What is Procrastination?
In psychology, procrastination is defined as the act of replacing high-priority actions with low-priority ones. It is the name given to that puzzling gap between what we intend to do, and what we actually end up doing. In other words – procrastination is putting off important tasks that you should be focussing on right now, in favour of something more pleasurable, or that you’re more comfortable doing.
Psychologists generally agree three criteria have to be met in order for behaviour to be classified as procrastination - it must be counterproductive, needless, and delaying.
Chronic procrastination can cause stress, guilt, panic and significant loss of personal productivity. It weakens your immune system and can keep you awake at night. Failure to do what you’re supposed to also makes your family, friends and colleagues resentful because it shifts the burden of your responsibilities onto them.
"Procrastination makes easy things hard, hard things harder."
Why do we Procrastinate?
One of the really interesting things about procrastination is that people do it despite knowing or expecting to be worse off for doing so.
Exactly why we procrastinate depends both on ourselves, and the task in question.
Essentially, it’s the age-old struggle between what we know we should do, and what we actually want to do. We know we should go to gym after work, but we really want to see a movie with a friend and have an extra large box of popcorn. We know we should finish an important report by tomorrow, but we want to get into bed early with a new book we’ve been dying to read.
This battle will only be won when we recognise one irrefutable truth – want never goes away. We will always want to do the nicer things, the more fun things, the things that don’t stress us out or take too much of our time and energy. We procrastinate because we choose want over should. Recognising that the feel-good benefits of procrastination can very quickly change into guilt and panic is key.
More rarely, chronic procrastination can be an indicator of a disorder - such as Attention-Deficit /Hyperactivity Disorder, for example. In most cases, however, it can be attributed to one or more of the following:
Research has shown that people who procrastinate typically make three cognitive distortions. (Cognitive distortion is generally known as irrational or illogical thinking).
- They underestimate the time needed to complete a task, and overestimate the time they have left in order to get it done; Or
- They overestimate the time needed to complete a task, and are put off by the thought of it taking so long. When they do get round to doing it, they are often surprised it took so little time, and wonder why they didn’t just do it straight away.
- They believe they will feel more motivated to tackle the task in the future.
- They think that succeeding at a task requires that they feel like doing it. They believe they have to be in the “right mood” in order to get the job done properly.
"Procrastination is opportunity's assassin."
Disorganisation is probably the main culprit when it comes to procrastinating, and a failure to properly prioritise tasks is the number one habit of disorganised people. Most procrastinators tend to tackle the easiest tasks first, regardless of whether they are urgent or not. This means the more difficult – and sometimes urgent – tasks pile up until you have no choice but to tackle them. Current tasks are then pushed aside as a result. This cycle quickly leads to chaotic scheduling of tasks as the procrastinator no longer has any idea about which tasks should be tackled first.
Disorganisation is reinforced by several misguided beliefs:
- All tasks have to be tackled as a whole and cannot be broken down. Therefore, if you don’t feel able to conquer a task all in one go, there’s no point tackling it at all;
- Every new task – regardless of importance - must be dealt with immediately, before going back to work on the most urgent task;
- Your memory is better than it really is! We all like to think we can remember everything without writing it down. The fact is – we can’t.
Organised people tend to procrastinate less than those who are more disorganised, mainly because they often make use of such useful tools as prioritised to-do lists and schedules. These help identify how important each task is, and tell you exactly when it’s due.
Organised people usually have a good idea of how long a particular task will take to complete, and are seldom late in doing so. They are also good at breaking down bigger tasks into manageable, 'bite-size chunks'. This ensures no one task becomes so overwhelming that they are reluctant to tackle it.
Perfectionism is defined as a fear of failure or of making mistakes, a fear of disapproval or letting someone else down, black and white thinking (it's either all or nothing, there are no shades of grey), an irrational belief that 'I should be able to do this', and a belief that other people’s success comes easily to them.
Strangely enough, perfectionists, who are usually exceptionally organised, are also often procrastinators. They may feel that they don’t have the right skills or resources to complete a task perfectly, so they decide not to do it at all. They then feel guilty and seek comfort in doing tasks they know they can complete perfectly. Unfortunately, this behaviour, while undoubtedly a coping mechanism, doesn’t make the big task(s) go away.
Fear is a big motivator, but irrational fear can also be a big reason for not doing something. We’re afraid we’ll fail, so we don’t try. We’re afraid we’ll succeed and will then have to deal with the change that often follows success. We fear being rejected, or looking like a fool.
Procrastinators who are driven by fear often use any avoidance technique at their disposal, or simply wait until someone else does the task in question. Fear is self-reinforcing – you procrastinate because you are afraid, you fail because you procrastinate, you procrastinate again because you’re afraid of failing again. This cycle will repeat itself endlessly until you decide to break it.
Rebellion and Laziness
Rebellion is about control. We assert our control by choosing when (or whether) to do the task. If we feel resentful about having to do something, we rebel. We say, “OK, I’ll do it (because I don’t have a choice) but I won’t do it now.”(asserting control).
This is a classic manifestation of what we call a Victim Mentality. People suffering from this feel they are being treated unfairly, but have no way out of their situation. This is false thinking - we always have a choice! Empowered people take responsibility for their own situation, rather than blame others.
Being rebellious is simply a form of passive–aggressive behaviour. It is better to be assertive and say no at the outset. That way, others know exactly where they stand with you and respect you for it.
Laziness is simply that… laziness!
Lack of Motivation
You know the job has to be done but it’s not emotionally important to you. Or you don’t want to do it because it’s unpleasant. Or you simply just 'don’t feel like it'.
The Paralysis of Analysis
Planning is good. Failure to plan is planning to fail. But too much planning can be just as disastrous as not enough. Over-think a situation, and you reach the point where it’s impossible to make any forward progress because you have thought and analysed it to death! You have become completely bogged down in the details. You’ve tweaked it, brainstormed it and researched it – you just haven’t actually done it!
This often stems from behaviour learned over several years. Planning worked for you in the past – so surely more planning will work even better next time? Or perhaps you experienced problems from not doing enough planning - so surely more planning will work better next time? Result – paralysis by analysis!
According to the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI), some personality types find decision-making much easier than others.
Perceiving type prefers to leave things open. They prefer not to make a decision, so as to be spontaneous and take advantage of the latest developments.
Judging type, on the other hand, likes closure. They like to have a decision made and act on it.
If you are a Perceiving type, you will need to work at making a decision and sticking to it.
"Some people try to turn every action into a decision. They make every act a psychological dilemma.
The reality is that nothing is getting done except deciding. They are really deciding to decide, not deciding to act."
David K. Reynolds
Do I Procrastinate?
The truth is, everybody procrastinates to a lesser or greater degree. It’s simply impossible to do everything that needs to be done all at once. Putting off an unimportant task isn't necessarily procrastination - it may just be good prioritisation! If you have a genuinely good reason for rescheduling something important, then you’re not procrastinating. But if you’re simply 'making an excuse' to avoid doing something, then you are.
You may be a chronic procrastinator if you regularly:
- Tackle only the low-priority and/or easy tasks on your To Do list and ignore the important, but challenging ones;
- Spend ages reading emails without responding to them, or taking any other action;
- Decide to finally sit down and tackle a high-priority/difficult task, but within five minutes you’re making coffee, making unimportant and unrelated phone calls etc.;
- Wait for the 'right mood' or the 'right time' to tackle the important task at hand.
How can I Stop Procrastinating?
The good news is that procrastinators are made and not born. Procrastination is a learned behaviour – and what’s learned can be unlearned. The bad news is that while it's possible to change, it will take a lot of time, and you may always feel tempted to slip back into your old ways. The secret is staying committed, and appreciating the huge feelings of self-satisfaction and achievement that come with not procrastinating.
Here are a few tips you can try to put procrastination in its place!
- Make a list of everything you have to do each day. Put the most important tasks at the top of the list and do those first!
- Be realistic with your daily goals. Trying to achieve too much in a limited time will feel overwhelming.
- Break down bigger tasks into manageable 'chunks'.
- Estimate the amount of time you think it will take you complete a certain task. If you usually take longer completing a task, double that time. If you usually take less time to complete a task, halve your original estimate.
- Give yourself a small reward every time you successfully complete your daily tasks. (Do not use food as a reward!)
- Eliminate those tasks on your To Do list that you know you will never actually do (be honest with yourself – if you’re never going to bungi jump at Vic Falls or read War and Peace, take them off your list! Seeing them there every day, still untackled, is demoralising.) Instead, put them on a vision list to do one day.
- Accept that perfection is a myth – and even if it weren’t, it’s seldom ever necessary. You’re human. Your best is good enough.
- Set deadlines for decision-making. Once you’ve decided on something – do it. Ask a friend or colleague to check up on you.
- Learn to tell the difference between obligations and options (should vs want).
- Find focus. Only check your email two or three times a day instead of several times an hour. Schedule your breaks and stick to those scheduled break times.
- Get organised. Write things down, keep your workspace tidy, keep and check your diary. (Be wary of using desk tidying as a form of procrastination, however!)
- Eat healthily and get more sleep. You’ll be amazed at how energised you feel. This energy will translate into action.
- At the end of each day, make your To Do list for the following day.
- Don’t wait until you are more motivated to do what needs to be done now. Just do it now.
- Your ability to succeed is not dependent on your mood, and you can’t wait around until you feel like doing something important before you do it.
- Sometimes motivation only comes after you’ve started something.
- Tell yourself that it’s not hopeless, it’s not too late, you can do it and you can do it now!