Do you clean your house instead of working on a big project? Do you put off sorting through your closet because it seems daunting? You might be a procrastinator.
People throw around the term procrastination frequently, but it’s very real and has very real consequences.
“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today!”
We have probably all heard this saying before at least once or twice in our lives. Although we are all pretty aware of the meaning of this saying, we do rarely listen to it.
In fact, the very existence of the saying only points out that people all across the world are procrastinating on the things they intend to do.
We put off doing the dishes and the laundry. We put off going out for a run or hitting the gym. We put off reading the latest best selling book and we sit idle before conference deadlines.
We often put things off until the deadline is looming and the pressure has increased enough to make us uncomfortable. That is Procrastination.
Procrastination is widespread. For example, studies estimate that 85-95% of all college students procrastinate now and then.
Also among adults, it has been reported that 20% of the population in the US, UK and Australia are chronic procrastinators.
For this 20%, procrastination has become part of their lifestyle – postponing at home, at work, at school, in relationships, this is their way of life.
Twenty percent is higher than the rates of many other diseases and conditions, yet we treat the illness of procrastination as a funny topic, as just laziness, as just poor time management.
Numerous studies indicate that procrastination is associated with significant impairment of work and academic performance. We often engage in activities like sleeping, reading, or watching TV instead of completing those tasks.
Even more importantly, procrastination reduces our well-being, increases negative feelings such as shame or guilt, increases symptoms of serious mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and delays us from seeking medical treatment when it is needed.
What is Procrastination?
Since the dawn of time, people have suffered from procrastination. Even the classic Greek poet Hesiod tackled this problem in his poem Works and Days:
“Do not postpone for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow;barns are not filled by those who postpone and waste time in aimlessness. Work prospers with care; he who postpones wrestles with ruin.”Hesiod – Works and Days
Also, Seneca, the Roman philosopher, wrote:
“While we waste our time hesitating and postponing, life is slipping away.”Seneca
This quote precisely reveals the main reason why learning to overcome procrastination is so important.
The problem is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia.
Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.
Our modern definition of procrastination is:
Procrastination can be defined as deliberately delaying the beginning or the completion of an intended action.
Procrastination is thus about delaying “intended” tasks or things, we already decided to do.
Procrastination is void of any strategic reasoning, so, a typical procrastinator is aware of and knows that she would be better off without procrastinating.
“What I’ve found is that while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator,” says APS Fellow Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University. He is a pioneer of modern research on the subject.
Why we Procrastinate?
There are a number of reasons that can drive us to procrastinate. It can come from a fear of failure: “What if nobody likes my cooking? What if people will think I’m a fraud? What it does not live up to expectations? If I don’t finish it, people can’t judge my skills”.
But, it can also come from a fear of success: “What if they will like my product and want more from me? Can I live up to that?”
As Joe Ferrari says, even though these statements sound very logical, they’re all just excuses. Procrastinators are the best excuse makers.
Scientifically, what causes Procrastination?
For starters, human brains are wired to do so. We can picture this whole process as a fight that has been sparked between two parts of the mind when it’s faced with a tedious task: a battle of the limbic system (the unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center) and the prefrontal cortex (the internal “planner”). When the limbic system dominates, which is pretty often, the result is putting off until tomorrow what could (and should) be done today.
It is useless to blame your procrastination habits on heredity, the phases of the moon, or the weather. Your choice to procrastinate all comes down to one simple thing – the wiring of your brain.
The limbic system, which is one of the most dominant portions of our brain, is always working and is also part of the brain that is fully developed from birth. This limbic system controls our mood and instinct.
Basic emotions like fear, anger, and pleasure, as well as certain “drives”, such as libido, is under the control of this system. For example, the limbic system tells you to move your hand if it is near a cactus plant, or in a greater sense, it urges you to get away from seemingly unpleasant tasks.
The prefrontal cortex is a weaker portion of the brain that is located right behind the forehead. This is where you assimilate information and make decisions. Psychologists say that this part of the brain separates humans from animals.
The prefrontal cortex is what eventually forces us to complete a job or task. This part doesn’t work automatically. We need to put in effort to make it function. As soon as you lose focus on a particular task, the limbic system takes over. This is when you become more interested in doing something that pleases you; thus, procrastination kicks in.
Procrastinators want people to believe that they’re busy, so that people don’t evaluate them negatively by calling them ‘lazy’. When procrastination kicks in, the following changes occur in our brain.
The amygdala is the section of the brain associated with our automatic emotional reaction to a situation. In moments of being overwhelmed, such as having many tasks to do or a particularly difficult one, there is a fight (resistance) or flight (ignore) reaction.
Both are forms of procrastination – the brain is protecting us against possible negative feelings. The norepinephrine chemical takes over, causing increased levels of fear and anxiety. That’s when adrenaline gets pumped into the picture.
Our brain is like a drug addict. We are addicted to dopamine, which is produced by pleasurable experiences, and so long as a task has a higher likelihood of producing dopamine, our brain is addicted to perform these activities while actively avoiding the others.
This is the scientific explanation behind procrastination, so at least you don’t have to just feel like a lazy bum anymore. Blame science!
You can read more about all the sciency stuff here.
Are you an Active or Passive Procrastinator?
According to some researchers, there are two main types of procrastination: passive procrastination and active procrastination.
Passive procrastination is the kind we’re most familiar with, when you put something off but don’t replace it with a useful task. During passive procrastination you put the task off, worry about it and often ends up not finishing at all.
During active procrastinating, however, you’re fully aware that there’s something you should be doing, but you’ve decided that what you’re doing instead is more important and will pay off in the long run.
Active procrastinators tend to delay things because they work well under pressure and are motivated by the fact that a deadline is coming up. Active procrastinators have lower levels of stress and more belief in their own ability to succeed than passive procrastinators.
All the ways we justify our Procrastination.
In order to justify our own procrastination we unconsciously use various emotional coping skills. These are designed to reduce stress associated with putting off intended and important personal goals. This type of justification provides immediate pleasure and allows us to draw attention away from the consequences of our procrastination.
Here are the most common ways that justify our own procrastination and make ourselves feel better about not doing what we should be doing.
We compare our situations to those that have it worse than us. “ I didn’t do the dishes today but i’m sure Sarah’s sink is even dirtier than mine”
Pretending that we are not procrastinating, because the task you are doing is actually more important than the one we are avoiding.
We distract ourselves with other piddly tasks like watching YouTube videos so that we forget about what we are supposed to be doing.
We avoid the location where the task is supposed to take place. (we don’t go in the kitchen to avoid the sink full of dirty dishes)
We convince ourselves that the intended task as being not that important “I’m putting off cleaning my room for the moment because I really need to shower instead.”
We pretend that getting an early start on a project is harmful to our performance and leaving the work to the last moment will produce better results. “I’m most productive after in the afternoon.”
We make jokes of our lack of achievement and procrastination, by thinking the effort to require accomplishing goals is funny “Have you noticed how much hair Bob has lost in his efforts to get that promotion”
We blame others for us avoiding a task. “I’m not going to start that project until other people acknowledge what I have already done!”
Valorisation (promoting better gains):
We recognize the satisfaction what we achieved in the task we did while we should have been doing something else. “ I learned some new cleaning hacks from that YouTube video!”
What Procrastination is not.
Procrastination is not Laziness
Procrastinators often put off doing things, leave them to the very last moment or sometimes even spend their time staring at the wall.
Lazy people, simply don’t do anything and are just fine with it. Procrastinators, on the other hand, have the desire to actually do something but can’t force themselves to start.
Procrastination is not a synonym for lazy.
Procrastination is not cause by our complicated lives.
Many people claim there’s too much going on in a world of multi-taskers.
“We have had the same number of hours for centuries. To say that we’re more complicated today insults our ancestors, who may have been farmers, who had to get up in the morning and plow the fields, fix the fence, get the pump working, feed the animals, lubricate this piece of equipment, fix the roof. Their lives were pretty busy.”Dr. Joseph Ferrari
Technology does not cause procrastination.
We were procrastinating long before the internet and cell phones were invented.
Prioritizing is not procrastinating.
Just because some people choose to focus on this task rather than that one does not make them a procrastinator.
How to stop Procrastinating?
You are taking a step in the right direction to stop procrastinating for good, by learning more about why we procrastinate and the science behind that.
But you can learn all about self-discipline, motivation, planning and time management, but unless you implement what you learn into part of your daily routine and your habits, it will be only useless information stored in your memory without ever helping you.
Any book, article or video can give you tips and tools for stopping procrastination, but it is up to you to actually use them.
SO, WHAT WILL HELP YOU STOP PROCRASTINATING?
1Don’t punish yourself for procrastinating. Being angry with yourself will only increase your stress and make it harder for you to get the work done. Move forward and focus on what you have to get done instead.
2Set a timer. Make a deal with yourself that you only have to do the task for 10 minutes. Usually once you push past the initial starting of a task you will just keep going long after the timer beeps.
3Break the task into pieces. Instead of thinking “I have to clean the kitchen”, break it down to individual tasks. “Empty the dishwasher” “Load the dishwasher” “Wipe the counters”
4Just get it done, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect does not exist anyway to don’t let perfection hold you back.
The right mindset.
If you find yourself procrastinating, there are many potential reasons as to why you’re doing it. Procrastination is not something you are stuck with, however, and it can be beat for good.
By taking the time to understand why you’re putting things off, you can then find the best course of action to ensure you don’t repeat the behavior. All it takes is a little self-reflection, honesty and willingness to make the improvements. A positive mindset can make the difference.