Procrastination, actively delaying or postponing the start or completion of a task, is something that most of will do at some point. But why do we do it when it causes us so much trouble – and how do we stop it?
Whilst most of us will occasionally procrastinate at work surveys consistently show that about 20% of adults admit to regular procrastination that has a negative impact on their work and life. Outside of the workplace that figure rises to 50% when studying is involved, either in higher education or professional qualifications.
Contrary to popular belief procrastination isn’t caused by lack of enthusiasm, low self-esteem, or poor time-management. Procrastination is in fact an emotional reaction to a situation, and as such one that gives short term benefits or “secondary gains” to the person involved. As an emotional activity it doesn’t readily respond to an intellectual approach – as an irrational activity you can’t rationalise your way out of it. This is why techniques about to-do lists, reminders, and folders don’t see sustained success, and in fact often just add another layer of procrastination and displacement activity.
How we rationalise procrastination
The other area of confusion about procrastination is caused by our facility at rationalising our decisions once we have made them, and justifying them not just to other people but to ourselves. As such we may find them compelling but they are generally easy to spot however because they repeat the same few themes.
There are rationalisations based around the idea of “I work best under pressure” leading people to explain their procrastination by claiming that if they let the pressure build up then they will produce better work. The form that “better” takes can vary – it can be that they will be quicker, more focussed, or more prepared. A sure sign of procrastination is where the delay is based on being better prepared but no active steps are taken to improve knowledge or skills.
Other rationalisations can refer to emotions, but not the real ones involved. These might use the idea of a job or task needing a particular frame of mind for it to be successful, and see the job postponed until that frame of mind arrives. I say “arrives” instead of “is achieved” because again another sign of this being a spurious rationalisation is that no steps are taken to try and achieve the frame of mind apparently required.
Finally we have rationalisations about control – that circumstances didn’t allow us to start or complete the task, that it relied on a contribution from someone else, or that another task was more important or more urgent. What none of these address are the earlier instances of procrastination that allowed the task to drift to a point where outside circumstances conspired against success.
The emotional bases of procrastination
Briefly these can be listed as perfectionism, anger, low self-esteem, and status anxiety.
- Perfectionism can either be as a result of management expectations and the culture in the workplace, or it can come from the procrastinator’s own internal values. Whichever is the case the result is that the person freezes, overwhelmed at the prospect of making no mistakes, or in achieving an impeccable first draft. Where the perfectionism is driven by internal values the freeze can also be caused by an ever expanding idea of what the ideal end product would contain.
- Anger can cause procrastination by essentially taking us back to a more immature response. Anger, whether at a colleague, an employer, a customer or a supplier, can see us try to redress the balance or register our unhappiness by withdrawing our cooperation. The result is that work is deliberately left in the expectation that this will provoke a conversation where we will be able to articulate our dissatisfaction.
- Low self-esteem causes procrastination through the person’s inability to believe that they have the skills required for the task in hand. Whereas perfectionism can be about a fear of failure with low self-esteem the fear can be one of success. Discomfort with success can lead to the subconscious sabotage of work through procrastination.
- Finally status anxiety can cause procrastination. In a link with low self-esteem this may be through the belief that the task is too high status, and that attempting it would appear would risk looking arrogant. Equally it may be around the task being perceived as too low status, and avoiding them is used to reinforce or demonstrate the individual’s view of themselves.
The ABC of tackling procrastination
There is a method of tackling the emotional bases for procrastination that uses the ABC model familiar in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In this model
- A is the Activating Event, in this case the job or task that you are procrastinating about.
- B is for Beliefs, and these are not the “rationalisations” that were discussed earlier. Instead they are the emotional reasons, and the internal dialogue around them. In looking at these be sure to test your assumptions in the “court of thought” – cross examine your beliefs and ideas and ask whether there is any evidence to support them.
- C is for Consequences, in this case the outcomes of our different behaviours. Essentially there are two different types of behaviour following the activating event and your beliefs: rational and irrational. The irrational response will be to believe that procrastination will either improve the situation, or have no negative effect. If after looking at your beliefs about the task you still decide to procrastinate then take a robust look at those actions – what are the likely effects? What have the effects been before? Have they been successful for you before?
The aim of the ABC approach is to allow you to examine your reasons for procrastination about a task; to look to improve that if it proves faulty or unhelpful; to look at your options following your reasoning; and finally to identify a rational and positive response to the event.
You won’t need to repeat this with every task in the future. In the same way that procrastination becomes a learned behaviour so too do the critical thinking skills used to tackle it.
Other factors that affect procrastination
Whilst procrastination has an emotional basis there are some outside influences that make self-regulation harder to achieve.
The right amount and quality of sleep is vital, and tiredness and sleep-deprivation will undermine any efforts at self-regulation. Similarly blood glucose levels need to be steady, as self-regulation has been shown to depend upon and reduce glucose levels in the bloodstream. Eating regularly and healthily, and avoiding spikes and drops in blood sugar is therefore also essential to self-regulation. Finally, whilst writing down your goals is shown to improve your chances of achieving rather than deferring them, nothing is as effective as sharing your goals with other people, and making yourself accountable to them at the same time.
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