In the winter of 1830, the French Romantic author Victor Hugo experienced a period of writer’s block. Faced with what seemed like the impossible task of completing his book, he did what many other writers did both before and after him; he invented a method to keep him from escaping his task. For Hugo, this entailed procuring a bottle of ink, and then locking away his clothes before retreating to his study. Left with only a long grey shawl to wear, his temptation to go out was curbed. After several months of work and an entire bottle of ink, he managed to finish the book before the deadline. He jokingly contemplated titling the work What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink. Instead, thankfully, he stuck to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination, or needlessly and voluntarily delaying things that are important to oneself, even when knowing very well that it can get you into trouble, is a common psychological phenomena. The delay is entirely unnecessary and not even rational. Yet it is seemingly free-willed. Haven’t all of us put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Do you remember studying for a test only at the very last minute? Or responding to that dreary email that needed to go out yesterday, tomorrow? It turns out that most of us have a tendency to delay things, although this inclination decreases as we grow older. It turns out that men suffer from this propensity more than women. There is also a very high correlation of procrastination with the need to want to perform perfectly and avoid any errors, the need to impress, or the sheer fear of an outcome being “less than ideal.” In some cases, the reason for delaying a task is just the fact that the task is uninspiring or unremarkable. 

Whatever the reason, procrastination is costly. Choosing to sleep, read, watch television or do just about anything else except the task at hand has been shown to be detrimental to your overall levels of happiness and well-being. Even with this knowledge, however, we still encounter internal resistance, a “me-vs-me” stance. In Marathi, there is a saying: “kaltay, pan valat nahi,” which loosely means that despite the intention, one is still unable to undertake the execution. This gap between intentions and actions can be a real vexation to the spirit. What is worse is there is no magic pill that can fix it.

What then must we do?

Conventional psychology recommends several methods for managing procrastination. They include: goal setting; time management; planning and monitoring; creating a conducive environment to work; and restructuring and disputing irrational thoughts. However, if, like me, you have tried all of these and still failed, what do you do?

  1. Good pain, good gain.

For starters, stop trying to make the process comfortable. Achieving a goal often requires some amount of sacrifice and pain. It is important, however, to distinguish between good and bad pain. Soreness on account of fatigue feels different than soreness on account of sacrificing your form. 

2. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

The path to achieving a goal requires consistency. To get to a point where you are consistent, you invariably go through the suffering of being fickle and fluctuating. When your targets have suffered as a result of your irregularity, you get better and better at being regular. The underlying idea is there is consistency in continuing to get back up after continuously being irregular us better than giving up.  

3. Fear of failure is immobilizing

When your goal in life is preventing losses, you may go to great lengths to avoid being judged. If someone labels you as “bad” or “not doing enough,” or worse if you find yourself slacking, you further “self-down.” Someone who cannot accept anything less than 100% has failed if they achieve even a 99%. When the stakes are so high, it’s easier to postpone “trying.” This is a recipe for lifelong pain and discontent. 

4. Baby steps towards success 

Many management and fitness guru’s will ask you to visualize your larger goal and just work towards it. However, I would suggest you instead make a “just noticeable difference” in your weekly goals. If you find it “easy” to work for 10 straight minutes a day, so be it. Upgrade this to 15 minutes only after 10 minutes has become a fixed-ratio or almost an automatic part of your existence. What you are doing is changing your lifestyle forever, not for a week or a month or a year. Even if making small steps takes you longer to get there, once you arrive, the act seems mechanical, self-regulating, and a far less uphill task. 

Despite this, there will be days when, like Hugo, you experience a slowdown. At such times, you always have the option of going easy on yourself. Remember that the Irish novelist James Joyce, author of Ulysses, insisted that the completion of even 2 perfect sentences every day should be considered a full day of work. And if not, one can always fall back on self-imposed, anti-escaping techniques like the one followed by Victor Hugo! 


  • Radhika Bapat

    A Clinical Psychotherapist

    Radhika Bapat is a Clinical Psychotherapist in India and one of the very few internationally recognized Indian psychologists, practising and residing in India. She has also been awarded the distinguished position as "Young Emerging Psychologist" by the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) a kind of United Nation for 90 national psychology organizations and over 20 regional organizations.