When I was speaking to people about their procrastination problem, one young woman, Lotte*, who was crippled by procrastination, made an interesting observation. She described it as fascinating; it can be so destructive, and yet we all engage in it. (You might disagree that everyone engages in it, if you know someone who’s always ahead of the curve, always gets things done in good time. I suspect even those paragons have something they put off.) But it’s the destructiveness of it that I want to pick up on. Why do we engage in such destructive behaviour, even when we know it’s destructive?
Why do we do it?
Many people think procrastination is a time management problem. There is an element of this, many who procrastinate under estimate how long things take. Even things they’ve done before. But in reality, the main issue is that it’s an emotion management problem. Those of us who are regular procrastinators, those who find it has a huge impact on their lives, their happiness, their wellbeing, it’s because we’re not good at dealing with our emotions. We suppress them by avoiding the thing, by not facing it.
About ten or so years ago, I read something that said there were five reasons people procrastinate.
- Complacency – we think the task is not difficult, we know what we need to do, it won’t take long
- Avoiding discomfort – we’re not going to enjoy this, it will take a long time and be an unpleasant task
- Fear of failure – we won’t be able to manage it, we’ve failed before, being scared about taking a big step
- Emotional barriers – stressed, tired, not in the right frame of mind, not in the mood right now
- Action illusion – I’m busy, so I must be making progress, I can’t stop now. This is where you make colour coded plans in Excel, or beautifully handwritten ones where you’ve patiently coloured it in. Or spent hours ‘researching’
Let’s look at these another way
Complacency – that’s the lack of awareness, maybe a time management issue. But it could also be that we’re not being honest with ourselves about what’s involved. Many people I know who procrastinate will admit to being poor at estimating how long things really take.
Avoiding discomfort – well and truly in the emotional zone here – literally procrastinating because we can’t face the unpleasantness of it
Fear of failure – this is the big one I think – we procrastinate because we’re afraid that if we try and fail, that will somehow be worse than if we don’t try. So we avoid the task. Until the deadline is looming, then suddenly, we panic and get it done. Telling ourselves that we do our best work under pressure, But in reality giving ourselves an excuse – if it somehow isn’t as good as we or others would have liked, it’s because we didn’t have more time.
Emotional barriers – again, the writers here are properly in the emotional zone, but they’re not recognising that the emotional barriers may – indeed most likely are – excuses to avoid the task.
Action illusion – I don’t think this is a reason people procrastinate, it’s a tactic adopted to procrastinate. It’s an effect, not a cause.
More recently, I read something that came up with three reasons people procrastinate.
- Expectancy – the task doesn’t motivate because you have a low expectation of success
- Value – the task doesn’t motivate because you don’t value what it will give you. Basically, you don't want to do it
- Impulse – people who are highly impulsive are more likely to procrastinate – they will get easily distracted and move off task.
We want to be motivated to act, to act if we’re pulled towards success, or if we’re pushed to avoid a bad outcome. The procrastination equation takes both these forces into account. The pull towards success, the pull towards a valuable reward, if they are not there, we won’t act. Until we get to the point that we’re pushed into it by avoiding the bad outcome so we become less impulsive for the time being. The final part of the equation is the delay until the deadline arrives. The longer the delay, the longer we’ll avoid acting. (D’uh! We didn’t need to be told that!) We act, only when the deadline is looming.
What can we do?
What these reasons don’t give you however, is ways to overcome the problem. Even if you can identify why it is you don’t want to do the thing – and let’s face it, often we don’t even know the reason – we still can’t get on with it. As Lotte’s insight shows us, we continue to avoid the task even though we know our behaviour is destructive. So how can we quit procrastinating? That’s what we really need to know.
To be fair to both authors here, they have a whole chapter, or a whole book, devoted to analysing the problem and helping us to overcome it. I reviewed one of the books, and you can take a look at my review here to see what I thought.
The long term solution? We need to get better at managing our emotions. That sounds like a lot of work, and it is. You probably will have to do some deep soul searching type work on yourself, but I’m gonna guess you don’t want to hear that. If your problem is avoiding the difficult stuff because you don’t want to deal with the emotions of it, then hell, you’re not going to get started on the soul searching! That's another whole ball game of difficult stuff!
If you just want quick answers, the good news is that there are some simple strategies out there that really work. I’ve created these quick tips, things you can do right now, to stop procrastinating on what it is you need to get done. Sometimes, that’s all we need, a little push in the right direction. Something to just get started.
I use many of these strategies on a regular basis. And if I catch myself faffing and not getting on with things, if I find myself creating colour coded plans, I take a look at the list and pick the best strategy for that day and I get started on the real work. Download your copy and deal with your procrastination problem right now.
themindgym.com 2005 Wake up your mind (Ch E Jump Start) Time Warner Books London
Steel, Dr Piers, 2011, The Procrastination Equation Pearson Educational Limited Harlow