The primary causes of procrastination and how to overcome it.
For many individuals, procrastination is a long term habit and seemingly inescapable personality trait. Procrastination is not limited or attributed to any specific personality type and is a widespread social problem, with an estimated 15-20% of the American adult population and an estimated 80-90% of College students being self-confessed problematic procrastinators. Procrastination is often overlooked as a psychological disorder and simplistically attributed to laziness. However, extensive research over the past few decades has revealed procrastination as a far more psychologically significant condition with complex causes and serious implications. Procrastination has also been identified as a common symptom of a more significant underlying psychological disorder.
Procrastination is the tendency to avoid or delay acting upon a task or activity under one’s immediate control. Procrastinators persistently postpone and avoid undertaking or completing a task or making a decision. Most importantly, procrastination involves the intentional delay of action without any foreseeable reason or likely benefit. Procrastination is a highly irrational behavioural form of self-handicapping, as most self aware procrastinators realise and accept that delay will not contribute to their goals. Procrastinators not only act with the understanding that delay could have a detrimental impact on the outcome of their task, but with the expectation that it will result in an unfavourable situational outcome.
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The primary manifestations of self-handicapping through procrastination include excessive sleeping, watching television, playing computer games, social activities and disruptions, alcohol and other drug use, environmental handicaps, music, noise distraction and having a cluttered and disorganised living space.
Although common, these forms of procrastination can have a profound impact on more than one’s grades. People engage in procrastination to significant degrees of discomfort and distress, often leading to or compounding existing physical, psychological and emotional complications. Procrastination commonly results in exceptionally high levels of stress, anxiety, guilt, profound depression, low self-esteem and general poor health.
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So with most procrastinators aware of their tendency and conscious of the consequences of their behaviour, why do they continually procrastinate?
Procrastination is not simply an illustration of laziness, indifference or poor time management, but a complex self-defeating behaviour attributed to several primary causes. Procrastination must be understood within the context of various interrelated emotions, cognitions, behaviours, personality traits and psychological and social determinants.
There are numerous identifiable personality traits, psychological conditions and social determinants that make some predisposed or susceptible to procrastination while others are not. While it has been hypothesised that there is a genetic predisposition towards procrastination, the specific causes of procrastination are believed to be rebelliousness, non-competitiveness, indifference, oppositional personality, neurotic extraversion, blocking-impulsivity, mindlessness, pessimism, depression, anxiety, passivity, perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, low self-efficacy and poor impulse control and maladaptive self-regulation.
It is estimated that 95% of procrastinators dislike their habit and wish to overcome it. Fortunately, there are methods of treating and overcoming procrastination through identifying the aetiology (causes) of procrastination and addressing it through developing effective self-regulatory techniques and the active reinforcement of one’s self-efficacy.
One common cause of procrastination is related to its perception as a positive study tool. Adaptive techniques of academic procrastination include cognitive maximisation or “feeling the flow” and peak experience, both induced by the heightened stress and time constraints that procrastination creates. Those who engage in procrastination for this reason believe that it benefits the outcome of their task.
A similar cause of procrastination that is seen as beneficial by those who engage in it is beneficial deliberation. This form of procrastination is seen as a functional delay, with potential benefits arising from a refusal to over commit, rush and stress over the task at hand. However, it has been shown through extensive research that procrastination rarely results in a positive outcome and usually has a significantly detrimental impact on ones task and long term goals, as procrastinators continually perform poorly under the conditions of heightened pressure they intentionally create.
People who do not view procrastination as an adaptive technique and who identify no tangible reason to delay action are much less likely to procrastinate. Therefore, for procrastination to be avoided or overcome, one must first recognize procrastination as a negative personality trait that offers little chance of a beneficial outcome and jeopardises one’s goals.
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Another form of procrastination arises from self-regulatory failure attributed to the correlated personality traits of indecision and perfectionism. This self regulatory failure involves the tendency of perfectionists to wait for all the possible evidence to be available to them to develop a perfect response, product or action. Through indecision and perfectionism, one waits to commit to a task and hopes for more and better information that would provide a better product and outcome. This perfectionism is caused by the “elevated evidence requirements” that perfectionist’s exhibit. Perfectionists are driven to procrastinate because they are highly critical of their behaviour and are unable to act unless they are certain that they satisfy their own exceedingly high expectations. Perfectionists display high concern over mistakes, self doubt, excessively high expectations of self and avoidance of social criticism and disappointment, all of which cause them to habitually procrastinate.
The presence of indecision and perfectionism as personality traits are further explanations of why some people procrastinate, while others do not. To overcome procrastination caused by indecision and perfectionism, one must overcome the tendency to worry and delay, both of which are caused by excessively high standards, in effective self-regulation and concern over criticism.
Another personality trait that causes procrastination is having a low action identity. This means that despite their often highly specific intentions, procrastinators consistently defer the actualisation of their intentions. This is caused by a maladaptive action personality and the absence of a broad perspective on their actions. Having a low action identity provides an important explanation as to why some people do procrastinate, and others do not. To overcome chronic procrastination, one must develop a high action identity through effective self-regulation, more specifically through the development of effective time management and cognitive coping mechanism that would allow procrastinators to actualise their intentions.
Another significant cause of procrastination is ones level of intrinsic motivation and the absence of a genuine desire to pursue an outcome. People with innate enthusiasm and a sense of purpose are less likely to procrastinate. The absence of innate genuine motivation identifies why some people procrastinate, while others do not. This also highlights procrastination as a complex motivational problem and provides an explanation for procrastination through self-determination and self-regulation theories. To overcome a lack of motivation, one must treat the closely correlated causes of anxiety and depression to boost one’s self-efficacy and develop enthusiasm, a sense of purpose and long term goals that one wished to achieve.
Another cause of procrastination is role conflict that often exists between one’s studies and interpersonal relationships. The conflict arises from the clash of one’s separate self-identities and the mismanagement of one’s professional, academic, social and personal life. The lack of intrinsic motivation and efficient self-regulation in these differing roles is a significantly relevant cause of procrastination and indicates that the multiple roles are often incompatible. Procrastinators often succumb to guilt and ambivalence arising from neglecting friends, causing them to devote an inordinate amount of time to social activities and personal relationships and ignore their academic or professional responsibilities. Role conflict results from low levels of self-determined motivation across academic and social roles. People who are self-determined in their professional, academic and social roles procrastinate less, while people who lack intrinsic self-determination are more likely to procrastinate. Effective self-determination and self-regulation in professional, academic and personal roles will avoid internal conflict between one’s differing roles and self-identities and avoid or overcome procrastination.
Decades of academic and clinical research have identified the predominant conditions under which people procrastinate as any threat to self-integrity. Therefore, the most relatively significant and complex cause of procrastination is a fear of failure, which is heavily correlated with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. This cause highlights how procrastination fulfils a psychological purpose as a defence mechanism that functions to protect vulnerable self and social-esteem and not exacerbate high social anxiety and self-consciousness.
The fundamental cause of an aversion to a task is largely dependent on the evaluative nature of that task. Procrastination arises from a fear of failure and the possibility of any reflection or assessment of one’s abilities. Here, it is evident that procrastination arises from a perceived threat to one’s ego, as a procrastinators sense of self worth is fundamentally related to his or her assessed ability. Procrastinators therefore actively pursue and engage in self-handicapping and sabotage that inhibits accurate performance assessments.
Procrastinators also exhibit the tendency of blame external elements and voice situational excuses instead of accepting responsibility for failure. Conveniently, the act of procrastination is itself attributed as their source of failure. Procrastinators believe that they did not perform poorly because of a lack of intelligence or ability, but because of an insufficient amount of time in which to complete the task. By inhibiting accurate performance assessments, one’s true ability is never revealed and one’s vulnerable self-esteem is not threatened.
Procrastination can therefore be reduced to a tool of denial and self-deception designed to protect one’s fragile self image. Procrastination most is commonly used as a mechanism of task avoidance by people with low self-esteem and high social anxiety to mitigate the significance of performance judgments. This complex cause of procrastination can be treated by engaging in active positive reinforcement, which serves to reinforce one’s self-efficacy and boost self-esteem, thus diminishing the need to self-sabotage in order to protect one’s fragile self-esteem.
There is various social, personality and psychological causes of procrastination, all of which can be individually identified, assessed, treated and overcome through the development of a high action identity, a positive mentality, a genuine desire to pursue goals high, effective self-regulation and through active self-affirmation that increases self-efficacy. It is crucial for one’s physical and psychological health to treat and overcome this irrational self-sabotaging behaviour. While there are numerous causes of and treatments for procrastination not mentioned in this article, the most important step to overcoming procrastination is to become self aware of any procrastinatory tendencies.