Why we procrastinate on the tiniest of tasks
It could be a quick email to a colleague you dislike. Perhaps it’s some menial paperwork; a small tweak to a spreadsheet or an invoice that has to be filed. It could even be a short phone call to your boss – something that will only take a minute and yet, somehow, for some reason, you keep on putting it off.
If it only takes five minutes, you end up asking yourself, then why on earth haven’t you done it? You waste time thinking about how annoying it is; unsurprisingly, that does not make it go away. Instead, the task lingers, ballooning from a tiny checklist item into an ongoing irritant completely out of proportion with the resources needed to actually polish it off.
Tiny tasks have a way of taking up an abnormally large amount of space in our minds. Yet, there are simple ways we can bring them back down to size, something that begins with understanding how exactly we allow them to loom so large. Then, by reframing our approach to the tasks, switching our emotional response and practicing some self-compassion we can work towards conquering the small to-do list items that trip us up.
Why tiny tasks become big monsters
At its core, procrastination involves the voluntary delay of an intended task, despite expecting to be worse off for doing so, explains Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in England. “You get all kinds of people saying [procrastination is] good for this or good for that, but embedded within the definition is that no form of procrastination is ever good for you.”
People who chronically procrastinate tend to have higher levels of stress, poor sleep patterns and worse job prospects, particularly when it comes to advancing into roles where autonomy and decision making are required. On the mental health front, procrastination is also linked to depression and anxiety. It can similarly undermine relationships, because when we procrastinate, we end up breaking commitments with others.
It’s easy to understand why we procrastinate on big tasks; they can be daunting or mentally draining and require loads of time, energy and commitment. On the other hand, small tasks can lead to a particularly pesky form of procrastination. Sirois says we don’t procrastinate on them because they slip our mind; rather, we make a conscious and intentional choice to put off something that might arouse doubt, insecurity, fear or feelings of incompetence.
This could be something as simple as filing unfamiliar paperwork or changing an ink cartridge when you don’t know how to, or something a bit more loaded, such as writing a short email to a colleague when you’re dreading their response. And although many believe that procrastinating on tasks like this has to do with poor time management, Sirois says it’s actually about mood management.
“Procrastinators are not these happy-go-lucky lazy people that just kind of go ‘what the heck, I don’t really care’,” she says. “They’re actually really self-critical and they worry a lot about their procrastination.”
That worry sits in their minds and drains their cognitive resources, reducing their ability to problem-solve. It makes them think: what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just get on with doing this little thing? And then they begin to ruminate on the task, increasing their negative feelings about it and hampering their ability to view it rationally for what it is.
“So, you’ve got this little thing, where you had a bit of uncertainty, and now it’s growing into this big thing with all this fear and uncertainty and dread,” says Sirois. “It just becomes this monstrous thing – a molehill that’s now a mountain.”
Another reason small tasks can pile up is that they often lack the same kinds of hard deadlines and structures that bigger tasks entail; you figure you can just slip them in somewhere during the day. So, it’s easier to have an avoidance reaction because, unlike the big tasks, which we set aside a chunk of time to tackle, there’s nothing driving you to do small tasks right away.