Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Overcoming Procrastination to Boost Well-being With Sherri Fisher
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 418 of Live Happy Now. If you’re a procrastinator, or your life is affected by someone else who is, then this week’s episode is for you.
I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m talking with Sherri Fisher, director of the coaching practice, Learn & Flourish, and a bestselling author, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She’s here today to talk about why we procrastinate, how it affects our wellbeing, and what we can do about it. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:32] PF: Sherri, thank you so much for coming on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:36] SF: I’m excited to be here. It’s very nice to meet you.
[00:00:39] PF: This is a conversation I wanted to have for a few months now because I get your newsletter, which we will tell people how to sign up for it, because it’s a fantastic newsletter. You did a great series on procrastination. So, it’s ironic that it took me so long to get you on the show after you did procrastination. But I wanted to find out, first of all, just set a baseline, how big a problem is procrastination in the world today?
[00:01:05] SF: I don’t have an exact number for you. But most people procrastinate about something sometimes, and people who say that they procrastinate chronically. College students, for example, 90% of them, that’s the number I have for you. They say that they procrastinate chronically, and when it comes to assignments. But adults in general will make wish lists of things that they’re going to do, that they just don’t ever get to checking off the little boxes for. If you look at the things that those people avoid doing, it’s a lot of consistent things that they don’t do.
Procrastination is a big problem. It costs businesses, for example, lots of money, because productivity is reduced for people. But it also eats away at our wellbeing. When you don’t keep up with things, those things pile up, people feel badly about those things, and you’re also not learning how to overcome them in ways that help you build habits, and to learn even small amounts of self-regulation, and to manage yourself emotionally. Underneath it all, that’s really what’s driving procrastination is how you feel about things.
[00:02:08] PF: I thought it was interesting because I’ve looked at procrastination through a time management lens and things like that. I honestly had never thought about how it affects our wellbeing. You of course having your Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology and coming at everything through that lens, are looking at it, and what is the psychology that drives procrastination and how bad? You said it affects our wellbeing, how badly does it affect us?
[00:02:37] SF: Sometimes there are people who procrastinate, and they’ve kind of gotten into whatever their procrastination rhythm is. It’s like cramming for a test when you’re in school, and you get to the very close to the last minute, and then you stay up all night. You think, “Oh, I got it done.” That sense of accomplishment can make you feel like you’re very successful. But it might have cost you sleep. It might have meant that you ate junky food. It might have meant that you didn’t get to go to a social event that you really wanted to go to. It might have meant that you didn’t do something with your family that you would have done if you’d planned better.
What happens is it’s not like a one to one correspondence. It’s the spillover effect that procrastination has on all the other things that you didn’t do, that you perhaps could have done when you still had choices that you could make.
[00:03:26] PF: Now, will the naysayer reply that, “Well, look at all the fun stuff I got to do before then, when I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
[00:03:37] SF: Well guess what, people don’t feel good about those things, really. In the moment, most people who are procrastinating are not doing happy things that they want. They are basically spinning around in place, not doing any of the things that they might. I guess, we call them time wasters. They’re not being productive in other ways, either.
There are people who avoid, they go out to a party or something. Those are not the chronic procrastinators, who we’re really talking about. Those are people who are, socially, they’re in a place their lives where they – FOMO. They don’t want to miss out on something. But generally speaking, a chronic procrastinator is not having that as their motivation. They’re not doing things because they find the thing distasteful in some way. Not the thing itself, maybe, because maybe it makes them feel badly about themselves. “I’m not good at this. It reminds me that I didn’t go to graduate school for such and such. Therefore, I’m not ever going to be the person who my family wants me to be.” It can be a lot of things.
When I coach somebody, I have to help them to peel away enough of the layers of things that might be motivating them to get them to recognize that they are emotionally stuck sometimes. It’s not that they don’t know how to manage their time.
[00:04:51] PF: That’s interesting. Yes, because I used to work with a time management client and he viewed procrastination purely as a time management issue. But you’re saying it’s more than that.
[00:05:01] SF: Oh, absolutely, it’s more than that. One of the first things I talk about is what I call the probably problem. Every person who I work with who procrastinates tells me, they will probably do something, 100% of the time. If I talk to them, if they can put it on a planner, they can have notifications in 15 different places, it doesn’t matter how well they plan their time. It matters how aware they are of the underlying things that are making them feel like they don’t want to do something. That’s important. It’s also important, what level of commitment they have. They’re saying they’ll probably do something. It’s like a cue that says, probably, but maybe not.
The other thing is that if you’re not making a commitment to follow through, then we need to work on that part. Maybe we need to build in implementation intentions, for example. Maybe we need to figure out what are the things that you’re avoiding, and what would be solutions that if you’re faced with whatever the barrier thought is, if this comes up, then I will do such and such, whatever that other thing is might be. If I need to put this in my calendar, and I need to start it on time, and the barrier thought is like, “Oh, I do this.” Then, I will – I have people, they text me. I’m having a moment, and then I can talk them through things. But usually, it doesn’t take very long before they don’t want to tell me that they’re having a moment and they just do it. The next time we meet, they say, “I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t want to bug you.”
A lot of times, there are different ways of putting if then in place. But the idea is that you’re teaching yourself to self-regulate. You’re recognizing that a barrier exists. If that barrier shows up, then you’re going to do a particular thing and it automatizes the things that keep you from pushing past probably, otherwise. Push past probably.
[00:06:59] PF: Let’s talk for a minute about what kind of problems procrastination can create, because you see a lot of different effects that it has. Can we talk first about work, and then I want to talk about how it affects us at home.
[00:07:12] SF: Okay. At work, the worst-case scenario would be that you don’t get your work done, and you are let go. But it also creates for the person who is the chronic procrastinator social difficulty. So much of work requires being on a team. You are part of a greater than yourself amount of work. If you don’t show up on time, somebody else might have to pick up the slack for you. Maybe a project can’t go out at all on time, and the entire team gets dinged for that.
That would be the biggest thing is the social impact, and the person who is a procrastinator, that chronic procrastinator doesn’t have the trust of their colleagues anymore if this happens over and over again. That makes the person who is the procrastinator feel disconnected from their work, and sometimes someone will get referred to me, they blame everybody else for their lack of something. Those people don’t have enough patience. They’re unrealistic. They don’t know how hard my life is or things like that. They’re not able to empathize with what it’s like to be the person who is getting the job done. Because the chronic procrastinator may have been doing this forever, until they ended up in a situation where there was no longer enough structure to help them to be able to get things done. They’re on their own, then they don’t have all of their good if then is in place. They may struggle a lot. That’s the biggest impact at work.
[00:08:32] PF: Wow. Then, when they take those habits home, what kind of effects does it have at home, when we just keep putting things off?
[00:08:42] SF: Well, if you are in a couple’s relationship, the things that you put off at work might make you feel like you’re exhausted, maybe you’ve been trying to get things done, whatever that may mean, but not being successful, and you get home and you’re exhausted and you have no more executive function skills left. The first three are, stop what you’re doing now, switch to the thing you’re supposed to be doing and start doing it. But those are so difficult.
Say that you’re a person, like a lot of people who I will see have learning attention or executive function challenges across the board. But when there’s the right kind of structure in place, or the right self-knowledge plus structure, a lot of the difficulties are really dealt with very well. But when you don’t have those things, you struggle. Home is a place that doesn’t have much structure unless you can impose it yourself. If you live with someone who is really good at putting structure in place, and you as the person who needs that structure, recognize that about yourself. That’s great. Very helpful. But what if you’re the person who says, “I don’t want that. I don’t want that. But if you push back a lot, I don’t need that.” That’s when things start to get difficult because the person who would benefit from the help and the person who is naturally more structured start to grow apart. They don’t understand what the other person needs anymore. It’s difficult to have empathy if you think the other person is just being a pain.
[00:10:07] PF: Yes, at work, at least there are oftentimes systems in place to correct that behavior, give warnings, things like that. That doesn’t necessarily happen at home. Basically, it’s a fight, and then there isn’t a resolution. How do you deal with that in a home setting?
[00:10:23] SF: Well, there are a bunch of different things that happen in a home setting. Sometimes people end up going to couples counseling, or they end up getting divorced, because if they’re married, they just can’t figure it out. But there are things to do before you ever get there that have to do with understanding what other people’s tolerance for certain things is. For instance, the messy tolerance. For a chronic procrastinator, they’re also often not very well organized in lots of other ways.
So, recognizing that you, the messy person, would actually benefit from having a structure in place. Putting like things together. Having labeled buckets. Yes, we did that in first and second and third grade and it was great, because you knew where to put things away, and not looking at that and say, “Well, I’m not a baby.” A lot of the defensiveness that the procrastinator has, is a really good place to start. If you’re the procrastinator, you want to recognize when you’re being defensive. And if you’re the person who’s not the procrastinator, to not say things that are going to make the person who is frustrating you so much, not going to make him want to push back.
I just told you what not to do. What to do, is to recognize when things are going well. For instance, if you have something that’s labeled, and the person puts it in the right place, you say, “Thanks for putting that away.” Very little things. Just notice what’s –
[00:11:39] PF: I like that.
[00:11:41] SF: If you’re the organized person, go ahead and be organized. Then, you’re going to bring the person along with you a little bit at a time.
Another thing you can do, this is my favorite thing to do, no matter what it is, is to set a timer. You figure out what your optimal time is. I just pick 10 minutes, because it’s a good amount and it’s not so long that most people can’t pay attention for that long. But even with that, I work with a high school student who never gets their work done, I might even set the timer for five minutes. Because you want the person to have the idea that they’re not going to have to do the heinous thing forever. They only have to do the heinous thing for a short amount of time. But you also want them to have the lived experience of success.
When they do it, you don’t want to look and say, “That’s all you got done?” You want to say, “That was great. Next time, 10 minutes.” You do 10 minutes for a while until you can say to the other person, “Let’s do 15 minutes.” Or ask them, “How long should I set the timer for?” I usually just ask them, “How many minutes do you want?” This week I had someone say, “I want 13 minutes. I like lucky 13. Let’s do this.”
[00:12:42] PF: That’s specific. That’s so great, because that seems, it would work with couples, it would work in parent-child relationships. It seems like there’s so many ways that that can be leveraged to make that work without conflict.
[00:12:57] SF: Right. Because then you’re not asking someone to budget a huge amount of time that they then need to organize. The thing with time management is if you say someone is going to have to work for two hours when they get home from work, that person is going to not get much done then and they’ll be angry. So, they’ll have to be self-regulating their anger and maybe their tiredness, and maybe they’re hungry. There could be a lot of other things that are competing for attention at that point. That’s why time management doesn’t work so well. But if you divide time into emotionally, micro manageable parts, then you’re heading in the right direction.
[00:13:34] PF: When do we know that it’s a time management problem and we’re overburdened versus we’re just procrastinating? It’s easy to say, “Well, I just have too much to do.” How do we define and determine which it really is?
[00:13:48] SF: You know what’s interesting, I have a big to-do list right now sitting next to me here. It has, oh, I don’t know, 15 things on it. This morning, my plan yesterday, because I took that to-do list, I stuck it right on top of the lid of my computer. My plan today was to just bang out all those things. Then, I had several interruptions that were work related interruptions and I did not get to that list. The list is still sitting here. These are things that must get done. Eventually, they will get done. But you can have the best lead time management plans, and then something will interrupt.
What do you do when that happens? Is, I think, a question that people also ask. You can also use your timer for that. I can just say I will do as many things as possible that I can get done in the next 10 minutes and you just bang through them for 10 minutes. Then, I put the list aside and I’ll get back to more things later when I have 10 minutes free. Because usually you will have little bursts of time, those bursts of time effective for you is much more valuable than trying to figure out how to become more efficient.
[00:14:50] PF: I like that, because a lot of times, I think, when we just have a burst of time, it’s like, “I’ve got 10 minutes. I can’t really do anything.” So, we hit social media or we scroll through our phone. We waste the time almost intentionally, giving ourselves the excuse that I don’t really have enough time to get things done.
[00:15:08] SF: Right. But if you have 10 minutes and a list, you just get started. Another good approach is to leave the thing that is on your computer screen. The last thing before you put the lid down, to have that be the thing that is your priority, so you don’t have to go looking for what to do. That’s the way to go down the procrastination rabbit hole really fast.
[00:15:28] PF: Oh, yes. I like that. That’s a great tip.
[00:15:31] SF: Because it’s right there in front of you. But the other thing, even better than that is to, especially if you’re in a document where you can make comments. Go ahead and write for yourself what you’re going to start with. On mine, I will write down “Start here”, and then I wrote myself what I’m going to do. Or it’s just highlighted, and it says, “Start here”. If I have an idea, before I decide I’m done for the day, I might write that idea down. I’ll comment on a document. I write among other things that I do besides work with people. If I lose an idea, that’s not a good thing. I have loads of them. I never run out of ideas. But sometimes you have a really great one.
If I plan ahead, my implementation intention is, if I have an idea, then I will record it. Finding where to record your ideas, where to record your items for your to-do list, and having it be automatized for you, so you automatically do the same thing, you’re much less likely to get off track, and getting off track is the way you procrastinate.
[00:16:29] PF: Is procrastination an innate behavior? Or is it something we learn along the way? Where does it even come from?
[00:16:36] SF: Well, I think that I’m going to say yes and yes to that kind of a question. Is it innate? I had two kids, they were very different in some ways, and not so different from each other in other ways. Sometimes you have kids and you look at them, and you think, “Oh, how could two such different people ever have come into the world?” Plus, I’ve worked with thousands and thousands of people. Do I think that they came into the world as procrastinators? I’m going to say people come in to the world with varying degrees of executive function skill, and that you probably have, I don’t know, a tendency to be less self-regulated or more self-regulated, and that you can learn to be more self-regulated.
Another thing is, do people have a process that works for them? Lots of times they haven’t learned to process without that process. They just get lost. Is that because they are innately procrastinators? Maybe not. Maybe they just didn’t get taught a way to do things in a more systematic way. Another one is that the procrastination problem across all contexts, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it only happens in one place. So, we have to look at that.
Do they do everything except for like the last step of taking action? In which case we got a little, like, get them just over the edge? In which case, they probably are chronic procrastinators and that’s their stuck point is right there. Those are kind of my four things. I call it the SPCA, it’s what I just told you about. Structure, process, context, actions.
[00:18:08] PF: That’s great. You also are very big on self-care. I think what’s so interesting for me is you different from a traditional business coach, because you have that positive psychology angle coming into it. You implement so many techniques and practices that you’re not going to find in a traditional business structure. Talk about self-care, and how you see that being used as part of overcoming procrastination.
[00:18:34] SF: Well, I have something I call mindfulness interval training. People will say, “Do I have to know how to meditate do that?” Because some people are just like, “I can’t do it. I can’t sit still”. No, no, it’s not about that. Mindfulness interval training is if you have interval training you’re doing for exercise, you’re going to take something and you’re going to do it for a very short amount of time, intensively. When I say a short amount of time, I’m talking about a minute, right? When you don’t want to do something, and you’re like, “No, I don’t want to”, and you calm yourself down. That’s the first step.
In a minute, there are ways to do this, so I have a list of these that you can download on my website. But you might rub your palms together, and then just put them over your eyes and just slowly inhale and exhale, inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Another way of doing that is to do like five-finger breathing. You close your eyes, if you’re comfortable doing that, you use one finger, and you trace on the other hand, opposite hand. It doesn’t matter which hand you use as your tracing finger. Use your index finger and trace up your thumb as you inhale through your nose and then exhale through your mouth going down. Then, you would do the same thing up the next finger and you’re going to inhale, tracing up your index finger, inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. You can do that for all five fingers.
When you get done. That won’t even take a minute and you will be so much calmer just from that tiny little thing that you do. That’s an interval. It’s something that mindful. Then, if you still want more, you can do something that’s energizing. You can take an energy break. You could run in place for a minute. Or you could do arms over the head exercise for a minute, and then just stop. Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. You can do mindful eating, some small thing, no raisins, cranberries, something very small, and just mindfully chew. You can take tiny sips of cool water, no ice. Just tiny sips of cool water for a minute. Take a whole minute to drink a glass of water. Tiny little sips. You can also do some other type of mindful breathing at the end. But you could spend five minutes and you will be the most relaxed you’ve ever been before starting something and you’ll be in a much better headspace when you do that.
[00:20:51] PF: You have a lot to teach us. You have so many things that we can learn about your techniques for taking care of ourselves, learn how to build our habits better. I’m going to tell the listeners how they can find your website, sign up for your newsletter, learn more about what you’re doing. But what is the one thing that you really hope everybody who’s listened to our conversation today takes away from it?
[00:21:12] SF: If you don’t want to be a procrastinator, you don’t need to be a procrastinator. There are very pleasant, doable things to help you get things done that you would like to get done, and the things that you need to get done.
[00:21:25] PF: Sherri, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. I appreciate you taking time with me today.
[00:21:28] SF: It was great and fun. I love talking about things that I love to do and you ask the best questions.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:21:37] PF: That was Sherri Fisher talking about procrastination. If you’d like to learn more about Sherri, follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter or download some of her free resources. Just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
While you’re there, be sure and stop by the Live Happy Store to take advantage of our spring special where you can get 25% off everything in the store, just by entering the code Spring 25. I recommend you check out our cheerful, choose happy tote bag which is the perfect springtime accessory.
That is all we have time for today. Well meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.