We are all guilty of procrastination at one time or another. The behavior of repeatedly putting off doing something now and instead planning to do it in the future. There are plenty of reasons to justify why we procrastinate – fear of failure, instant gratification, perfectionism – but whatever the reason, the result is the same. Something that needs to get done doesn’t.
For many of us, our procrastination tendencies become most visible in college. Prior to that, our parents tend to keep us from getting too deep into a procrastination rut. And when we’re working in our job, the fear of getting fired is pretty overpowering and again keeps us from getting too far behind.
But college is a time when we are really only accountable to ourselves. Our professors don’t care if we turn in the work or not. Our parents are too far removed to know (until it’s too late). It’s at that time when we start realizing that we need to rely on ourselves if we’re going to be successful.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Do you procrastinate on things that are easy? Probably not. Why? Because with things that are easy, we generally know how they will turn out. Conversely, with things that are challenging, we don’t know how they will turn out. We may not even know where to start. And because of that uncertainty, we tend to freeze up.
But don’t confuse procrastination with laziness. It is an easy excuse to say the reason I procrastinate is because I am lazy. You may in fact be lazy. But that’s not the only reason why you procrastinate. As an example, look at writing a college paper. It’s not that you aren’t willing to try and come up with ideas or even that you can’t come up with ideas, sometimes it’s that you don’t like any of the ideas that you do come up with.
So you put it off. You try putting it out of your mind. But that never works well. It’s still there lingering, waiting for you to deal with it.
And the behavior gets reinforced when time after time you procrastinate until the last possible moment. And then once you hit the point of no return, you suddenly have complete clarity. The great ideas just start flowing.
Now you start convincing yourself that you think and work better under pressure. As you know, continuous pressure creates diamonds out of coal. Therefore, it stands to reason that creating continuous pressure on yourself will allow you to produce diamond quality work. By putting off the project until the last possible moment, you will be creating the highest quality work.
But we all know this isn’t true. If you run any machine at full capacity, eventually it will wear down and break. Things happen at the last moment that can derail you. There has to be a better approach.
Effects of Procrastination in Money Management
Nowhere do the effects of procrastination have greater impact than in money management. We all know that by investing early in life not only do you benefit by spending less, your savings grows exponentially through the power of compounding. Failing to get started investing early can be devastating to your financial independence and retirement plans.
Another money management area that hurts procrastinators is failing to start putting money into your 401(k) as early as possible. Many organizations provide a company match for 401(k) contributions. By contributing to your 401(k) plan not only are you starting to invest, you receive a deferred tax benefit on the contribution, and you earn additional money through the company match. It’s hard to understand why you wouldn’t take advantage of this.
Steps to Reduce Procrastination
Do something small to get started. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Nothing will happen unless you get started. By doing something small, you get the ball rolling and overcome that initial hurdle. I refer to this as behavioral activation. Once you start, the next steps become easier.
Don’t worry about quality in the beginning. The important part is that you get started. Even if the quality isn’t what you want, if you get started early, you can go back and improve the quality later. This is where the desire for perfect can derail your best efforts to get started. Don’t strive for perfect. Don’t even strive for good. Just strive for something.
Don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked on other projects. We all have long to-do lists. And there are plenty of other things not even on our lists that call for our attention. Be aware of what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time. Avoid the pull of instant gratification from another less important activity. And don’t convince yourself that the other activity is more deserving of your time.
Commit to interim delivery dates. If you’ve been procrastinating for a while, it may be difficult to force yourself to operate without the pressure of a due date. Rather than fighting that feeling, create an arbitrary interim delivery date to simulate the feeling of desperation that you get when running up against a real deadline.
Automate. Procrastination is a behavior. And as we know, modifying an instantly gratifying behavior with a delayed gratification behavior is difficult. If possible, seek out ways to make the adjustment easier. Automatic withdrawals and transfers is a common money management strategy for increasing savings. If automation doesn’t apply, try changing your pattern. For example, if you’re trying to write a paper, or a book, or a blog, prevent yourself from checking your email until you write for 30 minutes every morning.
Above all, be accountable to yourself. This is the most important thing. It may take time if you have relied on others for a long time, but learning to hold yourself accountable rather than requiring a third-party will be beneficial in all aspects of your life.
Readers, do you struggle with procrastination or have you in the past? What strategies do you use to combat?
I agree with your suggested steps to avoid procrastination, FS. The one that has been most beneficial to me is setting interim delivery dates. Even the most monumental tasks become easier when they are broken down.View Comment
Financial Slacker says
They do. As a long-time procrastinator, setting hard interim deadlines really does help get me through.View Comment
ZJ Thorne says
A motto that was popular at my perfectionist college was “Done is better than good” because we would all overthink ourselves into paralysis. So true in financial planning. Making no choice is also a choice and it has very bad consequences.View Comment
Financial Slacker says
I too suffer from analysis paralysis. Always have.
Growing up, my dad was my football coach and he used to say, “On the field, do something, do anything. Even if it’s wrong, it’s better than doing nothing.”View Comment
I really like your clear and concise explanation of procrastination and the analogies you have used. You are right, there is definitely a distinction between procrastination and laziness and we do tend to procrastinate on things we find challenging or boring.View Comment
In dealing with procrastination, I definitely have to work on not letting other side projects derail my focus. Not in terms of money management, but mostly in other areas of my life for sure.
Financial Slacker says
That distinction between procrastination and laziness is very important. At least you don’t let procrastination impact your money management.View Comment