What is procrastination and why do we do it?

Let me start with a confession: I’ve been wanting to write an article about procrastination, but have been putting it off for a long time… so ironically, I’ve been procrastinating about procrastination (writing).

Let me start with a confession: I’ve been wanting to write an article about procrastination, but have been putting it off for a long time… so ironically, I’ve been procrastinating about procrastination (writing).

What is procrastination?

Procrastination refers to delaying or not completing a given task, and instead engaging in a less important one, despite awareness of potential negative consequences of not following through the original task.

It is a fairly typical behaviour for a lot of people, and is often misunderstood as laziness. People can procrastinate about a range of things, including work/study (e.g., meeting a deadline), household (e.g., doing chores), finances (e.g., budgeting), health (e.g., going to the gym), or even relationships (e.g., calling a friend). Most people eventually face up and engage in the tasks that they ought to do. Sometimes, however, procrastination can become more problematic and stop people from reaching their goals and, ultimately, from having a good life.

How do people procrastinate?

As mentioned, people procrastinate when they substitute an important task with another task that is not the priority at the time (procrastination activity). This procrastination activity can be a pleasurable one (e.g., browsing the internet, watching Netflix, listening to music) or just a lower priority task (e.g., tidying up). I had a client who worked from home, whose house was always pristine whenever she had to meet a deadline, because in that moment cleaning and tidying up seemed more appealing than getting on with the task that was actually the priority!

Before you continue reading, feel free to think about the procrastination activities you might engage. During a given task, you can ask yourself: “Am I doing the task I need to be doing right now?”. If the answer is “yes”, then keep going; if the answer is “no”, then you may be procrastinating and might want to rethink things. Remember that it’s ok to take breaks from harder or longer tasks, these only become a problem when they are done at the expense of not completing the priority tasks.

If you find that you have been procrastinating, this may create some uncomfortable feelings, such as guilt about not doing what you were supposed to do. In order to lessen those feelings, you might engage in procrastination excuses to justify that you postponed your priority task and engaged instead in a procrastination activity. These procrastination excuses can take different forms:

“I’ll do it tomorrow, I’m too tired now”

“I’ll do it when I feel motivated!”

“I still have plenty of time, I can do it later”

“I’m too busy now”

Again, feel free to think about your own self-talk and your own procrastination excuses.

Why do people procrastinate?

The reasons why people procrastinate are mainly internal- they have to do with their own unhelpful thoughts and beliefs. Below are some beliefs often associated with procrastination:

  • Unrealistic expectations. People who procrastinate often have an unrealistic view regarding how a productive person functions, and they may (erroneously) assume that successful people always feel confident and easily achieve success without enduring frustration. This model of success is simply unrealistic, and the reality is that productive people also encounter obstacles, but find commitment to overcome them. In contrast, procrastinators are more likely to have a low tolerance to frustration and to perceive disappointments or obstacles as unbearable.

  • Fear of failure or disapproval. Some people put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform at a very high standard and success may be overly important to them. They may fear not meeting those standards, and predict that they will either fail or someone will judge them negatively, and as such they may feel anxious or embarrassed. Rather than risking failure and having to confront themselves with those uncomfortable feelings, they may do nothing at all (after all, one cannot fail or be judged negatively by others on a task that was not pursued in the first place!).

  • Lack of assertiveness. Many people procrastinate because they agreed to do things they did not really want to do, but felt unable to say “no”. Therefore, procrastination is a bit like being on a strike.

  • Low self-confidence. Some people may lack confidence in their abilities and per default may believe that “if I try, I won’t get it right and my inadequacies will be shown”. This lack of self-confidence and self-belief may lead to negative feelings about one self. By avoiding new or challenging tasks (procrastinating), the person can therefore avoid having to deal with their perceived flaws and inadequacies.

  • Beliefs about motivation preceding action. Many people believe that they need to feel motivated in order to engage in a given task, or in other words, they believe that motivation comes first and that action follows. The problem is that, if you wait until you are in the mood to do a task that is not particularly enjoyable, you may end up never doing it, as it is unlikely that you will spontaneously “feel like” doing boring or unpleasant tasks. The reality is that once you get started, you will feel more like doing it. In other words, action can lead to motivation, and then to further action.

  • Pleasure seeking. Some people may have a need for instant gratification, and have difficulty in pursuing tasks that they perceive as boring. Therefore, when faced with an uninteresting task (this can be different things for different people), they will experience frustration and boredom and may use procrastination as a way to reduce those feelings, and to seek out pleasure.

Your turn: if you have found yourself procrastinating, what beliefs or mental obstacles (as per described above) have you (inadvertently) endorsed that led you to procrastinate? What impact has procrastination had on your work, health and relationships? What strategies have you used to overcome it? How have those strategies worked for you?

If you think that procrastination has had negative consequences in your life, please feel free to get in touch for a free consultation.

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