Who has not allowed a deadline to slip through your fingers because you could not pull yourself together and do what needed to be done? Some things you loathe doing. Sometimes, you can’t get started on a project because you don’t know how or where to start and you fear that you’re unable to do it. Other times, you really do have many important items on your plate, you are feeling overwhelmed and you resent being expected to do more. You could become tangled in a web of procrastination.
Procrastination is most simply defined as delay. Procrastinators postpone important tasks that ought to be completed in the near term, often a result of indecision or an insistence on perfection. Procrastinators are also noted for immersing themselves in low priority tasks, at the expense of those that might be associated with deadlines or penalties. The consequences of such behavior can have a pronounced dysfunctional effect on the procrastinator’s life.
What it is, and isn’t
Joseph Ferrari, Professor of Psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and a noted researcher in the field of procrastination, reports that the disorder takes several forms. He and his fellow researchers have identified two primary types:
1.) Chronic procrastinators, who are perpetually unable to complete tasks.
2.) Situational procrastinators, who delay taking action on tasks that are considered particularly onerous.
Occasionally, many of us display the signs of situational procrastination but it seems that chronic procrastinators are nearly unable to do what they must in a timely fashion. Furthermore, they are apparently unable to learn from the negative repercussions of their avoidance behavior. That they have suffered previously from failing to complete important responsibilities does not motivate them to get going when the next time sensitive task is due. Procrastination is “the quintessential breakdown of self-control,” according to Ferrari and his team.
“What I’ve found is that while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator,” he says. “It really has nothing to do with time management.” His research reveals that an inability to manage emotions is the root cause.
Procrastination is not to be confused with positive behaviors such as caution, where you think first and weigh the possible outcomes of moving forward to take action or prioritizing, when you assign a value and rank your responsibilities and complete highly ranked tasks first and least important tasks are done last, if at all. Procrastination represents a gap between intention and action.
Time is not the enemy
When psychologists initially studied this dilemma, they adopted time and value as their metrics, asking “Why does this person not perform a simple cost-benefit analysis of doing what they must vs. ignoring their responsibilities?” Unfortunately, some of us, and from time to time all of us, choose immediate gratification over more significant rewards that pay dividends in the long-term.
Instead of going to the gym at 6:00 AM, the procrastinator lies in bed for another half hour and reneges on a promise that she made to herself. She puts off doing her taxes and watches re-runs on television. Professor Ferrari and others feel that procrastination occurs for two basic reasons:
1.) You put off the task because you are not in the mood to either start or complete it.
2.) You assume that you’ll be in the appropriate frame of mind to complete the task in the near future.
But putting off until tomorrow what you could and should do today often brings on guilt and anxiety, defensiveness and stress. To ease your conscience, you might make little bargains with yourself and vow to clean up your act going forward (“If I sleep late today, I’ll work out for 90 minutes tomorrow”). That strategy sometimes works but for some of us, the avoidance behavior that is procrastination kicks in again and tomorrow there will be another excuse (“I have so much work to do, I can’t get to the gym and even if I go, I’ll be too exhausted to do a good workout”).
Getting stuck in a procrastination pattern does one’s self-esteem no favors. Beneath the defensive attitude that shuts down any who dare question why you’re not doing what you should do is self-loathing. You feel like a loser because you know you’re screwing up and no amount of self-righteous denial lets you hide that fact from yourself.
Reclaim your power and move forward
Ferrari and his team suggest that business and academic institutions can limit the tendency of procrastinators to wait until the last minute to complete tasks by rewarding early action and de-emphasizing penalties for lateness, in that way facilitating a pivot away from shame and toward the recognition of achievement.
In personal life, Ferrari advises that families of chronic procrastinators refrain from enabling the behavior. “Let the fridge go empty, let the car stall out. Don’t bail them out.” However, the tough love stance will sometimes adversely impact the other half of the couple and it is not always practical to allow such outcomes to occur.
If you are a chronic procrastinator, remember that we have only so many years in this life and it is therefore important to get on with things. Consider working with a coach who can help you understand and manage the sometimes overwhelming feelings of fear, inadequacy and loss of self-control that Ferrari and his team have identified as being associated with procrastination.
As your self-esteem heals, you will learn to accept that sometimes we all must take on responsibilities and obligations that we’d rather not. Eventually, you will be able to summon the self-discipline to do what you must and experience both pride and relief when the task is off your plate and you are free to do what makes you happy—even if that means doing nothing at all!
Thanks for reading,