We’re all guilty of it, but for some procrastination can be more dangerous than others. Why do we procrastinate and how can one go about beating what seems to be a mysterious force of nature?
We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another
You have an important task to complete. You think about it from different angles and convince yourself you have all the time in the world to get it done. As time goes by you find yourself answering emails, watching cat videos, cleaning house, rearranging your sock drawer or just staring at the wall. You do anything to avoid the real task at hand, and with the pressure building up, you feel frustrated, stressed, guilty and a bit ashamed.
The saying goes that “procrastination is the thief of time”, and from the perspective of the very productive scientist Charles Darwin, “a man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of his life”. But, while procrastinators often put off doing things to the very last moment, procrastination should not be confused with laziness. Unlike the lazy, who are happy to do as little as possible (waste time), procrastinators desire to do things, but lack the ability to force themselves to start.
For many of us this strong and mysterious force may emerge periodically as a small hiccup in an otherwise productive life. For others, however, it can be potentially dangerous, causing them to drop out of school, perform poorly at work, put off medical treatment or delay completing taxes.
Procrastination is a common and pervasive problem that can take a toll on not only psychological but also physical health and well-being. The bad news is that procrastination may be in your nature. The good news, however, is that: (1) it may not be for the reasons you think, and (2) by better understanding the problem you can start to overcome it.
So let us look closer at why we procrastinate and what effective interventions emerge to help us tackle it one step at a time.
Why do we procrastinate?
If procrastination isn’t about laziness, then what is it about?
The word “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. For many psychologists, this points to an avoidance behaviour. In other words, procrastination is a coping mechanism in which people give in to the need to feel good. However, procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgment. Procrastination is therefore more than just avoiding the inevitable to feel good. According to Dr Piers Steel, professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary, procrastination is a form of “self-harm” – in other words. the self-awareness that avoiding a task will have negative consequences, but doing it anyway. This irrational behaviour, according to Dr Fuschia Sirois, is the result of our inability to manage or regulate moods related to tasks we may have an aversion to. These moods may emerge due to the particular nature of the task, or may even relate to deeper negative feelings surrounding the task such as inadequacy, anxiety, self-doubt or insecurity.
Procrastination is therefore an emotion-management problem rather than a time-management one. It relates to a person being more focused on the immediate urgency of managing negative moods than on getting on with the task, even though they are aware of negative implications. This short-term mood repair even makes the procrastinator feel good, or, as Tice and Bratlavsky put it: “we give in to feel good”.
On the other hand, according to Pychyl and Sirois, an often overlooked temporal aspect of procrastination offers another dimension to understand the problem:
A temporal understanding of self and the mood-regulating processes involved in goal pursuit is particularly important in understanding procrastination, because the consequences of procrastination are typically borne by the future self.
The researchers maintain that, by prioritising our current mood – present bias – in avoiding a task, we shift the burden to some “future self” that will have to pay the price for the inaction. Procrastination is therefore as much about dealing with our current moods as reconciling our inter-personal connection with a future self that we do not yet know. As noted by Charlotte Lieberman:
When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off — and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side — are somebody else’s problem.
How do we overcome procrastination?
At the core, procrastination is about how we manage our emotions, what rewards we feed to our brain, and the relationship we have with ourselves. It is not about better time management, but about rewiring our brains to reward action over inaction. Although strategies or productivity hacks may include holding yourself accountable to others or using external applications to tie you to your task, the real work has to first and foremost be internal.
Tactic 1: Forgive yourself
Forgiving yourself for any time-wasting transgressions could be a first step towards the right kind of inner work. In 2010 Wohl, Pychyl and Bennet examined “the association between forgiving the self for a specific instance of procrastination and procrastination on that same task in the future”. Looking at a group of college students, the researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam. Therefore, by forgiving yourself for a past transgression, you may be able to move past any maladaptive behaviour and focus on the upcoming task without a burden.
Tactic 2: Cultivate self-compassion
Another tactic is to start implementing a practice of self-compassion. According to Charlotte Lieberman, evidence has shown that procrastinators tend to have a high level of stress and a very low degree of self-compassion. Lieberman advises that self-compassion provides “a buffer against negative reactions to self-relevant events”. Not only does self-compassion support motivation and self-growth, but it can, moreover, be a means of building a much-needed positive relationship with your future self.
Tactic 3: Practise mindfulness
Psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer asks the question: “can we break bad habits by being more curious about them?”. Brewer studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction. According to his research, mindfulness can be a key tool in developing positive habits.
Mindfulness is, according to Mindful.org: “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”. While mindfulness is innate, it can be cultivated through proven techniques including:
- Seated, walking, standing, and moving meditation (it’s also possible lying downbut often leads to sleep);
- Short pauses we insert into everyday life;
- Merging meditation practice with other activities, such as yogaor sports.
Myla Saavedra relates her own mindfulness practice to overcoming procrastination by asking specific questions without judgement:
- “Why are you avoiding this task?”
- “Why do you feel this way?”
- “What is really going on here?”
- “What are you afraid of?”
By being inquisitive about her problems and focusing on them in a mindful manner, Saavedra is able to cultivate the compassion and forgiveness she requires to move beyond her issues of self-worth, while also better understanding her own triggers that lead to negative emotions.
I think, therefore I am
Procrastination can be a real inhibitor to success in many of us. The knowledge that this force has less to do with your work ethic and more to do with the way you regulate your emotions can be a first step in setting yourself free from the stress and guilt associated with it. The hard work lies in cultivating a better understanding of your emotions and the way you think about specific tasks. Only after you understand yourself better will implementing productivity strategies really be a fruitful endeavour.