Indecisive, insecure or impulsive - why do we procrastinate so much?

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There is no shortage of quotes on procrastination. A quick google search brings up scores of results, quotes from all manner of people from Abraham Lincoln to Mark Twain, from Napoleon to Picasso. 

“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” 

― Mark Twain

Indeed, procrastination has long been identified as a certain way to avoid success or to hurt our performance in a task and yet so many of us do it (some more than others). Procrastination is also a common theme among the clients I coach. So what is procrastination, why do we do it and how do we work with our procrastination tendencies?

What is procrastination?

The essence of procrastination is to willingly defer something even though we expect the delay to make us worse off. The appraisal that needs preparing, the report that needs to be written and handed in, the deadline that’s fast approaching, the difficult conversation that needs to happen, the pile of important papers to sort through… The list of tasks that we avoid doing is endless. 

In fact, 20% percent of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. For them procrastination cuts across all areas of their life – they don’t pay bills on time, they don’t cash gift certificates, they leave Christmas shopping until Christmas eve…..

Whenever we knowingly delay doing what is necessary in favour of the easier, less important task, we feed our demon of procrastination and go against our better judgment.

Why then do we procrastinate?

Two of the world's leading experts on procrastination: Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada have given us many insights into why we procrastinate.

  • Procrastination is not, as it may appear on the surface, a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time, although they are more optimistic than others.
  • Procrastinators are made not born.
  • Procrastinators delude themselves by saying for example, "I'll feel more like doing this tomorrow." Or "I work best under pressure." But in fact they do not get the urge the next day or work best under pressure.
  • Procrastinators actively look for distractions, particularly ones that don't take a lot of commitment on their part (checking e-mail, social media). They distract themselves as a way of regulating their emotions such as fear of failure. Time-wasting is a method for avoiding potential pain. If we don’t try too hard, we will never see our full potential – and that saves us from being fully judged by others.

In a nutshell and simply put, we procrastinate to protect our sense of self, our ego, from failure, from judgments, from success, from bearing the excruciating sense of just being ‘good enough’ (the only thing of course we can ever be).

Avoiding disappointment

Some of us procrastinate to avoid disappointment and performance anxiety. We postpone what we want to do and what we know will give us satisfaction long-term because it feels too threatening in the moment. We may tell ourselves that choosing the easier or more pleasurable option is the better, safer thing to do short-term.

Indeed, as humans we resist change. Our body, brain, and behaviour have a built-in tendency to stay within rather narrow limits and to snap back when changed. This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis and actually works to protect us, to keep things as they are even if they aren't very good. Protecting us from the seemingly worst case scenario, from failure.

Perfection isn’t everything

Many of us suffer from perfectionism, putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. This sets us up for failure which of course is frightening. A perfectionist may find themselves saying: “If I never finish, I can never be judged.”

Some tips to work creatively with procrastination

What kind of procrastinator are you? Having some insight into the type of procrastinator you are will help you to recognize when you procrastinate more easily.

Dr. Ferrari identifies three basic types of procrastinators:

  • arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
  • avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
  • decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.

Once you notice yourself procrastinating, reflect and bring understanding to your behavior. Be kind to yourself - we often bully ourselves and the harshness of our inner critic can keep us stuck in old ways. By bringing a kindly attitude towards yourself, you will be empowered to take small steps forward and manage better that which may feel frightening and uncomfortable.

Here are some tips:

  • When you feel resistance in your body, neither back away from it nor force your way through. You can do that by simply naming it: ‘I’m feeling resistant.’ Notice what happens when you meet yourself in the place of resistance.  Often underneath resistance lies fear. When we meet fear, acknowledge it, usually we release tension which allows us to open up and to move forward (rather than staying stuck) which can help us take the next small step. Taking regular, small steps is the secret to moving outside your comfort zone.
  • If you have a tendency to perfectionism, take some time to reflect on your good reason for wanting to be perfect and perhaps begin to allow yourself to be ‘good enough’, to be human. Notice what it feels like when you take off self-imposed pressure. You may feel release and an opening and willingness towards taking action.
  • If you have a tendency to catastrophise and anticipate the worse, the first step is to acknowledge your anxiety and to recognise your thought pattern. Be clear what the worse case scenario is that you are imagining, then ask yourself: ‘On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 not likely at all and 10 very likely) how likely is this to happen? Or how true is it? More often than not you’ll find that the catastrophic situation you imagine is unlikely to happen. This can help you come back to the present moment. To see the task for what it actually is – a task for you to do as best you can.
  • The 30-day challenge: For 30 days approach one important task a day – and one task only. You may find yourself thinking: “One task, that’s not enough, I have so much to do!” One important task everyday, can be – for many of us – more than you’ve done in a long time. Review your progress at the end of each week. Praise yourself for the ones you did complete and reflect on the ones you haven’t completed. Bring a sense of curiosity and kindness to it e.g.: “Ah, isn’t it interesting that I wanted to sort through that important pile of papers but I haven’t done it. I wonder what that is about.” Then resolve to doing the task the next day.
  • 1:1 coaching can help you to explore and understand your pattern of procrastination. Patterns are often engrained and unconscious and hence hard to grasp. Only when we become aware of what we do, can we define a new strategy in order to change.

About Karen Liebenguth

Karen Liebenguth

Karen Liebenguth is an experienced coach, an accredited mindfulness teacher, a certified MBTI facilitator and Focusing practitioner. She works with private and corporate individuals and groups to foster personal growth and sustainable change.

She set up Green Space Coaching & Mindfulness in 2008 (www.greenspacecoaching.com) to offer coaching while walking in London’s parks and green space tapping into the benefits nature has on our psychological, emotional and physical well-being. She believes that it is in nature where reflection, insight and change can happen most naturally.

Karen trained in mindfulness with Breathworks-Mindfulness, one of the leading mindfulness organisations in the UK. Karen offers 1:1 mindfulness training, introductory workshops and tailored mindfulness programs for the workplace. She offers guidance and knowledge to help organisations create a culture of wellbeing. Karen follows the Good Practice Guidelines set out by the UK Network for Mindfulness-Based Teacher Training Organisations

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