What is Procrastination?

The Procrastination Process

Procrastination is a strange phenomenon.  Its purpose seems to be to make our life more pleasant, but instead it almost always adds stress, disorganisation and frequently failure.  The process has been described by psychologists as:

1.   You have an objective, usually something you and others value and respect.  There may be a deadline, so you say to yourself, “I must start.”

2.   You delay, briefly thinking of real and imagined advantages of starting later – “I’ll do it tomorrow when I don’t have much to do.”

3.   You delay more, becoming self-critical – “I should have started sooner” – and/or self-excusing – “I really couldn’t have left the party early last night, my best friends were there.”

4.   You delay still more, until finally the task has to be done, usually hastily – “Just get it done any old way” – or you just don’t have time – “I can’t do this!”

5.   You berate yourself – “There is something wrong with me” – and swear never to procrastinate again and/or you discount the importance of the task – “It doesn’t matter.”

6.   You repeat the process almost immediately on other important tasks, as if it were an addiction or compulsion.

The wisest course of action, most of the time, would be to simply do the unpleasant task as soon as practical, while we have enough time to do the job right and get it over with, not prolonging our agony.  But we put it off.  Why?

Why Do We Do It?

While the term “procrastination” technically refers to the avoidance of a specific task that needs to be accomplished, this explanation doesn’t begin to capture the emotions triggered by the word.  For most of us, the word “procrastination” reminds us of past experiences where we felt guilty, lazy, inadequate, anxious, or stupid – or some combination of these.  It also implies a value judgment; if you procrastinate, you are bad, and as such, lack worth as a person.

Procrastination is quite complex.  It involves emotions, skills, thoughts or attitudes, and subconscious reactions to various events.  Furthermore, the causes and dynamics of putting off an important but unpleasant task vary from person to person and from task to task for the same person.  Just some of the myriad of reasons we might procrastinate include:

1.  Lack of Relevance.  If something is neither relevant nor meaningful to you personally, it may be difficult to get motivated to even begin.  The task may be boring.  If a project has been imposed or assigned to you and it is not consistent with your own interests, you may be reluctant to spend the necessary time to see it to conclusion.

2.  Perfectionism.  Having unreachable standards will discourage you from pursuing a task.  Perfection is unattainable and perfectionists know this, so are often reluctant to start.

3. Evaluation Anxiety.  Since others’ responses to your work are not under your direct control, overvaluing these responses can create the kind of anxiety that will interfere with work getting accomplished.

4. Ambiguity.  If you are uncertain of what is expected of you – your priorities, goals or objectives are unclear – it may be difficult to get started.

5. Fear of the Unknown.  If you are venturing into a new realm or field, you don’t have any way of knowing how well you’ll do.  Such an uncertain outcome may inhibit your desire to begin.

6.  Fear of Failure.  You may think that if you don’t get an ‘A’, you are failure.  Or that if you strive for something and don’t achieve it that you, as a person, are a failure.

7. Inability to Handle the Task.  If through lack of training, skill, or ability you feel that you lack the personal resources to do the job, you may avoid it completely.

8.  Feeling Overwhelmed.  The task is so momentous that it seems impossible to achieve.  Where to begin?  Why even start?

9.  Fear and Anxiety.  You spend so much time worrying about the task rather than completing it.

10.  Negative Beliefs about Yourself.  Your inner critic tells you “I cannot succeed in anything” or “I lack the necessary skills to perform the task”, ensuring you never start anything.

The next blog will focus on tips to overcome procrastination.