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A Handle on Procrastination

Because not doing is a habit too

by Frances McGonigle, 13 May 2022

All forms of procrastination fall into the category of "not doing". Also things like not giving up smoking, not doing homework, not remembering a birthday, not replying to messages (i.e. not following the rules of polite communication), and not having hope. We decide not to do things and then we don't do them, often by filling the space with something more fun or less taxing. Whereas, if we set time aside and created healthy challenges, there might be more opportunities to accomplish objectives. Success is one positive outcome to actions, which means that not doing could be considered a failure. However, failing as we try is often a learning experience, so attempting something is better than not trying at all. If we repeatedly don't do things, it becomes our norm, which is a programmed behaviour embedded by further inaction, and the longer we 'don't do', the harder it can be to change.

But, we can stop the perpetual 'not doing' with some straightforward steps:

  • Action takes energy, of which thoughts and ideas are the earliest form. Nurture that imagination by reading or researching, which might include wandering through an art gallery or watching a documentary. Passive activity is an easy first step, but the amount that the mind can absorb during what is basically a phase of observation and information gathering, can reap huge rewards, as well as boosting our motivation to "do".

  • Next may come talking about a project and/or drafting an outline. Seeing what works cannot always be known straight away, unless we have the benefit of other people's experience, so thrashing out some ideas is a good preparatory exercise. 

  • The whole time, the mind may be considering a timeline for the job, perhaps with milestones and an end date, or something as simple as a ring round a date on a calendar. Deadlines can create pressure, but also set scope and boundaries, which help form structure. It is having realistic goals to work towards that is best for your health.

  • Sleeping on something is another good way to mull things over. Chances are that new ideas will form in the night, as well as solutions to problems that have been holding you back.

  • Building up to something may be a way to ease yourself into a routine, although psyching yourself up might actually increase pressure, which can cause mental blocks, clumsiness and even dread. It depends on the task and how much you accept your own limitations and follow what your intuition is suggesting whether or not you 'just do it' spontaneously or begin tentatively with lots of thinking in the build-up.

  • Normally, getting started is the hardest part of any task being put off. Open those textbooks, set up a workstation, charge up your tools, set up a document or a gym kit ready for the next day - line things up. Ensure that you have adequate knowledge or access to learning (YouTube, books, workshops, video training, mentors, etc.). And avoid boredom, which often causes things to be left unfinished, by introducing novelty and/or including your friends.

The energy in the environment can also prevent you moving forward. Is someone pressuring you or reinforcing the idea that "you can't"? In this case, change the location or circumstances in which you work and who with (find like minded colleagues... your tribe!). And make sure there's the right level of comfort. Change aspects of the task into a reward, or even treat yourself once you've finished (with nice food, a good book, social activity, etc. - have the celebration in mind!).

Further tips:

  • Begin with 30 second jobs, clearing as many tasks as possible before starting on something longer or requiring more concentration. By the same token, see how much you can achieve in the next ten, fifteen, thirty minutes... Go!

  • As soon as an idea pops into your head to do something (which often comes from intuition), don't put it off. Do it now, wherever possible. This way, you won't end up with exceptionally long To Do lists - you won't have any at all.

  • Move between different tasks when you're in the frame of mind for each one. Again, keeping things novel can prevent boredom and task abandonment. The times of day when you work best or need more sedate activities, might influence your schedule. 

  • Keep your work area clean and clear. This reflects the state of mind that you're in (order versus disorder) and can signal messages to the subconscious, such as "you are chaotic, with no attention to detail", "you don't really want to do this or take it seriously", as opposed to "you're ready", "you can focus without distractions".

  • The same with yourself: start fresh, clean and in the right clothing! This will tune the mind to the particular role and required behaviours. The essence of this might be 'fake it till you make it', but this can very much inspire confidence and right-action.

  • Try working with or without different types of music. Mozart, for instance, can be relaxing, and is even said to increase brainpower due to its harmonious frequency. You may find lyrics or radio chatter distracting, although some people experience the opposite effect. The same can be said for all of your senses. Again, the environment you work in and how it affects you is a key part of the work you'll get done.

Writing this article, I had an idea come to mind. I drafted some notes on my phone, writing what automatically streamed in my mind. I then set up a document and copied over my notes, and from this simple draft, I got a sense of a framework from which to build on over a couple of days. The idea soon developed. It was a topic of interest and a brief enough task to keep me motivated, as I saw it right through to the end.

On a final note, it's said that changing what we're doing can release the pressure on the mind that causes it to seize up. We also need adequate space and time to get into our flow and do things right. Essentially, this means that 'not doing' sometimes can be just as important as getting things done. You decide!

(c) Frances McGonigle, 2022

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