The topic of procrastination continues to intrigue me, I’ve researched a little more into the psychology behind it, I like to know how things work from a theoretical perspective – and then how to apply it or shift it to be this change you wish to see. So what do the experts say? I will admit I have gathered some condensed literature from Wikipedia and other sources and made it a little more digestible here. Strangely, I just kept asking more and more questions of myself… so let’s see what conclusions you can make.
How do the experts explain procrastination?
Away we go… The term procrastination is psychological terms refers to ‘the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower-priority, or doing something that derives enjoyment, and thus putting off important tasks to a later time’. Another definition from the dictionary refers to it as: ‘to defer action; delay: to procrastinate until an opportunity is lost.’
Why do we seek the pleasurable tasks over those that are important?
What is an opportunity? What is a ‘lost’ opportunity, are we often delaying because we haven’t got all the information required to make a decision or take action, guaranteeing delay to be advantageous? Where is the line crossed from effective and efficient use of delay, into the big bad procrastination? Are we conscious of when this is all happening?
These are all questions I pose to my Clients (and of myself) – and from my conversations and personal observations (I can only use these as my data).
I’ve discovered most people are VERY aware of when they are procrastinating, and even enjoy the act of it to some extent.
I feel it’s when it becomes a habit or excuse is the issue, when it brings on constant feelings of guilt, self-abuse and ridicule from others. There also seems to be a point where it goes too far, making it difficult to function, to meet our most basic needs and commitments to self or others.
Here is what the experts say, Freud’s take is that it’s associated with what he calls the ‘pleasure principle’ – as humans do not prefer negative emotions, handling a stressful task is put off (well I argue that not all tasks we procrastinate over are ‘stressful’). Others state that humans work best under pressure – as it provides additional enjoyment and motivation (I know I crumble under pressure, I like to feel planned, considered and knowledgeable in what I do for work and in my personal life as I’ll feel confident rather than winging it).
A couple of other theories argue that it’s a coping mechanism for the anxiety of doing a task – I see it as quite the opposite, delaying causes my stress. What I do like is this criterion from Schraw, Wadkins and Olafson – for behaviour to be classified as procrastination it must be counterproductive, needless and delaying. I also agree that it has an element of ‘voluntary behaviour’ – reiterating my point above that most of us are very aware of when we are in the zone. Please note at this point that some of the above you may relate to, and argue me on, the point of this is not to disagree but just put out some theories and compare to experiences I’ve heard.
So why do we justify procrastination, what excuses are valid?
The experts agree that coping responses are emotional or avoidant, rather that solution or problem solving focused. Here are some of the reasons we procrastinate, I enjoyed reading and relating to these:
Avoidance: we avoid the location or situation where the task takes place e.g. the gym to exercise, not calling back the person you need to have a tricky conversation with.
Distraction: engaging or immersing ourselves in other behaviours or actions to prevent awareness of the task e.g. watching TV, spending time on facebook stalking.
Trivialisation: we reframe the intended procrastination task as being not that important e.g. ‘I’ll clean the kitchen tomorrow, a couple of dishes in the sink isn’t that bad.’
Downward counterfactuals: this fancy term means, comparing our situation to those that are worse e.g. ‘at least I exercise once a month, it’s better than not at all.’ Love it, and guilty of it!
Upward counterfactuals: conversely, considering what could have happened if we didn’t procrastinate e.g. ‘my friends all achieve so much compared to what I can get done.’
Humour: making a joke about your procrastination that your aspiration or goal is funny e.g. ‘can you ever imagine me being able to run a marathon, that’s just ridiculous!’
External attributions: the cause of the procrastination is due to external forces beyond your control e.g. ‘I can’t start on anything until I receive the overall project plan off Sally.’
Reframing: pretending that getting an early start on a project is harmful to one’s performance, leaving work to the last minute will produce better results e.g. ‘I perform best under pressure and tight deadlines.’
Denial: pretending that behaviour is not actually procrastination, that a task you’re doing is more important that the avoided one e.g. having to tidy your workspace before being able to work on an assignment.
Perfectionism: having to make it 100% right delays people starting e.g. ‘I’d exercise more often if the weather was warmer, if I had the time and if I knew what to do.’
So can you relate to one or more of the above? What are ways you pull yourself out of a procrastination pickle?
I actually think that procrastination goes a little deeper, and at its core is an inherent lack of belief or trust in our own confidence and abilities. I see that it’s taking action or performing the task that helps us tackle that core inner struggle. The research says that when people have a task or problem solving orientation it can effectively reduce the procrastination. That if this orientation is actually pursued, which means actively changing one’s behaviour, it will allow you to avoid procrastination and prevent it to some extent.
Experiment a little…
So if you’re currently labelling yourself as a ‘procrastinator’ I’d love you to stop beating yourself up for it and rather congratulate yourself for recognising it.
Next look at what behaviour you’re exhibiting in the avoidance and what is going on below the surface?
Are you using ‘humour’ because you’re actually frustrated with yourself for not having the courage to start training for a marathon?
Can you use your time upfront to look at what you need to do – break the large task into smaller ones so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming? Commence walking each day, building that up to a jog, join a running club, get proper footwear, ask others for support, take one step a week towards a challenge you’re avoiding.
And last, catch yourself, when are you slipping into delay mode – what are you saying or not saying to motivate yourself?