Diagnosing (& treating) procrastination

Diagnosing (& treating) procrastination

Welcome back to the Effortless Action Newsletter! Every Wednesday, I share findings from across a range of disciplines to better understand “What gets us to take action?”

This week, let’s dive into procrastination. But first, let’s talk a little bit about being a good doctor.

What makes a good treatment?

Imagine you catch some sort of sickness. You have a migraine and you haven’t been able to keep food down. You decide it’s time to see a doctor to figure out what’s wrong, and you start to reflect on the WebMD test that told you you’re going to die.

You greet the doctor as she prances in and takes a seat. In your head, you start to organize all of your symptoms to explain what’s wrong. But before you can utter a word, she pulls out her notepad and starts scribbling, “We’ll get you a few different medications, try them out and see what works!”

She tosses you the stack of prescription slips and leaves the room, smiling and waving goodbye.

Sitting there, dumbfounded, you stare at the slips uneasily, as you never told her a single one of your symptoms.

Crazy, right?

Coming back to reality, there’s a phrase in the world of medicine: “Good treatment precedes good diagnosis.” Simply put, you can’t accurately treat a patient if you don’t know what’s truly wrong with them.

We do the same thing with our productivity. There’s an endless barrage of “10 Hacks to Get Your Lazy Ass Working!!” and “My 12 Step Process to CURE Procrastination!!” articles across the internet. That shotgun approach doesn’t work for me.

There’s a part of the equation that we’re missing.

Instead of barraging your mind with all of the things you “should” be doing, we need to put a finer pin into what the actual  cause  of our inaction is. That way, we can accurately create a strategy to overcome it.

TLDR; If you can better diagnose your procrastination, you can better treat it.

Let’s take a look into the 3 of the most common types of procrastination, and how we can overcome each.

Idealistic Procrastination (A.K.A Perfectionism)

This first type of procrastination is the simplest of the three, mainly because there’s so much rhetoric about it out there. We’re talking perfectionism.

Also known as idealistic procrastination, this is where our brain creates a fantasy around the perfect outcome of what we need to do or create. This expectation of perfection can keep us from taking action, as no matter who you are, that lens of perfectionism is impossible to achieve. Perfectionism can especially stem when our vision for something far exceeds our ability or the time we have.


Moving forward starts with acknowledgment and reflection. Understand that you’re chasing a fantasy, and sit with the fact that you probably won’t be able to perform at that level. It’ll be uncomfortable, but take some time in those feelings.

Now it’s time to set a lower goal. Process goals can be particularly helpful here.

Example: Before I started this newsletter, I was concerned with publishing “high quality” content. I realized that I wasn’t really capable of producing the level of quality I had set in my mind, so I had to let go of that expectation for myself. Instead, I focused on my research throughout the week, and publishing one every Wednesday.

That’s what get’s me to write. I can publish something every week, but to publish something of “high quality” each week isn’t within my current abilities.

Operational Procrastination

There was another issue I was facing when starting this newsletter. I didn’t really know what “high quality” meant. This, my friends, is called operational procrastination.

Operational procrastination is caused by your brain’s difficulty in engaging in unclear tasks. When tasks are abstract, or you don’t know exactly what the next step is, it’s hard to get started.


To help with operational procrastination, you need to chunk up the problem into as many bite-size pieces as possible. Get as granular as possible, even breaking it down into “open laptop, open chrome, search Google for…”

The more clarity you have on the exact steps you need to take, the better. Don’t assume that your brain can just do it, actually write it down.

Imagine that this is a project or task that you want to outsource to someone who has no idea how to do anything. Make the directions as clear and thorough as you can.

If you’re stuck, another option here is to start with the end in mind. What does the finished product look like? What was the last step you needed to take to create it? What was the step before that? Again, write it down.

Consequence & Avoidance Procrastination

Finally, we tackle consequence, or avoidance procrastination. This is the one that the gurus talk about when they say “procrastination is just fear in disguise” or that you’re “afraid of success.”

Avoidance procrastination is based on emotions. For example, being afraid of the outcome. The brain doesn’t like feeling bad, so it goes through a protective mechanism to avoid it.

Think going to the dentist, getting in a cold shower, or anything that evokes negative emotions for you.

This is also the case when an action is at odds with our identity. If we hold the identity that we’re lazy, getting up and exercising will be a direct conflict with our sense of self, which is another negative emotion our brains will try to avoid.


Most people attempt to fight these emotions with rationalizations.  “It won’t be that bad!” “It’s only a little needle!”  As much as we want to fight feelings with “facts,” it won’t work.

Instead, focus on negotiating with the feeling part of your brain. Recognize the emotion or consequence that you’re trying to avoid.

Then think, “how would someone in that situation feel?” When you can place yourself in the shoes of someone that’s gone through it and is on the other side, the part of your brain that processes emotions can better understand it.

How to implement these strategies

Implementing these strategies first starts with a realization that you are in fact procrastinating. When you realize this, take a moment and see if you can figure out what type it is. Are you struggling with perfectionism, an abstract problem, or emotions?

From there, take a moment to process through the solutions in this post, or even write the highlights on a sticky note you can quickly reference.

Here are a few more tips:

Pause and remove distractions

In the moment, it can be difficult to break out of the procrastination trance when you’re stuck in scrolling, gaming, or whatever avoidance tactic you’re using. If you find yourself there, use whatever thoughtless reaction (a la 5-second rule from Mel Robbins) you can to remove distractions and give yourself time to think. During this time you can reflect on the tasks you’re procrastinating, and start to analyze why.

Using procrastination for good

If you’ve spent any time in the world of self help, you’ve probably heard Parkinson’s Law come up. For the uninitiated, this is an adage that work expands to the time it’s given.

This is the theory behind how time blocking works. We have defined time set aside for each task. By giving ourselves smaller chunks of time to work with, the work can’t expand as much.

Example: Right now, I wrote the majority of this post in the few hours it needs to be sent out. I spent the rest of the week researching and thinking of ideas, instead of focusing my willpower on trying to write this throughout the week. That way, my writing session will be a lot more efficient.

A little bit of eustress can help bring about efficiency, and leave you more time to do the things you enjoy.

Productive procrastination

Productive procrastination is a controversial topic. Many say that productive procrastination is still procrastination, and that you need to put in the  real  work or nothing else. Personally, I find that it can be an effective tool.

For instance, when I was doing daily blogging, there were a few instances where I found it effective to go into the back end of my site, tweak a couple of settings or the design for a few minutes, then I would get to writing my post. I think if used sparingly, doing something fun (but relevant) at the start of a work session can help get you into the right environment and mindset.

Thanks for reading!

Hey you. Thanks for reading to the bottom!

If you enjoyed this, there’s much more to come. I’d love to hear your feedback, either through a comment on Substack, or you can simply reply to this email.

I hope you have a wonderful day, and as always, I’ll work on creating a catchy phrase to end this newsletter with.

(Eh, maybe tomorrow.)