One piece of advice I often see given to procrastinators is to “just do it”.
I know the people giving this advice mean well (most of the time), but to tell someone who is struggling with procrastination to “just do it” is not only not helpful, but can actually make the problem worse.
Here is why.
It’s not helpful since “not doing it” is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself
Procrastination looks like “not being able to do what you want to do”.
But you have to ask: “why can’t someone do what they want to do?”
Not being able to do things is ultimately the symptom of an underlying problem (usually multiple related issues).
Telling a procrastinator to “just do it’ is like telling a depressed person to “just be happy”.
As with depression there are various underlying factors that cause procrastination.
The key is to figure out what these factors are (they vary from person to person) and then to work on resolving the underlying problems step by step.
It makes the procrastinator feel not understood
A big reason why people give this advice is because ultimately procrastination is something we are all familiar with.
Everyone knows the feeling of resistance to doing something. We all have moments where there is a task we need to do but we just don’t feel like doing it.
But not everyone is a chronic procrastinator.
Procrastination lies on a spectrum and for about 20% of the adult population procrastination is a chronic issue that seriously impacts their life in a negative way.
Chronic procrastination is a different beast and has underlying causes that often go much deeper.
People who are looking for advice in forums and online communities are usually struggling with chronic procrastination. The people telling them to “just do it” are not.
So the advice-giver often feels like they can relate to the struggle and shares a simplified version of what helps them when they are procrastinating: giving yourself a little pep talk to just go ahead and do the thing.
For the chronic procrastinator things are not that simple. And advice like this can feel frustrating and like no one understands their struggle. This feeds into the self-esteem and hopelessness issue that is discussed below.
It makes the procrastinator feel like their struggle isn’t legitimate
The advice of “just do it” makes it seem like “doing it” is easy. But “doing it” is precisely what feels anything but easy to the procrastinator. It is an insurmountable hurdle.
And when the solution to a problem is seemingly simple, the problem can’t really be that bad in the first place.
So it feels like a delegitimization of the entire struggle.
This can increase suffering tremendously.
Suffering is hard enough, but suffering from something that most people feel like isn’t a serious issue makes it much worse.
Fact is, procrastination is a very real and serious issue for many people. Even when it is just a small nuisance or occasional trouble for others.
And overcoming procrastination is for many anything but simple and easy.
It lowers the self-esteem of the procrastinator
Chronic procrastination can absolutely wreck your self-esteem. And sadly low self-esteem is a big factor in causing procrastination to begin with. This is a positive feedback loop that keeps many procrastinators stuck.
Generally, anything that builds self-esteem is helpful in overcoming procrastination. And anything that depletes self-esteem tends to make procrastination worse.
Telling a procrastinator to “just do it” often makes them feel defective, lowering their self-esteem even more.
It makes them feel that while it is normal to not want to do things, “normal” people can just get over it and “do it” despite not feeling like it.
Usually they come to the conclusion that they can’t “just do it” while everyone else seems to be able to do so, which means that there must be something really wrong with them on a fundamental level.
It makes the procrastinator feel hopeless
The procrastinator often feels very helpless with their procrastination problem.
It’s a surprisingly complex problem without one straightforward way of fixing it that applies to everyone.
Understandably, the procrastinator is desperate for a solution: a piece of advice, a method, a book or at least some new insight on the issue that will offer some relief.
If the only advice offered is to do exactly what they struggle to do and don’t know how to do (just doing the thing!) it can feel like there is no solution!
“Just do it” suggests that there is nothing to try or to do other than to just do what you can’t.
This can create a feeling of hopelessness that plunges the procrastinator even deeper into their procrastination. How can you improve something when you don’t think it is even possible?
Hopelessness is also felt as a very negative emotion and any negative emotions tend to increase procrastination behaviors.
What to tell the procrastinator instead
If you want to help someone with procrastination it is important to first understand what causes it and recognize that it can be a very serious issue that causes a lot of suffering.
If “just do it” feels like helpful advice to you, understand that you might not have that serious of a procrastination problem and can’t fully relate to someone who does.
The procrastinator really wants to be able to do things, but feels completely unable to. If it was easy for them, they would “just do it”.
Keep in mind that the procrastinator desperately wants to change and their issue has nothing to do with laziness or lack of trying.
Procrastination is a very common issue and everyone can potentially fall into a chronic procrastination pattern.
Procrastination also doesn’t say anything about someone’s intelligence, capabilities, or worth as a person.
The good news is that chronic procrastination can be overcome. Our brain remains capable of changing patterns and learning/unlearning habits until we die. It is never too late to work on a procrastination habit, no matter how bad things get.
You don’t need to have all the answers, but making the person feel understood, accepted, and that there is hope is always a good thing.
If you have struggled with procrastination and found things that helped you, you can always share. But just because something worked for you doesn’t mean it will work for others. Everyone is different and everyone’s procrastination is different too.
Also published on Medium.