- Mental Health
The Perils of Procrastination
So, What Should You Be Doing Right Now?
I am a world-class procrastinator. I can interrupt my interruptions with the best of them. I can always find other things to do when I am avoiding the completion of a task (or beginning it for that matter). Even though I know that life would be sweeter if I would just do what I am supposed to do, when I am supposed to do it.
So, this year, the number one objective on my list for 2015 (some would call them resolutions, but I prefer to call them goals and objectives) is to address my biggest bad habit: to stop putting off things I am obligated to do.
Whether you attribute the concept to Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli, or Michael Corleone in the Godfather, in order to beat something or someone, you must really know and understand the enemy. The enemy in this case is procrastination. So, let’s begin there.
What is Procrastination?
Simply put, procrastinating is having an important or even urgent task that needs to be performed, and in spite of that, doing other things instead (usually more pleasurable ones, but not necessarily). Any time you know you “should” be doing “something,” and you are doing “something else” instead, you are procrastinating. For example, you know that you have a term paper to write, but yet you spend hours watching TV or YouTube while the clock ticks away toward the deadline. This is a typical example.
The word itself is a hint as to its meaning. Pro is a prefix, usually meaning to put something in front or forward. If you “promise” to do something, you are sending your good intentions “forward” into the future. The Latin word “crasinus” means “of tomorrow.” So putting them together, we have procrastination meaning to put a task off until tomorrow. That is the literal meaning. Fundamentally, this sounds benign, or even pleasant. But when repeated multiple times, for multiple tasks, it can become an extremely hazardous habit.
People don’t always procrastinate by doing something enjoyable. It could be that you spend a few hours washing dishes, doing laundry or other household tasks, when you know that you “should” call your Mother-in-Law. You rationalize that you are doing necessary “chores,” and you know in your heart that there is something else that should be happening first. It could even be doing something relatively important, like paying the bills, when there is something else more urgent that needs to be done that you are avoiding, like setting up a dentist appointment. I call this the “right thing at the wrong time” phenomenon.
By way of contrast, when you have multiple priorities, and they are all relatively the same in terms of importance and urgency, picking just one thing to do first is not procrastinating. In fact it’s preferable to trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously (i.e., multi-tasking). While some swear by this technique, I find that it usually backfires on all but the most mundane tasks (e.g., I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but I shouldn’t try to write a report while I am simultaneously talking on the phone or watching TV).
Why Do People Procrastinate?
This is the $64,000 question. One theory is that the delay creates “excitement” and “drama.” A little “thrill” as it were. You only have minutes to the deadline. Will you make it? We have convinced ourselves that we work best “under pressure.” It creates suspense. But it also creates anxiety, stress, and dread.
Some people subscribe to Parkinson’s Law (i.e., work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion). So by delaying the start of a project, you are forced to complete it in less time. Putting things off even until the last moment isn't really procrastination if there is reason to believe that they will take only that moment. But you also run the risk of producing a subpar end result, with no time left to fix any problems that may crop up. Not finishing by the deadline can result in facing harsh criticism, or negatively impacting someone else at the very least.
Most rationalizations don’t hold up under careful scrutiny. Yet people (like me) persist in procrastinating. Over and over again. Different tasks, at different times, in different circumstances. The only thing that is consistently the same is the avoidance of a task (or tasks) that really need to be done, and doing other things instead. Or simply doing less important things, and leaving the more important things hanging. It defies logic and rational thought. But then, few of us are actually motivated by logic. Therefore, I have concluded that it must be emotionally based. So, I will start there.
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So Many Emotions
To kick off our exploration of the emotions behind procrastination, let’s start a list of some of the most common ones:
- Fear of the unknown
- Feeling afraid it’s too difficult or complicated, or you won’t do a “perfect” job
- Resistance to trying something new
- Concern that you won’t be able to learn new skills needed to complete the task
- Dislike of the task
- Boredom with the project
- Anxiety over where to start or what you might encounter once you begin
- Feeling uncomfortable about making the wrong decision(s)
- Resentment about having to do something
- Feelings of entitlement - that someone else should do it for you
- Worry what other people will think
- Bitterness that you will be forced to do it according to someone else’s rules
- Stubbornness and resistance
- Anger and sadness
Typically, the root of all procrastination is unresolved emotions. In life, we can choose to face those emotions, work through them, and move forward. Or, we can procrastinate and stall, and keep slipping behind. There is no standing still. So let’s look more closely at these emotions.
How Do You Feel?
What emotion typically triggers procrastination for you?
Fear is a very powerful human emotion. It is one of the seven so-called “root” emotions (i.e., anger, anxiety, surprise, trust, grief, fear, and love). Fear can be a very powerful motivator (or de-motivator). For example, when you fear that you may suffer a heart attack, you may finally find the motivation to take off some weight, quit smoking, or begin exercising regularly.
So where does fear come in with regard to procrastination? I can think of several scenarios. First, you might fear (or dread, actually) something about the project at hand. Perhaps you have been assigned a new project that will require you to learn new templates or new processes before you can begin. Your fear is that it will be overly complicated, and you will look like a fool if you don’t understand the new information. Or you are afraid your skills will not be up to the task. You fear you can’t or won’t be “perfect.” As long as you delay, you haven’t faced the fear, and you haven’t (yet) looked foolish.
Funny thing is this: fears like this are usually unfounded, or at least exaggerated. Facing them head-on (and early) is much easier and letting the fear build to a full blown panic. Fear of looking foolish is usually in your mind, and nowhere else. The trick is to acknowledge the fear, and do it anyway. You will feel better when you do.
Dislike or Boredom
There is no mystery about putting off a task that seems like it will be tedious, difficult, uncomfortable, and/or painful. Putting of the dentist is a well-known example. If you had a choice between sitting in a dentist’s chair and having a tooth drilled, or doing just about anything else, we all would be tempted to procrastinate. Until, of course, the pain of the cavity is worse that the anticipated pain from the dentist.
The solution to this type of procrastination is understanding exactly what it is that you dislike, and turn it into a positive. With the dentist, visualize the tooth pain gone on the “other side” of the appointment, and keep that in mind when you schedule yourself in. For other things you dislike (but still must do), you might try turning them into a “game” or “competition.” Can I finish all of these dishes in less time that I did yesterday?
One other tip is to add music to any boring, repetitious, or tedious task that needs to be performed. Doing laundry is a chore. Doing laundry when you are dancing to ‘70’s disco music can actually be fun. Or sing along to your favorite country-western song. Whatever fits your style.
Confusion and Uncertainty
Ever put off a project because it’s just so big, you don’t know where to start? It’s “the elephant in the room” so to speak. Which, of course, reminds me of an awful joke: How do you eat an elephant? The answer is one bite at a time! For the purposes of our daunting project, that means to break it down into manageable pieces, and then knock them off one at a time.
Let’s say I have a “big” instructional design project. I know at the outset that it will require hundreds of hours of work to finish, and involve several meetings with many, many people. Where do I begin? With a blueprint, of course. Then list individual tasks, breaking things down into chunks that can be accomplished in ten to thirty minutes if possible. You may not be able to finish the entire project today, but you can make a phone call, or set up a meeting. Hopefully, one accomplished task will lead to the next, and soon you’re well on your way.
You may also have anxiety around what you might encounter once your get started, or concern that you may make wrong decisions. Again, there is nothing like a solid blueprint or plan to get things rolling. Show your plan to someone else, and get their feedback. These preliminary steps can go a long way towards alleviating anxiety.
Resentment or Entitlement
Sometimes you know how to do something, you have the time, and you don’t even dislike the actual task. But, you resent having to do it for some reason. Maybe it’s something simple like filling out an expense report. You’ve done it before, you have the time, and the task itself is not unpleasant. Yet you procrastinate because you resent the process itself. Why are you forced to justify your expenses and fill out paperwork, just to get back your gas money from your last business trip. Why can’t there be a more efficient way? Can’t management just trust you with a credit card?
Or perhaps you think the task is beneath you. Someone else should be doing it for you. You should have an administrative assistant - right? Why are you being forced to do something this menial?
And so, rather than just spend the ten minutes and get the report done, you set it aside and internally growl over the prospect of having to do it at all. This is just one example. We all have those little tasks that annoy and vex us. We know we should just power through and do it, but our resentment has us trapped.
The best thing to do is find someone else to do it by swapping tasks with them. Odds are that there is someone out there who doesn’t mind doing expense reports, who simultaneously dislikes a task that you are good at. If that’s not an option, then try to find a way to reward yourself for “being good.” Tell yourself, “if I do XYZ, then I will reward myself with ______ (something you enjoy) when I’m done.” And then actually do the fun thing.
Emotions Concerning Other People
Perhaps your procrastination has to do with your feelings concerning the other people involved in performing the task. You may be bitter that you are compelled to do the task, or do it according to someone else’s rules (that you don’t agree with). Or you are simply concerned about what other people might think, or how they may react to the task you have completed. Either way, until you start, you don’t have to face that reality. It’s avoidance, plain and simple.
There are no easy answers for this type of procrastination, because it is more than simply putting something off. First, however, it’s important to remember that other people generally don’t care as much about your “stuff” as you do. If you find yourself worrying about what other people might think – stop. It’s not worth the energy Next, the only thing that is going to help when it comes to working with other people is regular open and honest communication. Other people might not care about you or your tasks, but they don’t want to be blindsided. Keep that in mind.
The Adult Tantrum
When the procrastination is all wrapped up with stubbornness, resistance, anger, and sadness, it can amount to what I call an “adult tantrum.” You know you should do something, you are supposed to do it, you have every logical reason to do it, and yet you stubbornly refuse to start. It is reminiscent of the two year old toddler screaming “no” at the top of his/her lungs, refusing to do something they are supposed to do (like taking a bath, or going to bed, etc.).
My advice on this one is simple: stop, and listen to your emotions. Your psyche is trying to tell you something. Perhaps you are in a job you hate, hate, hate, but don’t have the courage to quit and move on. Your repeated procrastination (which will usually lead to negative consequences if it’s work-related) is a manifestation of this inner conflict. Listen, and then act on it. Failure to do so is only going to lead to more bad things, such as hypertension, stress headaches, and so on.
My All-Time Best Tip for Getting Things Done
On a more positive note, I learned a long time ago that if something was scheduled on my day planner, and other people were involved and expecting my action, then those things routinely got accomplished. Whether it was a medical appointment, a business meeting, picking up a child at school, making a phone call, going to an exercise class, or just about anything else. If it had a date, time, place, and other people were informed and were going to hold me accountable, it got done. This is not a silver bullet, but it comes close. Something for you to think about.
When it comes right down to it, it’s your choice. Figure out right now what the emotion is behind your procrastination, and face it head on. Use one of the tips above, or create your own. Then again, you can always wait until tomorrow and see if something else comes up. It’s up to you. Just remember, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.