this I mean to stop punishing yourself and instead find some way to give yourself a positive incentive. For example, don’t tell yourself that you cannot watch that show on Netflix you’re dying to watch because you’re a naughty person who procrastinates too much; instead, make a list of what you need to get done and by when then tell yourself that when you tick everything off that list you can have some TV time as a reward. It’s that old saying, “you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar” (although I hate flies so I don’t want to attract them in the first place…) and this tip is an extension of the one I said earlier about treating yourself with kindness. Punishments don’t work; they just create resentment. If you’re having trouble with this type of thing, I’d suggest listening to either Episode 125, about self belief, or Episode 96, about self respect. Next… 

Minimise distractions — because temptation is everywhere and you have to be extra vigilant if you’re prone to procrastination! It’s why I force myself to sit at my desk in my home office to write, even if it’s more comfortable to do it sitting on the couch with my laptop… the problem is that my living room faces the street and so I get distracted by all the movement outside (I live in a side street off a main road and even though it’s the countryside, it’s like Piccadilly Circus here during the day sometimes!). If you need to focus then turn off the TV, put on headphones with non-disruptive music (preferably something calm and instrumental; this is no time to be singing along to the greatest hits of the 90’s), and put your devices on silent. I use the ‘do not disturb’ function on my Mac all the time because it stops notifications on all of my devices with the press of one button, which is a lifesaver sometimes. Do what you can to keep your focus on what you need to do and shut out distractions. OK, next… 

Find someone to help keep you accountable — and this could be as simple as checking in with a friend or coworker, or it could be working with a coach. I have a business coach who I meet with every two weeks and she checks in with me halfway between our sessions to see how I’m progressing with the things I agreed to do. You don’t have to get a coach, but find what works for you. And that leads to my next point…

Get professional support — and by this I mean from a counsellor or therapist, because if you procrastinate a lot and you’ve tried all the things I’ve covered today but it still feels almost impossible to make any progress then you need some professional support. There is no shame in seeking help and I’ve told all of you many times that I see a therapist myself, and it’s the best thing I have ever done for working through the emotions that sit underneath my tendency to procrastinate.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to procrastination and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Having a tendency to procrastinate sometimes doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you human. We all have so much to deal with on a day-to-day basis and it can be easy to become overwhelmed. Instead of fighting the tendency to procrastinate, choose to take the time to understand it so you can work on the emotions that sit underneath it… because that is what will help you to tackle it so that you can make real progress in your life.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the writer Edward Young, and it is:

Procrastination is the thief of time.”

Edward Young

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.

Next week I’ll be talking about courage. A lot of the stuff I talk about on this show involves finding the strength to take a long, hard look at yourself so that you can work on acceptance and healing… and I know firsthand just how much courage that takes. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most, if not all, of the people I’ve talked to about mental health over the years are the bravest people I’ve ever met — and that includes you. So next time I want to explore the role of courage and mental health in more detail. I’ll be talking about what courage is (and what it isn’t), why courage matters, and how to find greater courage in order to confront challenges and overcome them.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 8th of May, 2022. 

If you found this episode helpful then I’d love it if you left a five-star review on the platform you’re listening to me on, or head over to my Instagram @ltamentalhealth and let me know. And if you’d like to support me and my work then I have a Patreon where I offer exclusive benefits for my supporters; you’ll find the link in the episode description, plus it’s linked on my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au (where you can also sign up for my free newsletter, where I share a quick dose of mental health inspiration every Thursday).

And I also have a YouTube channel where I publish new videos every Wednesday… so, if you’d like even more content about looking after your mental health, join me over there (and that’s linked in the episode description as well)!

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health is proudly produced by Reconnaissance Media, helping you find gratitude and meaning. For more information visit reconnaissancemedia.com

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.

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