Updated: Apr 4
Rest assured, procrastination is not about laziness or lack of self-control.
“What a relief!” you say.
But don't get too relaxed because procrastination is about something else just as somber:
Procrastination results from
our difficulty in managing negative
feelings about a given task.
When we procrastinate, we seek to reduce short-term emotional impacts associated with a task (anxiety, intimidation, doubt) rather than working toward completing the task. We do something enjoyable instead, such as nap or watch TV. We do this to try to counteract the anxiety we feel from putting something off.
Psychologists take classes so they can make up names for everything. Present bias is what they call our tendency to put short-term needs and satisfaction over what matters most to us over the long haul.
We attempt to fix now at the cost of forever.
If you ask a child if she wants one cookie now, or two cookies in an hour, she’ll probably want one cookie now.
Putting off doing the dishes
Our children used to try to argue with us about washing dishes. They remained in a highly emotionally charged state for two hours before completing the 15-minute job. The delay-vs.-action ratio in their case was eight-to-one. This means they spent eight times more energy fretting about the job than actually doing it.
Most adults do this all the time.
I often take lunches to work from home. On one occasion, I didn't eat what I had brought in a small glass bowl. The bowl, which had its own lid, sat on my desk for two months before I finally threw out its contents and washed it in the office breakroom. The entire job didn't take more than thirty seconds. My ratio of delay to "time to complete task" was about 172,800 to 1.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Procrastination is irrational because when we postpone completing a task, we spend more time being anxious about the task than doing it. We think that procrastination helps us avoid stress, but it only creates much more of it.
Is procrastination really an emotional issue?
What about when we just don’t want to do something because it’s boring, such as pulling weeds? I experience zero emotional anxiety when pulling weeds. It’s just hideously boring. How’s that an emotional issue?
The answer is we make it an emotional issue by delaying. Every day we delay gives our weeds time to multiply and get bigger with deeper roots. Our anxiety when thinking about the delay makes the delay emotional. We turn a non-emotional issue into an emotional issue by procrastinating.
What I should do is pull the weeds right away. Then I’ll have the next two weeks to goof off, free of anxiety.
Procrastination promotes low self-esteem and self-blame
Who’s fault is it when I delay pulling the weeds? In through my front door comes Self-blame. What a nice chap to have around. After he’s comfortable in his own room and has half the refrigerator to himself, he brings in his friend Low Self-esteem.
All from non-emotional delays! Don’t think for a moment that procrastination isn’t an emotional problem.
While we’re putting ourselves in a state of stress, we’re less able to make wise decisions about our long-term happiness and security. So, we continue to choose unwisely, and down the emotional spiral, we go.
It takes time to train your brain
Your character, habits, mindset, attitudes, and personality aren’t built all at once. They cook slowly, like a good cut of prime rib. If we chronically delay doing tasks, then we spend much more time (you pick the ratio) telling our brains that we’re shlubs rather than being productive. This is bad stuff!
If you don’t believe me, read the abstract of this study. There are countless similar studies that reach similar conclusions. Notice the scary words, “low self-actualization, and feelings of being an impostor.” You don’t want a case of imposter syndrome, where regardless of your talents and accomplishments, you'll experience a persistent fear that you’ll be discovered as a fraud.
What can we do about it?
This topic is getting me down. I need a break. I’ll get back to finishing this post later.
A little procrastination is okay. We’re human beings, not computers. We’re going to occasionally put things off. I’m typing this now instead of going on a walk. This is because I care about you so much.
Sometimes you plan on accomplishing a task on the same day your mother unexpectedly comes to town. Sometimes we just need “me” time. We shouldn't punish ourselves for exercising a reasonable amount of procrastination.
How does the phrase go, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?”
Did you know that that phrase first appeared in a book called, Proverbs, written by James Howell in 1659? Some of my works are going to last over 360 years, too. This is why I waste no time writing them down.
What helps me the most to overcome procrastination is to divide the unwanted job into smaller pieces. Then when each piece has been accomplished, I may reward myself by doing something fun before I begin the next step.
I’ll use the job of cleaning the kitchen as an example. Instead of doing the work all at once, I’ll,
Wash the silverware, then mentally congratulate myself on the victory.
Then I may watch some YouTube videos for a few minutes.
Then I’ll clean off the countertops.
Then I may have a phone call with a child or parent or brother.
Then I’ll wash the plates.
And so on.
“What a silly way to clean the kitchen,” you say.
You’re right. But it’s better than putting it off for a couple of days. Notice in the above steps the word, “may.” May doesn’t mean will. Just knowing that I can do something else for a few minutes takes away much of the urge to procrastinate.
There's actually a strong case for effective procrastination. It’s when the person or organization assigning you the task has not adequately defined the task, or when the likelihood is high that the task will be significantly changed or eliminated entirely by the time you finish it.
There have been a fair number of times in my life when I’ve been rewarded for procrastinating. Someone will say, “Could you please do XYZ—it’s due in a month.” The task may actually take me only a week to complete. If based on past experience with this particular organization, the likelihood is high that the task will change or be eliminated, then I’ll choose to put off the task for a week or so. When this happens, about half the time I'm rewarded by not having to do the task at all.
I’m not suggesting we don’t complete tasks within the appointed time, or that we disobey orders from superiors. But rather that we exercise a level of good judgment, based on experience, in spending our time and energy on other productive tasks until it becomes clear that the assigned task must, in fact, be completed as defined.
No more wasting time
I’ve learned over a period of years that starting a task right away has the opposite psychological effect on me as putting off a task. I feel more motivated, happier, and more confident.
You can do the same thing. You’ll be a much more enthusiastic person with a healthy can-do attitude. Everyone wants to be someone like that.
Maybe it’s your turn to be that way for someone else.