Do you put things off until the last possible moment?
Rather than studying for your next exam, do you jump down the Wikipedia rabbit hole…
To learn about goats or the French Revolution?
Procrastination is a disabling affliction and its effects far-reaching.
And while the late-night, caffeine-fuelled writing sessions are often mocked, there’s a darker side to this disturbing psychological tendency.
What at first seems like normal delaying tactics can soon snowball and contaminate other areas of your life…
Leading to missed medical visits, poor financial planning, as well as stress and depression.
You’d think the sweet temptations of contemporary living would be solely to blame…
Virtual reality character collecting, binge boxset watching and miming dog YouTube videos…
But procrastination isn’t a modern phenomenon, the Greek poet Hesiod cautioning not to “put your work off til tomorrow or the day after”.
If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you’ll undoubtedly know the stress and deep stabbing pains of guilt that accompanies the mindset.
The angry self-admonishment that next time, everything will be different.
Until it’s not…
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is the avoidance of a task which needs to be accomplished…
Often in favour of performing more pleasurable alternatives, or completing less urgent tasks before important ones.
“The basic notion of procrastination as self-regulation failure is pretty clear,” says Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, in Canada.
“You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.”
Much like the kid who shortsightedly grabs one cookie instead of waiting for two, it’s easy to slide deliciously into instant gratification.
What the hell, one more episode of Breaking Bad won’t hurt…
Despite its prevalence, however, there are common misconceptions about the issue.
Being told helpfully by your productive friends to simply start earlier to avoid a frantic last-minute rush is about as helpful as a slap in the face…
“It really has nothing to do with time management,” says Ferrari, Professor of Psychology at DePaul University in Chicago.
“To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
So with the confusion surrounding the condition, can we better understand the causes of procrastination and how to become normal functioning humans?
Causes of Procrastination
1. Poor Emotional Regulation
“Emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination, because to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task,” says Pychyl.
“When you say task-aversiveness, that’s another word for lack of enjoyment. Those are feeling states — those aren’t states of which [task] has more utility.”
For procrastinators, mood repair is essential. They aim to relieve their negative emotional state in the present by putting off a task into the unknown future.
2. Fear of Failure
The fear of failure is one of the main causes of procrastination. And when we do inevitably underperform, procrastination becomes a handy excuse.
Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. In most cases, the evolutionary reaction is fight or flight. With regard to unenviable tasks and unpredictable outcomes, flight equals avoidance.
Supporting research shows that procrastination linked to fear of failure is reduced to the extent you feel competent to complete your task.
So bigger challenges increase the likelihood of fear avoidance behaviour.
3. Skill Deficits and Avoidance
The flow state, or complete absorption in an activity, is achieved when your ability equally matches the task at hand.
Conversely, starting an activity that your skills don’t match leads to inertia. Avoidance behaviour is adopted in a bid to evade your shortcomings.
“The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort than lacking ability,” says Ferrari. “It’s a maladaptive lifestyle.”
4. Size, Length and Complexity of the Task
Probably the main reason very few people feel like tackling their dream project, to write a book.
Big complex tasks can make you feel you’re swimming in honey, and despite the advice of every teacher ever to break revision down into bite-sized chunks, large tasks seem impossible.
Complex tasks can make you question your skill level, as previously mentioned. Long projects are amorphous and need to be broken down into smaller chunks.
These small chunks must be separated into 7 day, “now” deadlines for maximum impact.
5. Unenjoyable Tasks
You probably have certain jobs that make you feel like scratching your eyes out, they’re so tedious. Often the thought of doing these tasks is far more offputting than the reality.
Again, this can be linked to poor emotional regulation and projected negativity.
Interesting research by Matt Killingsworth studied people’s happiness levels while engaged in series of tasks and observed that even people engaged in classicly unpopular activities (toilet scrubbing) were happier if they were focusing on the task, instead of mind wandering.
If you can dissociate from your thoughts and emotions and practice mindfulness, any task can be enjoyable, especially if you look for something pleasing in it.
6. Lack of Motivation
Even with a task you don’t find boring, it’s still hard for the procrastinator to start.
Part of this may be explained by our reptilian, ancient brain. On a contemporary societal level, we know that performing said tasks will be beneficial.
The caveman part of our brain, however, having been fed, watered and sexed, knows no reason you should expend extra energy on tasks not necessary for its survival.
Therefore the thought of sitting in your pants passively watching Friends reruns is more appealing than sweating away in a gym.
7. Inability to Start
Because of the mounting resistance to the thought of doing something you know you should, invariably it becomes impossible to start.
You know you should do the washing, but the clothes continue to gather musk in the corner of the room.
Research by Kenneth McGraw shows that the biggest wall to success is often just getting started and additional evidence suggests that on large projects that we tend to visualise the worst parts, preventing action.
Perfectionism interferes with the ability to engage in tasks and assignments.
No doubt you want to provide high-quality work, but problems arise when you set impossible goals and inevitably fail to reach them.
The constant pressure you place on yourself reduces productivity and effectiveness, which can lead to self-criticism.
If you feel your failure is due to lack of hard work, the cycle is begins again. Progress not perfection.
9. All or Nothing Thinking
Another trait of the perfectionist and procrastinator is all of nothing thinking.
Indeed, what’s the point in starting if it can’t be the best ever. Probably the reason there are so many literary masterpieces that remain unwritten.
10. It Feels Like Work
It’s almost understandable when you have boring or unpleasant tasks to want to delay them for well…forever.
But what about when something isn’t working, but just seems like it? In a study performed by Jaffe, students were given a puzzle but were allowed to play Tetris first.
Chronic procrastinators delayed starting the puzzle when it was described as cognitive evaluation but were happy acted like everyone else when it was described as a game.
Now you know why you may delay seemingly enjoyable activities.
From the moment you wake up in the morning, you’re making decisions.
They might seem inconsequential. What to have for breakfast, what to wear. Which route you’ll take to work.
These mini-decisions build up through the day however, and eventually drain your drain your willpower, leading to a phenomenon called decision fatigue.
As soon as your willpower reserve hits the red line, making the smart decision to tidy the house after work succumbs to more pleasurable alternatives, like a Facebook binge.
12. Lack of Self Compassion
Do you beat yourself up every time you fail? Evidence shows that such self-criticism may be linked to procrastination.
Negative self-talk can trap a sufferer in a downward emotional spiral, leading to procrastination and stress.
Research shows that self forgiveness may be key.
Students who forgive themselves after procrastinating on the first exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one.
13. Low Social Esteem
Unlike self-esteem, which is how we feel about ourselves, social esteem is how others like us.
Procrastinators display a weaker personal identity and care more what others think of them.
So if you’re constantly berating yourself for things you’ve done and said and societies reaction you might be more prone to delaying tactics.
There is a big link between depression and procrastination…
But it’s a chicken and egg scenario.
For some people, the act of procrastination causes depression (reactive depression) whilst in others, it’s a symptom of their condition (innate depression).
Either way, it’s a presence exacerbates what’s already a harmful trait.
Due to the neurological basis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, procrastination can be a major problem.
Unless a task provides sufficient stimulation in interest and urgency, it’s likely to be put off.
Due to issues with working memory, the task at hand may be forgotten, or simply postponed if it does not fall into the ‘right now’ category.
16. Fear of success
While fear of failure is often used as a reason for inaction, fear of success can prove an equally formidable obstacle.
For some fear of success can create emotions which feel uncomfortably similar to previous trauma, resulting in avoidance behaviour.
For others, who’ve been made to feel like they’re not good enough, there’s a sense that they don’t deserve their success, leading to self-sabotage through procrastination.
There’s also reason to believe that elevated expectations can result in a fear of success and cause intention delay.
17. Your Upbringing
If you have a largely unhelpful personality trait, it’s always tempting to blame something out of your control. Like your parents.
Well in this case it may be true. There’s evidence to suggest that women who suffer with procrastination are more likely to have had an authoritarian father.
Alternatively, if you had role models who did not instil the benefits of proactivity, you may be more likely to put tasks off.
18. Rebellion and Resistance
Linked to having strict parents again, having someone telling you what to do (especially) as a child, can result in the passive protest of inactivity.
As Dr. Ferrari says, “It’s the child who can’t really rebel, so the only way to rebel is to delay doing what the parent is asking them to do.”
If your phone is glued to your face, you’re probably engaged in a displacement activity or procrastination in disguise.
And it’s understandable with all the temptations available. While 5% of people were chronic procrastinators in 1978, the figure has now jumped to over 20%.
Procrastinators recognise the short term harm of their actions, but they’re unable to suppress their emotional impulse towards diversion.
20. A Vague Deadline
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available.
This is a dangerous psychological crux for the procrastinator, who without a deadline will leave the work unfinished indefinitely.
Research unsurprisingly shows that self-imposed deadlines can help people control procrastination, although they aren’t as effective in improving task performance as externally set deadlines.
21. Unrealistic View of Your Future Self
When you’re intent on alleviating stress in the present, providing excuses for your current inaction, you may deny the mind the ability to better prepare in the future.
Instead, you hold that magically you will develop the foresight and coping skills to avoid similar future situations. Your delay today comes at the cost to your future self.
“We’re trying to regulate our current mood and thinking our future self will be in a better state”, says Dr. Fuschia Sirois at the University of Sheffield.
22. Altered Neuropsychology
The frontal systems of the brain are involved in many of the processes responsible for self-regulation, called executive functioning.
Researchers have discovered significant procrastinators showed significant associations with executive functions responsible for self-control and ultimately procrastination.
Laura Rabin, who conducted the study, suggests that procrastination might be an “expression of subtle executive dysfunction” in people who are otherwise neuropsychologically healthy.
23. Inability to Prioritise
You tackle the easy tasks first, while the unappealing jobs mount up.
You know these dreaded tasks lurk in the shadows waiting, which increases stress and pressure.
Soon a year has passed and you still haven’t cleaned out the attic or tidied the garden.
There are different types of procrastination.
If you’re the type of person to spend hours looking at a food menu, wracked with indecision or absolutely paralysed by what you should wear each day, you might be a decisional procrastinator.
Getting stuck in analysis paralysis absolves you from the outcome of events when things invariably go wrong.
If you’re a scatterbrain, it can be hard to organise your life, let alone start and complete projects.
Research shows that decisional and behavioural procrastination are related to other personality traits such as forgetfulness and disorganisation.
How to Overcome Procrastination
If you notice your procrastination tendencies in your own behaviour, here are ten tactics suggested by Tim Pychyl on A Life of Productivity…
– Make the task less aversive: Can you reframe the task to find the fun in it?
– Notice your unproductive response: What activities help you mask your cognitive dissonance. What excuses do you use. Begin to recognise these coping strategies.
– Limit the time you spend on the task: Try using the Pomodoro technique. Just set yourself the aim of one intense 25-minute session, tracked via an app on your phone.
– Exhibit self-compassion: Limit the negative self-talk, which is completely counterproductive. Forget what has passed and concentrate on what you can do now.
– Just get started: Motivation follows action. Use the two-minute rule and give yourself permission to stop after two minutes. Invariably you’ll find yourself continuing.
– List the costs of procrastinating: Activate the rational side of your brain to counteract the emotional power of your thoughts.
– Become closer to your future self: Imagine how good it will feel to have completed the task. This will help delay the instant gratification impulse.
– Limit distractions: Step away from the cat videos and place your hands on your head! Put distractions out of reach.
– Establish a concrete plan: Set a specific time to start and a mini goal to achieve. Break the task into specific chunks.
– Seek more meaningful work: Ask yourself if you need to seek more meaningful work.
The good news is that “While everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator,” says Dr. Ferrari.
So whether you’re a barely-able-to-get-yourself-dressed chronic procrastinator or a mere, this-job-is-boring-as-hell situational procrastinator…
At least you know the main causes of procrastination and how to overcome it.