Procrastination can lead to regret, which can lead to procrastination, and the cycle continues. How can we move past what’s holding us back and take action toward a life that matters?
We can choose to overcome our procrastinating habits and learn new ways of getting things done
Often in conversations with women about productivity, the subject of procrastination comes up. Many of us struggle with getting certain things done that we need to do, or say we want to do. With procrastination often comes feelings of regret for the things we haven’t accomplished, along with other feelings that are born of the stories we tell ourselves about what this procrastination means about us.
Even the most productive of us probably procrastinate sometimes, about some things. I know I do. And I’ve been thinking lately about why we do it, what the result of it is, and how we can maybe replace the habit of procrastination with something else.
What is procrastination?
One dictionary defines procrastination as “the action of delaying or postponing something”. According to an article in Vogue France, “Procrastination derives from the Latin word procrastinare, which means ‘deferred until tomorrow’. It’s irrational human behaviour because even though we know it’s in our best interest to act now, we delay unnecessarily.”
Why do we procrastinate?
The Vogue article mentioned earlier says, “Research shows that procrastination is tied to being easily distracted, impulsive, and having low self-belief in your ability to follow through on what you set out to do.”
We might also procrastinate due to a fear of failure or because we’re overwhelmed by the size and scope of the task before us. It all seems too big to accomplish (for us, anyway) or we can’t even figure out how to start.
Procrastination can lead to regret
Regret is defined in one dictionary as “a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it is: “a feeling of sadness about something sad or wrong or about a mistake that you have made, and a wish that it could have been different and better”.
A Psychology Today article tells us that “Regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.”
One article from the Berkeley Well-Being Institute points to studies showing that “the things we’re most likely to regret are the things we didn’t do. Regrets of inaction are stronger and persist longer than regrets of action. . . . When we don’t take action, our imagination fills in the blanks about how awesome the outcome could have been. This leads our minds to generate more regret as we compare what currently is with what could have been (Roese & Summerville, 2005; Gilovich & Medvec, 1994).”
This really resonated with me. When I take a step back and look honestly, I recognize that I get a lot done. Yet it’s easy to dismiss all that and focus on those things I haven’t done and feel bad about it.
“Regret isn’t just wishing events had gone differently; it also involves an inherent aspect of self-blame and even guilt.”
Regret can also lead to procrastination
“Dwelling on regrets is another procrastination backward thinking trap. In cogitating about what you missed, you may delay decisions about what you can do to make your life better in the present moment.” [from How to Conquer Anxiety, Fear, Procrastination, and Regrets]
Every minute we spend thinking about lost opportunities, missed chances, etc., is a minute we cannot spend making today into what we want it to be.
“If you focus too much on the omissions in your life, you’ll draw time and energy from present efforts that can lead to a productive future.”
Suggestions for overcoming procrastination
1. Honestly evaluate why you’re procrastinating. Is the thing you’re procrastinating about unpleasant to you in some way?
- A medical procedure you need but dread?
- A difficult conversation?
- A physically difficult task?
Is it a task or project you agreed to take on for the “wrong” reason?
Are you overwhelmed by a project you don’t know how to complete (or even how to start)?
2. Brainstorm solutions to the why you’ve identified for your procrastination. In almost every case, it’s helpful to break it down into its smallest components.
- Find the easiest way in
- Make it too easy
- Take the first step right away
- Schedule a time when you’ll take the next step.
3. Get support if you need it. Accountability makes a difference, so find an accountability partner, a mastermind group, a coach, or a mentor.
4. The writer of the Vogue France article mentioned earlier offers some suggestions I find really helpful. I’ve quoted a few of them below, but encourage you to read the whole article:
Learn to tolerate some initial discomfort. (I really like this one.) Here’s part of what the article says about this:
“Many times, before we start to work on a task, we feel bored or a sense of dread. We want to get away from these uncomfortable feelings and the task that’s causing them. While this can make us feel better in the moment, it can affect us in the long term. When people begin to procrastinate on a regular basis, they choose instant gratification over distant rewards and future goals. Repairing their mood quickly and getting stress relief as soon as they feel uncomfortable becomes a priority. But delaying in order to feel good can have harmful consequences in the long term, because it can lead to regret, suffering and even mental illness.
If we want to overcome procrastination, instead of fleeing from uncomfortable feelings, sit with them for a bit. Identify the negative emotions that are arising in you as you prepare to work and just continue with your task. Anything unpleasant you’re feeling initially is temporary and dissipates. The more you learn to tolerate this transient discomfort, the more your self-control builds and you start to see yourself differently. You start to see yourself as capable. And this is the birthplace of motivation.”
Choose the emotion you want to focus on. The article explains:
“Another option is to choose the emotion we want to focus on. Even though we might be feeling annoyed or stressed when we sit down to work on a task, there are other emotions that we’re experiencing as well. We might have a desire to learn something new and become more proficient at something or get promoted at work; and no matter how small this desire is, it’s still there.
We all have an inner landscape of emotions that we’re feeling at any given time, and we can choose which emotion from this inner landscape we want to focus on. So instead of thinking how much we loathe beginning a project, we might tap into the wish to enrich ourselves mentally or professionally. This not only makes it easier to engage, but it makes doing the work more meaningful as we’re connecting with our values and motives.”
Do it badly.
Sometimes we procrastinate because we feel unprepared and want to be sure we’re able to do a good job. If we give ourselves permission to do it badly, it’s a little easier to dive in and improve as we go.
Act now and motivation will follow.
Sometimes we procrastinate because we think we’ll feel more motivated tomorrow or the next day. That’s not likely true. We don’t have to wait to feel motivated before starting.
My favorite thing I read while preparing for this episode is a blog post written by author Darius Foroux called When Procrastination Turns Into Regret (and how to avoid it). It offers some good food for thought, but what I especially like are his “10 lessons that will help you avoid regret.” After reminding us that “We all know that putting off our dreams for one week turns into a month, then into a year, and then into decades, and finally, we die with regret.” he goes on to say “If that sounds harsh, it’s because it is harsh. When you keep procrastinating you become one of those people who never do what they say.” Then he shares his ten lessons, which include:
- Stay curious. “If you let your curiosity drive you, you will never run out of motivation and inspiration.”
- Learn every day.
- Limit entertainment. “Consumption numbs your senses. You become a zombie who says, “Feed me! Feed me!” Create more instead of consuming more.”
- Create value. “Value is anything that’s helpful to others.”
Some final thoughts
I encourage us all to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about our own procrastination. Procrastination doesn’t mean we’re lazy, it doesn’t mean we’re unproductive, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. We can choose let go of those thoughts and learn new habits for dealing with those tasks we have tended to put off. Rather than dwelling in regret, we can choose instead to learn the lessons from those times when we’ve missed opportunities or made choices we’d like a do-over on. Then we can apply those lessons today and tomorrow.
Give yourself grace, as making a life that matters is a journey, not an event. Take the small steps, celebrate the small wins, rest when it’s needed, and keep moving forward.
What do you think?
Is there something you’ve been procrastinating about that you’re ready to take action on? What is your first step? Post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Links
- Regret: What Is It and How to Deal With It – The Berkeley Well-Being Institute
- The Psychology of Regret | Psychology Today
- REGRET | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary
- How to deal with regret | Psyche Guides
- How To Deal With Regret Before It Consumes You | Well+Good
- How to Cope With Regret
- When Procrastination Turns Into Regret (and how to avoid it)
- How to stop regretting because of procrastination – Quora
- Your biggest regret can be summed up in one word: Procrastination – Get Organized – Online Calendar – Digital Planner
- Procrastinating Can Cause Regret! | by Mahad Aw-Saraar | Medium
- Stuck in Life — On Indecision, Regrets and Procrastination
- How to stop procrastinating and get motivated | Vogue France
- How to Conquer Anxiety, Fear, Procrastination, and Regrets | Psychology Today
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Sheri Deppe says
I just re-listened to this episode. I found so much value to it the first time I listened that I wanted to write some things down to help me overcome this tendency in myself. Thank you!
Hi, Sheri. I’m so glad you found this episode helpful!
Susan Sanders says
Hi Laura – I LOVED this episode. I appreciate the way you bring in research (and provide the links here), then give us examples and reflections from your life that enhance the article. Sometimes I find myself procrastinating out of fear of success. What if it DOES work and I have to KEEP DOING IT!? Learning to end things gracefully is helping with this. Then of course getting over my people pleasure tendencies, but that is a tall order for sure! Thank you for your work!
Hi, Susan. Thank you so much for taking the time to touch base and for your very kind words about the episode I’m grateful to know that you found it worth listening to.