“Starting to work on a task is the hardest part” is what I’m telling myself is I’m struggling to think of a topic for my blog post. Yes, this is going to be about procrastination and no, I am no stranger to it. In fact, it affects about 20% of the adult population, and about 50% of the student population (Specter & Ferrari, 2000; Day, Mensink & O’Sullivan, 2000).
Let’s start by defining it. Procrastination (pro – for/to; crastinus – tomorrow, lat.) is the act of voluntarily avoiding and putting off important activities despite being aware of harmful consequences of said act. It’s purpose is to protect the person from an unpleasant emotional state which is associated with the task being avoided.
I. Three different takes on procrastination
1) Psychodynamic theories
According to these theories, we tend to avoid anything that threatens our Ego. Rising levels of anxiety serve as a signal that activates the defense mechanism of avoidant behavior. They believe procrastination is a manifestation of an early childhood trauma, or that it at least has something to do with our relationships with our primary care-givers (e.g. having a permissive or authoritarian parent increases your chances of procrastinating).
2) Behavioral theories
According to the theory of positive reinforcement the repeated lack of punishment after delaying a completion of a task, reinforces the same behavior. Same thing applies to the excitement and adrenaline associated with finishing the task last minute.
According to the theory of short-term hedonism (where we’re focused on a short-term gratification) VS long-term hedonism (where we’re willing to tolerate some frustration, keeping in mind our long-term goal and satisfaction that will follow), some people tend to go for the first option, that is, immediate rewards.
3) Cognitive theories
According to cognitive theories, the root of procrastination is in our irrational thoughts. For example, one might think “If I’m doing something, it has got to be perfect!”, which then leads to them fearing not being able to live up to the high standards they’ve set for themselves, which in turn leads to postponing facing the action. The action that is being avoided is perceived as very negative and threatening to our self-respect, so we resort to procrastination as a way to protect said self-respect.
It’s safe to conclude that, in all three conceptions, we have the common factor of being aware that we do want to get something done, but feeling unable to do it because we assign a deeper meaning to actually doing it. It always goes beyond the task itself, and it usually has more to do with our self-narratives (“I just can’t do it!”, “I’m stupid and if I try to do this, I’ll only prove it to myself and others around me”, “I can’t handle the frustration!” etc.) than with how boring, difficult or “impossible” the task is.
II. Why we need to work on it
The reason why it’s very important to deal with it and resolve the issue, is that it has many negative consequences for our self-conception and mental health. One of the major consequences is a high level of stress. Aside from this, a habit of procrastinating can lead to anxiety or depression, feelings of guilt, irritability, interpersonal problems, financial difficulties, not living up to one’s potentials etc (Batinić, personal communication, 2013). We put things off, then we put ourselves down for putting it off, which in turn makes the whole thing even more repulsive and unattractive, leading to even more procrastination…
If we do manage to “fix” this habit, we may experience these positive outcomes: feeling more at peace with ourselves, feeling stronger and more fulfilled, feeling more competent and self-confident, feeling free (free of self-judgment and free from all those terrible insufferable tasks).
III. To be continued…
Next time, I’ll be writing about some potential ways of taking control over your procrastination.
In the meantime, in case you’re meta-procrastinating by reading this text on procrastination, I suggest you ask yourself these questions: What happened right before I started procrastinating? What’s the trigger that got me procrastinating?
And hey, to end on a good note (for now), good news is that we all tend to procrastinate less with age (Steel, 2007)! Also, it is very important to remember that by practicing a new way of being and relating to things, and experiencing positive outcomes of those changes, can lead to us changing the way we operate.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counseling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Day, V., Mensink, D., & O’Sullivan, M. (2000). Patterns of academic procrastination. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 30(2), 120-134.
Specter, M. H., & Ferrari, J. R. (2000). Time orientations of procrastinators: Focusing on the past, present, or future?. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5; SPI), 197-202. Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65.