According to the dictionary ‘procrastination’ is “the action of delaying or postponing something”.
Lately I have been very good at delaying things! Don’t take me wrong, it’s not that I’ve been lazy and done nothing at all. In fact, I have been very busy. Problem is that what I have been busy doing isn’t necessarily the most important tasks.
I have used up a lot of explanations as to why those important things haven’t been done; the weather has been too nice to sit in the office, I can’t think creatively in front of the computer, I must do xyz first before I can start this project… Do you recognise any of these? All of us procrastinate at some point and research shows that more than 20% of us are chronic procrastinators. On average, each person here in Britain spends 24 days a year procrastinating.
So why do we procrastinate?
Researchers seem to disagree a bit as to why we procrastinate. Some say we procrastinate because of any of the following; we lack motivation to do the task, we are unorganised, we feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Confidence can also be a factor; we might feel we are not capable of tackling a task or it could be the opposite, that we feel too confident hence underestimate the amount of time or energy a task will take. Not being very good at making decisions has also been blamed for procrastination, us being afraid of making the wrong decision hence putting it off.
Perfectionism and procrastination are also frequently being linked together. As a recovering perfectionist I can vouch for this. I very often wouldn’t finish a task as once it was finished it could be judged. I wasn’t too worried about what other people thought, but I knew that I would judge it as “not good enough” or “I could/should have done this better”. Not that I consciously thought that, but my brain was telling me this in very subtle ways and I bought in to it, hook, line and sinker.
I once read that people who procrastinate out of fear of failure, or even fear of success, would rather people think they lack in effort rather than ability. Could this also be true for a perfectionist?
Other researchers have identified procrastination is due to two areas of our brain that are in constant battle with each other. The limbic system, that wants instant gratification and our prefrontal cortex, the part that is much better at planning and looking at long term, future goals.
Our limbic system works on impulse and is much faster than our logical prefrontal cortex. It all stems from millions of years ago when our ancestors, in order to survive, had to make quick decisions about fighting or fleeing as well as grabbing food when they could. So our limbic system was developed earlier than our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex develops with age and life experience. This is where our willpower sits and the more active it becomes the more patient we can be. How often though do we not choose the sofa rather than going to the gym? It’s all too easy for our limbic system to take over and procrastination prevail.
But is it wrong to procrastinate?
I guess that depends on what, why and how often we procrastinate. With procrastination often comes negative feelings like guilt, embarrassment and shame. Procrastination can cause stress and stress can cause procrastination, so it becomes a vicious circle. Battling with the stress of all these deferred tasks can cause sleeplessness, anxiety and other mental health challenges as well as causing problems in our relationships, work and lower our self-esteem. So yes, procrastination can definitely become a problem.
What could help prevent procrastination?
My first advice would be to reflect on when you procrastinate and on what. Can you see a pattern? More importantly what is it costing you? Once we understand this we often feel more motivated to do something about it.
If you think your procrastination is due to lack of confidence or your perfectionism, trying one of these techniques might help:
- Trying to think differently about a task by focusing on the benefits of completing it rather than the negatives about the task.
- Creating a “success spiral”. In order to do this, look at your goal and break it in to smaller pieces so it feels more achievable. Appreciating every milestone you reach and each challenge you overcome helps you see your capabilities and spurs you on to reach your next milestone, hence the name success spiral.
- Surrounding yourself with people that are encouraging and supporting.
- Finding people who motivates and inspires you to want to be your best. This can be friends, family or work colleagues or it can be encouraging stories from resources such as TED talks or biographies.
- Learning decision making techniques to help you feel more assertive making decisions.
If you relate to the instant gratification game of our limbic system, you can try the following:
- Thinking about future goals as more current.
A study showed people who considered far-off events from the perspective of days rather than years acted more quickly. For example, half of a group of participants were asked to consider that their child would begin college in 18 years, the other half in 6,570 days. Although this is exactly the same length of time, the parents who considered “days” started saving for a college fund four times sooner than parents planning from a “years” perspective.
- Visualising and focusing on the pain you will feel if you put something off and contrast it with the feeling of achievement and the relief of having completed the task. Trying to feel a desire for completing the task.
Making a change like this is never easy but is definitely worth it. Look at it as an experiment. Try different things out to see what works for you, what motivates you and spurs you on, rather than remaining stuck and in the grip of procrastination. Start by visualising how it would feel if you allowed your smarter, less impulsive self, steer you for a bit!