Why do we Procrastinate?
There is an urgent piece of work that needs to be done. You know this, and yet you find yourself suddenly giving attention to more trivial matters that you convince yourself are suddenly urgent.
It’s almost as if by delaying something you can make it go away. This is obviously not true, but psychologically this is how procrastination functions. When something makes us anxious and we feel overwhelmed, procrastination works by relieving the immediate anxiety and replacing it with other distractions. The result is the ‘busyness’ distracts us from the anxiety, thereby lowering stress levels. If you were actually getting on with the task that you are procrastinating over you would immediately feel this anxiety, which is of course unpleasant, and so procrastination is an attempt to get away from this feeling.
As we all know, the consequence is that the task is still looming, and it may end up getting rushed at the last minute. You may even tell yourself that you work better under pressure. This is rarely true. The advantage of having this last minute pressure is you can then blame the time constraints, -and not yourself, for not being able to do a more thorough job.
Feeling under constant stress from procrastination affects your health and your relationships, and how you feel about yourself – increasing self-criticism and guilt.
So, procrastination is a behaviour designed to reduce anxiety, but it doesn’t tell us what the underlying reasons are. Understanding the reason why you procrastinate is the key for tackling it.
Do you recognise yourself in any of the following:
- Feeling overwhelmed by a task – either it is too big, beyond your ability or training, or you don’t know where to start.
- Being a perfectionist – your standards are so high that you can’t allow yourself to make a mistake.
- Avoiding unpleasant or difficult tasks – expecting that life should be easier.
- Fear of failure – you want to avoid finding out that you’re not capable of doing the task.
- Resentment at having to do the task – anger at having to do something you don’t want to do is hidden, but comes out as putting it off.
- Wishing to escape from reality – denial of the necessity of having to do things that are difficult.
- Feeling of deprivation, – another difficult task and not enough leisure time.
Top Tips to Tackle Procrastination
Change the way you think – Instead of it being something you have to do, being forced, or feeling deprived, connect with why you are doing it, that it is a choice. This can make an enormous difference to your feeling of being in control and will change your commitment to the task.
Jane was given the task of auditing the department. She had no prior experience and didn’t know where to start. By reminding herself that this was a great opportunity to show her manager what she was capable of, her commitment to the task changed. Getting in contact with her long-term goal of career advancement enabled her to overcome the reduction in anxiety she got from procrastinating.
The solution is to aim to start (not finish). Tell yourself you will spend a small amount of time tackling it. It may be 5 minutes or half an hour. You may find it feels achievable in bite-size proportions. Once you overcome the hurdle of starting it will be easier.
Reward Yourself with Something Fun
Create a schedule where there is fun and work. The reward is based on time spent working – not on finishing the task. This will help to stop you feeling that the task deprives you of fun.
Avoid Negative Defeating Self-talk
Change from “I can’t do this”, to “where could I make a start on this”, and ask yourself “what is the worst possible outcome if I don’t get this right?” This last question will put you in touch with what it is you are afraid of.
Be Aware of your Attempts at Rationalisation
“It will be much better to start this tomorrow because then I will be …” The excuses are as endless as your imagination. The problem is we often do this on a subconscious level, unaware that the rationalisations are because we are fearful. You can convince yourself that spring cleaning your house cannot wait another week, – just when you need to do your tax.
Can Procrastination Ever be Useful?
Procrastinating may be useful for impulse control when trying to quit a bad habit such as smoking or losing weight. Delaying may be a more achievable first step on the way to changing a habit than quitting outright. It can start the formation of the habit of waiting to do harmful or time-wasting things.
Another way procrastination can be helpful is when waiting is valuable. Step back and ask if the procrastination is a message to slow down. Sometimes there is no rush. You may need time to get your thoughts in order before making an important decision, or to chew over an idea.
If you find yourself procrastinating because you are unsure about something, maybe you aren’t ready to do it for a good reason. It may indicate that you need to rethink your decision. Procrastinating may give you much needed time for creative ideas to come to the surface. Of course, the key is to recognise when procrastination can be creative, and when you’re just plain scared to get started.