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P is for Procrastination

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the delay between intention and action. Generally speaking procrastination can be problematic and have a negative impact on our lives but everyone procrastinates on occasions. And there can be times when procrastination is a useful tool and can be a healthy option for us e.g. when it stops up making rash, knee-jerk decisions rather than taking the time to stop and consider things properly.

I believe that life is about balance and that there is always a right time – a kairos time - for everything, but like a lot of things knowing the theory and putting things into practice can often be quite different.

“Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” Joseph Ferrari,

(a leading researcher in the study of procrastination)

We aren’t born procrastinators, we learn procrastination as a way to navigate through life, to avoid difficult things, to avoid responsibility, to save energy, to avoid making decisions etc but “Procrastination is the thief of time” (Edward Young) and we only have one life.

Everyone puts things off from time to time, but procrastinators habitually avoid any task they perceive as difficult.

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,”

Tim Pychyl

I listened to an interesting talk by Dr Fuschia Sirois recently, which stated that procrastination is linked to our emotional responses to things and this made a lot of sense.

“People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” Dr Fuschia Sirois

With habitual procrastinators, "I don't feel like it" comes to take precedence over goals or responsibilities and this leads to a downward spiral of negative emotions that further deter future effort.

The most common words associated with procrastination are: delaying, avoiding, distracting i.e. postponing on purpose. Habitual procrastinators avoid tasks or put them off because they don’t think that they will be easy or they will enjoy doing them. Their thought process continues ‘If I avoid doing this task I won’t become unhappy, I won’t have to make an effort, I won’t become scared or I won’t risk failure' etc . Those who procrastinate sporadically, in contrast, often do so because they are confused by the complexity of a task or when they’re overly distracted or tired.

Habitual procrastinators are often aware of their actions and the consequences, but feel that changing their habits requires even greater effort than completing the task in front of them.

The word 'procrastination' comes from the Latin verb procrastinare (to put off until tomorrow), but it’s more than just voluntarily delaying, procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia (doing something against our better judgment) therefore procrastination can be considered a form of self-harm and an irrational act.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good days and difficult days and as individuals we have lots of diverse reasons for avoiding doing things but continual procrastination can impact quality of life, relationships and overall well being because when people procrastinate, they often delay priorities and instead focus on less important, more enjoyable, simpler tasks instead.

More often than not, “The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.” Rita Emmett

Often when we overcome our delaying tactics and actually start a task then we find that the sense of overwhelm that we had built up into our head to be an insurmountable mountain was in fact just a molehill and it wasn’t anything like as bad or difficult as we expected it to be.

Why do people procrastinate?

People procrastinate because their motivation to delay things is irrationally stronger than motivation to act. Furthermore immediate gratification (feeling better in the short term) is preferential to the delayed gratification of positive outcomes further down the line; a perfect example of present bias i.e. our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones

The amygdala is thought to form the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli including detection of threat and activation of appropriate fear-related behaviours in response to threatening or dangerous stimuli. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala , the “threat detector” , perceives that task as a genuine threat, in this case to our self-esteem or well-being. Even if we intellectually recognize that putting off the task will create more stress for ourselves in the future, our brains are still wired to be more concerned with removing the threat in the present. Researchers call this “amygdala hijack.”

Why do we distract ourselves with other things?

The limbic system is a part of the brain responsible for behavioural and emotional responses, such as pleasure seeking. It is more developed than the prefrontal cortex which is needed during more complex behaviours, like decision-making and planning so the limbic system tends to gain control which is why you start to do activities that make you happy instead of those you need to do.

There are two main types of procrastination:

Procrastination on hard things with deadlines

When we have a deadline.. even if we leave things to the last minute we can often ‘come up with the goods’ in the nick of time and pull things together so the effects of procrastination are often short term

Procrastination on hard things without deadlines is a more difficult procrastination to overcome as we never have the sense of urgency of a deadline so therefore we just keep thinking that we have all the time in the world and so often things don’t get done and we are can potentially procrastinate forever. Not only is the second type problematic per se, but even worse, the second type is often less visible and so we end up suffering quietly and the activities we do to avoid or distract ,we are unable to really fully enjoy because we experience shame and guilt and this can lead to long-term unhappiness and regret.

Tim Urban , in his talk ‘Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator’ explains this very clearly using three characters the Rational Decision-Maker, the Instant Gratification Monkey

and the Panic Monster

We only have one life and if we regularly put off doing things then we are likely to find that by the end of our lives there will have been a lot of missed opportunities and a life that could have been full of memories will be replaced with one of regrets. 

The following quote by Picasso certainly focuses ones attention and doesn’t pull any punches: 

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone”

 Pablo Picasso

Every choice we make, or decision we don’t make, affects our future and can also have an impact on our relationships with others.

Our future will be a direct reflection of the decisions we make right now so why not ‘Do something that your future self will thank you for’ ? (Sean Patrick Flanery)

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