We all do it. The tasks pile up, time slips away, and before we know it a deadline has passed. Procrastination is the act of postponing tasks that carry time pressure. We can only procrastinate on those things that “need” to be done for one reason or another. But if we know something needs to be completed, why don’t we do it? Procrastination is not a problem with managing time or poor planning skills. It stems from emotional conflicts that get in the way of starting, continuing, or finishing tasks.
There are a lot of reasons why we procrastinate. In fact, some might say there are real and tangible benefits to procrastination! Some benefits include:
1) You get to put off unpleasant tasks in favor of more enjoyable things.
2) Problems may end up getting solved without any effort from you.
3) You can avoid the possibility of failure… or success. Both outcomes have consequences, and if you are not emotionally ready for that kind of finality, it helps to put it off.
4) You get to avoid the discomfort of doing something you dread.
5) You can avoid the anxiety you feel about the task.
6) Someone may come to your rescue and do it for you. If you drag your feet long enough, occasionally, somebody else might do it.
7) You get to resist authorities! If your boss tells you to do something, and you don’t like your boss very much, it feels good to stall or work at a slower pace.
If you think hard about it, it actually makes sense that we benefit from procrastination. While most people focus on the negative outcomes of delaying a task, the act of postponing something serves a functional purpose. As Bruno Bettelheim used to say, “Nobody does anything for no good reason.” We all have multiple motivations that drive us. So if procrastination is causing problems for you, it can help to explore how and why you are doing it.
Sapadin & Maguire (1996) have identified six types of procrastinators. Most people fit into one or two of these categories:
1. The perfectionist who is reluctant to start or finish a task in case it proves to be less than perfect and therefore is seen to fail in his own and/or others’ eyes;
2. The dreamer wants life to go smoothly and avoids difficult challenges. Grandiose ideas are not translated into achievable goals. Ill at ease with daily reality, she retreats into fantasy;
3. The worrier fears things going wrong and being overwhelmed by events (lots of ‘What if…?’ thinking); risk or change is avoided and he has little confidence in his ability to make decisions or tolerate discomfort;
4. The defier is resistant and argumentative towards others’ instructions or suggestions because this means she is being told what to do or other people are trying to control her. An indirect form of defiance is passive-aggressiveness such as saying ‘yes’ to others’ request when the person really means ‘no’ because she is not prepared to take on the responsibility of doing it within the allotted time;
5. The crisis-maker likes to display bravado in declaring he cannot get motivated until the 11th hour, or this is when he does his best work; ‘living on the edge’ gives him an adrenaline rush. He has a low threshold for boredom in his life. Leaving things until the last minute often means that they don’t get done on time or opportunities are missed;
6. The over-doer takes on too much work without establishing what her priorities are; time is managed inefficiently leading to some work not being done, done poorly, or finished late.
If you recognize yourself in any of the above categories, you are probably familiar with the costs of procrastination: anxiety, disappointment, shame, resentment, poor performance, relationships problems, and physical health consequences. So what can you do?
Michael Neenan advocates an approach comprised of formulating goals, forging commitment, and enacting persistence. Usually it helps to start with goals that are specific, measureable, and time limited (SMART goals have often been used for this purpose.) For example, if Jill wants to start exercising and improve her health, she might set a goal of walking for one hour twice a week. This goal is likely to help her build up to long-term goals in the future, such as losing 10 pounds.
The next step in tackling procrastination involves motivation, otherwise known as willpower. There are many ways to increase motivation around a task. Rewards for completing the task or punishments for failure to complete it on time can be imposed, often with help from others. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1998) describes the peak of motivation as “Flow,” a term indicating the fullest level of intrinsic motivation, engagement, and control. Committing to a task that has previously been the subject of procrastination involves forging the will to seek flow, even when it feels less natural. While procrastination and flow seem quite opposite, they are in fact more closely related than many people assume. Procrastination only afflicts those tasks for which we feel some sort of pressure or importance. Tasks that are associated with flow also carry pressure and importance. Commitment to a goal involves aligning one’s personal values with the task at hand. If an alignment cannot be formed, then the goal needs to be altered or abandoned to resolve the conflict.
Lastly, persistence is based upon commitment to a goal, and involves the daily renewal of the alignment between one’s values and one’s goal. Practicing persistence may mean that you have to engage your own mental referee to resolve little conflicting thoughts that arise throughout each day. Thoughts like self-criticism, nagging notions to put something off for another day, or belittling one’s own hard-fought goals can get in the way of persisting motivation. It often helps to ask yourself if those thoughts are totally true, or always true. If the answer is no for either of those questions, then you may be able to come up with an alternative thought that better fits with your goals and beliefs. See if you can think of an example right now.
Or if you can’t think of one now, just do it tomorrow…
Written By: Molly Pachan, Ph.D.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books.
Neenan, M. (2008). Tackling procrastination: An REBT perspective for coaches. Journal Of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 26(1), 53-62. doi:10.1007/s10942-007-0074-1
Sapadin, L., & Maguire, J. (1996)It’s about time: The six styles of procrastination and how to overcome them. New York: Penguin.
For more tips on how to end procrastination, click here