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How Procrastination Paralysis Kept Me Trapped—and How to Break the Habit

When I was in my twenties, I was often paralyzed by inaction and procrastination. There were as many unfinished projects as there were stillborn ideas. But that wasn't the worst of it; what was agonizing was the condemnation and shame I heaped on myself! Sound familiar?

Overcoming procrastination isn’t about willpower or forcing yourself to do something. Believe it or not, our autonomy has a lot to do with this pattern. These strategies helped me; perhaps, they can liberate you, too!

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Understanding the Psychology Behind Procrastination

Procrastination is a complex psychological behavior that affects approximately 20 percent of people. At its core, it is the habit of avoiding the unpleasant in favor of immediate comfort or pleasure, a behavior known as temporal discounting.

Let's take a very clear example of temporal discounting or instant gratification.

I was only six when I first discovered this phenomenon.

Our family had massive raspberry bushes that lined our backyard and produced prolific fruit in the summer. Of course, our parents encouraged us to pick them and sell them door-to-door. We were allowed to keep whatever we earned.

Cute, blond, little girl eating raspberries.I loved raspberries!

Very few of them made it to the cardboard pint containers; many more ended up in my young tummy.

In contrast, my older brother, by two years, saved over a hundred dollars from sales.

Hmm... self-control. What a concept!

Not only did money mean very little to me, but the sensorial and yummy experience raspberries provided was far more pleasurable (as you can see above!) And the prospect of selling didn't interest me either.

However, in adulthood, the short-term gain often leads to long-term pain and unhappiness, including stress, guilt, and a sense of inadequacy.

Research suggests that procrastination is a form of self-sabotage where "I don't feel like it" takes precedence over our goals or responsibilities. This habit can create a cycle of negative emotions that deter future effort and progress. Understanding this cycle is the first step toward breaking it.

Research on Procrastination

Allan Blunt and Timothy Pychyl did a study and came up with seven primary triggers for why we procrastinate. You'll probably recognize a few of your favorites:

  • Boring
  • Unpleasant
  • Frustrating (or other negative emotions)
  • Internal motivation lacking
  • Unclear expectations
  • Viewed as difficult
  • A lack of connection to personal meaning

And I would add: lack of adequate skill.

Comparing my experience as a child with raspberry picking, let's look at this list:

  • Boring: yes
  • Unpleasant: felt uncomfortable addressing strangers
  • Negative feelings: conflicted with the desire to play 
  • Internal motivation lacking: plenty of motivation to eat!
  • Unclear expectations: yup, no structure, guidelines, or urgency
  • Difficult: perhaps for a six-year-old
  • Personal meaning: earning money had no personal meaning

Later as an adult, I discovered a similar formula to convert procrastination to action in reversing the negatives to positives.

1) When I did what was important to me or connected the task or action to an outcome I truly wanted, I no longer procrastinated.

2) I developed a way to identify and feel the pleasurable feelings that I would feel once the project or task was completed.

Turns out, these strategies are highly recommended.

Simple Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination

Tip 1 for overcoming procrastination paralysisBuild a Bridge to Your Future Self: The Ultimate Motivation

A powerful strategy to combat procrastination involves connecting with your future self, as I mentioned above, by getting in touch with my pleasurable feelings after a goal is accomplished.

Imagine yourself in the future, having achieved your dream and goals in a lifestyle you would love. You can even journal in great detail about the life you dream of. I imagined myself celebrating the outcome, using all of my senses to make it more real.

Then to add to its effectiveness, ask yourself, "What advice would this wiser, more accomplished version of myself offer?" You can even have a conversation between your accomplished self and your younger self.

Research into temporal discounting shows that forming a detailed and vivid image of your future self can help overcome the desire for immediate comfort, motivating you to take actions that align with your long-term well-being and success.

Related reading: "Why Mind Movies Are the Best Tool to Create the Life You Love!"


Craft Small, Achievable Milestones to Combat Overwhelm

Feeling overwhelmed by a project or task (i.e., selling raspberries) can paralyze you into inaction.

You may already know this trick, but if you break your larger tasks into specific, achievable milestones, it will help silence the overwhelm.

Still not motivated?

Break the project down even smaller, then reward yourself with a hike or healthy snack. Afterward, return to the task.

This strategy not only makes the activity seem more manageable but also provides clear markers of progress that can boost motivation and confidence.

Starting small gradually builds momentum and encouragement. Each small completion begins to dismantle the habit of procrastination. It’s these micro yet consistent actions that lead to significant changes over time.

Related reading: "Procrastination Is Not a Time Management Problem."

Tip 2 for overcoming procrastination paralysis

Creating a Circle of Accountability for Sustainable Progress

Sharing your goals with someone you trust can significantly boost your commitment to overcoming procrastination.

Accountability partners provide the external motivation needed to keep you on track, especially on days when your internal motivation wanes. They can also celebrate your successes with you, reinforcing the positive behavior.

For instance, if you're trying to lose weight and get back in shape, beginning an exercise routine can feel daunting. Invite a good friend so the walk or run becomes more pleasurable, nurtures the friendship, and holds you more accountable.

Tip 3 for overcoming procrastination paralysis

Change Your Inner Dialogue: From Dread to Action

The way you talk to yourself about tasks, especially unpleasant or boring ones, matters! Your inner talk is either negative, positive, or neutral. If you're dreading something, is it less likely or more likely that you'll achieve results?

For most, highly unlikely.

Change your mindset to a positive and encouraging one! Silence that inner critic and quell the guilt of inaction with the small actions that take you closer to your goal.

Be the master of your mind. Use it to help jumpstart action in the following ways:

  • Instead of focusing on how boring or challenging a task is, remind yourself of the benefits of completing it.
  • Change your internal narrative from “I have to” to “I get to.” Our autonomy kicks in whenever we feel we "have to" do anything. You don't have to; you want to.
  • Say to yourself, "I choose to ...." and fill in the blanks. Those words are power words and will substantially shift your attitude.
  • Shift your perspective and make the task feel less like a burden and more like an opportunity.
  • Set a timer and challenge yourself to get as much done as possible in fifteen minutes.

Tip 4 for overcoming procrastination paralysis.

Pair Productivity with Pleasure

Another great strategy for turning dread into action is making the task more fun and enjoyable. The brain lights up for pleasure, and it's a fantastic way to compel yourself into action.

Whether it's listening to your favorite podcast while cleaning or enjoying a special treat while working on a challenging project, this strategy can help reduce the resistance to starting or staying with the task at hand.

Make a boring task fun by sitting outside in the sun or use colored markers and make a mind map to be more creative.

These little techniques are simple and can oil the gears of action.

Sometimes when I'm stuck, all I have to do is go to the dollar store or an art gallery to prime the pump of creativity or motivation.

Try a few of these suggestions and find what works for you!

Tip 5 for overcoming procrastination paralysis.

Scheduling Success: Allocate Time for Unwanted Tasks

Procrastination often thrives in unscheduled time.

By intentionally scheduling time for tasks you would like to avoid, you create a commitment to yourself to get them done. Treat these time blocks as non-negotiable appointments with yourself, and you’ll find it easier to start and complete these tasks.

And yes, sometimes, commitments to ourselves are the hardest to keep, especially if you struggle with procrastination. To outsmart procrastination, tell a friend or your spouse you'll call them after completing the task. Adds a little extra accountability.

Related reading: "How to Stop Procrastination in 4 Easy Steps." 

Closing Thoughts

Procrastination is a habit that can be broken with understanding, strategy, and action. By addressing the psychological roots of procrastination, connecting with your future self, and applying practical strategies to manage and overcome the urge to delay, you can transform procrastination into productivity.

Remember, the goal isn’t just to become more productive or efficient but to create a life that reflects your values, aspirations, and respect for the person you are becoming.

Take that small step today—your future self will thank you.

For personalized support, contact us at Heartmanity!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Brain Fitness, Mindfulness and Perspective, Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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