Why We Procrastinate and How to Finally Do What You’ve Been Putting Off

“Low key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity.” ~Robert Maurer

I’m currently working on my doctoral dissertation. It’s something I’ve been working on for many years. It’s something that I deeply believe in and want to complete, but I’m also the mom of two small kids and I run my own business.

Making time for to work on my thesis is low down on my priorities.

And for years I’ve been able to justify it to myself that I don’t work on it as much as I should because I don’t have the time.

That may well have been partly true while my children were younger.

But now as they’re getting a bit older, I realize that my procrastination is also about something else.

It’s about all the stories in my head that make working on this project unpleasant.

It’s about the fear, the self-doubt, the worry about not being good enough, the doubt about whether I’ll ever be able to finish, and the expectation that it’s going to be a really hard and frustrating process.

Because I do have time.

I have time to read and work on other projects that interest me. In fact, I make sure I create the time because I enjoy working on them.

This is something that I’ve only recently realized. Recognizing it has been so empowering.

Because I do want to finish it. I’ve dedicated so much time and energy to it, it would feel really good to complete.

Since recognizing this and recommitting to the project, I’ve been experimenting with an idea that so far has been really helpful, and I’m excited about its potential.

Sneaking Past Fear the Kaizen Way

The idea comes from the Japanese art of Kaizen. In his great book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer describes it as a gentle and elegant strategy to maintain excellence and realize dreams.

He explains how when we try to do big things and make big changes, it triggers our stress response and makes us avoid. So the solution is to make tiny, incremental changes, so imperceptibly small that you don’t activate your stress response.

All kaizen asks is that you take small steps for continual improvement.

As I was reading this I could immediately see where I was going wrong.

Each time I sat down to work on a paper I’m writing I was thinking about how I could make this a brilliant paper that would make the biggest impact and so do justice to the participants of my research.

Wow, the weight of the pressure. No wonder that felt like a big ask and made me avoid it.

The two strategies I have been working with involve asking small questions and thinking small thoughts.

1. Ask small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity.

Big questions, such as “How can I quit my job and find my purpose?” tend to overwhelm us. Small questions help us get around our fear and start making progress, especially when we ask them regularly.

Maurer illustrates this point by asking you to imagine coming to work and having a colleague ask you to remember the color of the car parked next to you. You probably wouldn’t remember. If they asked you the same question the next day you probably also wouldn’t remember. But by the third day, as you arrived at work, you would probably pay attention to the car parked next to you.

Asking yourself tiny questions consistently helps you teach your mind what to pay attention to.

He recommends asking yourself your question a few time throughout the day for a number of days in a row.

I’ve been using this by combining two questions: “If I was guaranteed to succeed, what would I be doing differently?” and “What small step can I take today to move me forward?”

One idea that came to me today was to reach out to a colleague who I know was also working on her PhD while working fulltime. I shared my experience with her and her response: “Ali, I feel like you’re completely describing my experience. Let’s speak more and find out how we can support each other.”

We’re now going to support each other as accountability partners which I can already feel will make a significant difference.

Some other questions you could consider asking yourself daily:

How could I make working toward my goal more fun?

Who can I ask for help today?

What’s the simplest thing I can do with the time I have available?

2. Think small thoughts to develop new skills and habits.

The second strategy involves a kind of mental rehearsal called mind sculpting, which helps you develop new social, mental, and even physical skills just by imagining yourself performing them. Here you identify the task you want to achieve from your questioning process and then begin to imagine yourself doing it.

But instead of seeing yourself on a moving screen, as is the traditional visualization technique, you are advised to feel yourself doing the task and incorporate all your senses.

So I see myself sitting down, feeling my fingers on my keyboard, hearing the sounds of the birds outside, and seeing the screen in front of me.

And the important part—seeing yourself enjoying the process. Because we avoid what we imagine will be unpleasant and painful.

What I’m doing with that is giving myself the next two weeks while my children are on school holidays to spend a few minutes a day imagining myself working on it and enjoying it.

The idea here is that by doing this for a period of time, you start to rewire your association to the task, which makes it easier to then take small actions.

So choose a task that you’re afraid to do or something that makes you uncomfortable and decide how long you’ll practice for each day. Make the time commitment so little that you’re going to do it consistently, as repetition is important. Maurer recommends starting with a few seconds a day!

So what have you been putting off that you would love to accomplish? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

About Alison Breen

Alison Breen is a Performance Coach and Psychologist who helps women entrepreneurs build confidence to achieve success in their businesses and lives. Sign up for her FREE guide to help you overcome procrastination so that you can move forward with your business or other meaningful goals

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  • Dina

    I really enjoyed reading this article. It has some great tips that I will try out to encourage myself to start learning the piano. I have a fear of failing to play adequately. I started and stopped so many times as a young child. Now, 30 years on I still think about playing but have procrastinated. Im going to employ most of these suggestions to try and swing my mindset.

  • Amy

    What a great idea, Alison! I’m going to try this. Hopefully, it will decrease my anxiety by working with small steps rather than attempting the whole job at once.

  • Lisa

    I can really relate to this article. I have a bad habit of making these long lits of things to do, or goals to achieve – then I look at this huge list and just get exhausted and overwhelmed. Fear of failure also plays a big part of my procrastination issue. This article offers some very helpful ideas to slowly get back on track. Thank you for sharing!

  • Charlotte K Younger

    Thank you, Alison! I wish I had known of these techniques whan I was writing my dissertation. I can surely use them now, though, when I procrastinate to avoid exercising, writing, or doing housework.

  • Such a pleasure! And thanks for persevering to leave the comment despite the need for re-editing!

  • Absolutely, I so wish I’d learnt them earlier too! I hope that you find them helpful.

  • I hope so too, let me know how it goes!

  • Oh good, so glad to hear that. Good luck!

  • selvi

    I felt like walking down the memory lane when i read your post Alison! gosh.. i remember going through the same when i was doing my postgrad research dissertation around this time last year. I especially agree with your description on “It’s about all the stories in my head that make working on this project unpleasant”. Im able to do everthing else except write my dissertation.. LoL’x..that statement was smack on my face… 😉 but, the truth is once we’ve come to the realization & get tiny bits done each day, this itself was enough to give me the drive to do more which finally made me to complete my dissertation in time for submission, pass my defence in flying colors & just this April i’ve graduated after almost 4 years struggling with my studies, personal life & not to mention working fulltime. The point is: i totally agree with your post here where ultimately when our heart is joyful in doing something we will always find a way to get it done & the thumb rule: doing little by little daily goes a long way instead of attempting to push a high boulder in one-go! Thanks for the insightful article Alison =)

  • Woohoo well done!! What a huge accomplishment, Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  • Jeff

    Very helpful! I’m a musician and have been sitting on a pile of songs I’m very proud of, and a few others that just need finishing touches. Despite the fact that I’ve put out numerous albums and songs over the years, I’ve been told that what I do is good, and people often want to work with me…I just can’t finish this new album! Within the last year I actually went to therapy for the first time in my adult life and turns out I have OCD. Since that revelation ALL KINDS of things have began to make sense, and I KNOW the disorder factored into why I haven’t finished the album, but I wasn’t sure what exactly to do about it. This article helped a lot! I totally realize it’s fear and self doubt that have been holding me back – basically the what ifs. I like turning that on it’s head though – what if I was guaranteed success? I’d finish those lyrics, record that guitar lead, record those pesky vocals, and mix the tracks within like a month. And the idea of breaking it down into small tasks is one of simple beauty! Tonight I will be changing guitar strings and trying to pin down that nagging guitar lead. Thanks!

  • So glad that helped Jeff! Keep practicing these principles consistently and let me know how you go. Let us know when it’s done! 😉

  • Joel T Newman

    Really great stuff, Alison. It’s funny that you mention career change as an overwhelming task, as that is something that I’m exploring (and struggling with) at the moment. Using your approach, what are small steps that can be used to approach such a big task? How can one make this enjoyable?

  • Jeff

    Will do…in both regards! 🙂

  • 😉

  • sebastianwrites

    Yet again a good article but why do you only work with women entrepreneurs. Not read so many of these articles, but it seems to be a common theme… apparently spirituality is selected for just women, and this is the last thing it is!

    And may I say of course, and rightly women want men to be open and in touch with their feelings, yet again support is offered only to women Alison!

    If men do not feel they have someone to talk to and support about their feelings, is it any wonder so many fall back on their last resort of aggression?

    Equality means “equality” no excuses for any of us!!!

    This did give me some things to thing about.



  • selvi

    It’s my outmost pleasure Alison.. =)