The law of inertia tells us a body in motion stays in motion. And the same goes for projects, creative ideas, daily tasks, half-written emails, and that thing you stopped working on to read this article. When you interrupt a task, it can be difficult to pick it up again.
And we are interrupted nearly every three minutes, according to Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine. What’s telling is that roughly half those interruptions are self-imposed.
The result: When you’re working on something without a clear deadline, seeing it through to its end can be a huge challenge.
Think of all those books you couldn’t wait to read, but never actually finished; the projects you giddily started that petered to stagnation; the ideas that never moved into actual conception. Not everything is meant to be finished, but many of us have a boatload of projects, books, emails, and to-dos that have been relegated to a kind of purgatory of incompletion.
Why does this happen? Nearly a quarter of adults around the world are chronic procrastinators, according to research conducted by Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of the book Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.
But when it comes specifically to the matter of finishing what we’ve started, why do we often hit a block? “For chronic procrastination, this is not an issue of time management. You can’t manage time. You manage yourself,” says Ferrari. To better manage yourself, you need to know why it is you’re not completing what you’ve started in the first place. Ferrari attributes this resistance to three specific causes:
1. Fear of failing to impress.
One of the reasons people don’t finish tasks is their fear of being evaluated. “People don’t want to have their ability judged, they’d rather have their effort judged,” says Ferrari. Prolonging completion of a task or project could be one way of avoiding that fear of being harshly evaluated.
2. Fear of setting the bar too high.
Sometimes it’s not failure, but success that makes people clam up and avoid completing a task or project. This goes back to accountability, says Ferrari. Do too good of a job the first time around and you might be setting yourself up with impossible standards for the future. What if you can’t live up to that success?
3. Not wanting to put an end to the fun.
If you’re having a good time working on a project or task, the prospect of finishing can be disappointing. This can lead people to belabor what they’re working on, simply as away of avoiding giving it up.
1. Stop ruminating over the negatives.
Ferrari once worked with a graduate student who claimed creative people aren’t procrastinating so much as taking needed time to complete creative work. “Like yeast, we need time to rise,” said his student. Fair enough. But when embarking on creative work, what are you thinking about when you take the time to focus? Are you ruminating about failures or savoring the good times? “What we found was that they were ruminating about failures,” says Ferrari of his examination of procrastination patterns in creative people. That negativity was what hurt their progress most.
2. Being a perfectionist is no excuse.
Every master procrastinator has figured out a way to justify that delay in finishing. One of the most common is the perfectionist card. Regardless of whether you identify as a perfectionist or not, research shows there is no marked difference in the way others perceive your delay. “You’re not going to get sympathy,” says Ferrari. In other words, calling yourself a perfectionist won’t get you out of the fact that you aren’t getting things done.
3. Working under pressure doesn’t actually produce better results.
It’s not that procrastinators are lazy. More likely they busy themselves doing things other than what they are supposed to be doing. Claiming you work best under pressure–another of the procrastinator’s favorite go-tos–is simply not true, says Ferrari. When put under time restraints to complete a task, he found that subjects claiming to work better under pressure actually produced worse results.
4. Quit getting stuck on the big picture.
Procrastinators who avoid finishing what they’ve started don’t miss the forest for the trees, as the euphemism goes–they miss the trees for the forest. “People who have trouble finishing a project don’t have problems seeing the big picture,” says Ferrari. “It’s how to break it down into manageable tasks that can be paralyzing.” His advice? “Just do something now. Start something and get going.”