Do you often put off until tomorrow tasks that you should do today? I know I am guilty of deferring actions until a later date when it would be in my best interests to just “do it” now. However, I procrastinate, avoiding action, hoping a task or problem will just “go away”. It seldom does. Avoidance often makes the situation worse.
We all put off mundane tasks when something more important demands our attention and energy. A busy life requires that we prioritize, applying the old adage of “first things first”. Prioritizing is not procrastination.
Procrastination has been described as “behavior which is characterized by needless deferment of action or involvement until a later time or delaying making a decision when such a delay is counterproductive to our best interests”.
A recent survey indicates that twenty percent of Americans identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. For this segment of the population procrastination is a lifestyle, albeit a counterproductive one. They fail to pay their bills on time, they miss appointments and frustrate their friends with their tardiness. They file their income taxes late and leave their Christmas shopping until the last minute. They avoid making decisions. A procrastinator’s maladaptive behavior causes anxiety and stress and often threatens their very lives when they delay seeking medical treatment.
People who indulge in procrastination have a tendency to under-perform in almost every area of their lives, from health to family relationships. They struggle with it, repeatedly promising themselves that next time will be different, that they will not dally and delay, however most often they do.
Procrastination becomes worrisome when it impedes normal functioning. We can determine if we need to address the problem of procrastination by evaluating the consequences of our delaying tactics. Have you ever lost a job, damaged a friendship or your health by putting off until tomorrow what you should have done today?
Many people use procrastination as a way of coping with the anxiety associated with beginning or completing a task or action. We all procrastinate to some degree and it is normal to put off a duty that is unpleasant or stressful. We are busy, “too much to do in too little time”. Procrastinators tend to tell lies to themselves. We invent excuses to avoid something unpleasant, difficult or boring. We will do it later.
“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task”. ~ William James
Procrastinators are generally very optimistic about their ability to meet an obligation or deadline. They reassure themselves and others, “don’t worry, everything is under control, I will get it done”. (Therefore there is no need to start.) As an example, they may have a presentation to prepare for work that is due in six weeks. It will only take a few days, so why begin. Procrastinators, lulled by a false sense of security, allow time to drift away. At some point, they cross over an imaginary line and suddenly realize they are not in control. There just isn’t enough time!
At that point they address the problem but they are making progress only because they haven’t any other choice. Their backs are against the wall, there are no alternatives so they get to work. Progress is being made, but they have lost their freedom. They frantically push at the final hour to complete the assignment, telling themselves and others that they function best “when they are behind the 8 ball” or they justify the delay by explaining that they enjoy the euphoric rush of a pressured deadline. That is nonsense!
Procrastinators never know if they could have done a better job if they had only taken the time to complete the task properly rather than in a hurried rush. The presentation may actually be acceptable. This produces confusing mixed feelings: a minor pride of accomplishment, scorn for the employer who doesn’t recognize a sub-standard performance and a sense of guilt for not doing their best.
No matter what the scenario, the net result is reinforcement. The procrastinator is often rewarded positively for their poor behavior. (“Look – I got the job done, no one knows I didn’t give it my best effort”.) Consequently, this counterproductive, time-sapping behavior is repeated over and over again.
Procrastination demands a high cost to others as well as oneself. Procrastination often shifts the burden of responsibilities onto friends, family and co-workers who become resentful. Procrastination destroys teamwork and erodes cooperation in the workplace and in personal relationships. Procrastination has a high potential for painful consequences and leads to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, self-doubt and depression.
Procrastinators have higher level of alcohol consumption as well as excessive use of both prescription and illegal drugs. This is a manifestation of generalized problems in self-regulation. The effect of avoidance coping styles underlies procrastination and leads to disengagement by means of substance abuse.
Procrastination sabotages success. Behavioral psychologists cite several personality traits that procrastinators manifest; perhaps you know some of these folks.
Harried Harry is always rushed. He uses procrastination to focus attention on how busy he is. His affairs are so complex and demanding; that is why he’s always late. Harry suffers from a false sense of self importance and spends considerable time justifying his continual tardiness. Harry fears attachment and procrastinates in order to establish a barrier between himself and others. By delaying, he creates chaos in his life, believing that chaos will keep other people away. It works. Few people have the patience to deal with Harry for very long.
Manipulative Mary uses time to manipulate and control the behavior of the people with whom she interacts. “The meeting can’t start until I arrive” or “I will call you when I’m ready”. She subconsciously feels that if she is on time it will only increase other people’s expectations, thus increasing the amount of pressure and anxiety she experiences. Mary’s frustrating ploy fails to win many friends.
Stubborn Sam’s procrastination is an expression of his stubbornness and pride. “Don’t try to tell me what to do”, “I’ll do it when I am good and ready!” “You can’t push me around!” or “I’ll do it my way”. Sam is afraid of losing his autonomy and procrastinates as a way of maintaining his independence. Procrastinating helps Sam feel in control of situations in which other people have authority over his time.
Pitiful Paula struggles with feelings of low self-confidence and diminished self esteem. She is a perfectionist and demands a high level of performance even though she feels inadequate or incapable of actually achieving that perfection. Therefore, she avoids doing anything for fear of failure. This type of procrastinator would rather have others believe they lack effort rather than ability. Paula fears being alone. She procrastinates because she wants to feel constantly connected to other people. She procrastinates until she is in such a bind that someone has to come along and rescue her. Procrastination therefore guarantees that other people are involved in her life. Her behavior is not only pitiful, it’s pathetic.
Frustrated Frank always feels like a victim. He is overwhelmed; he cannot or will not understand his behavior or why he just can’t get things done on time; it’s a frustrating mystery and the reason for his constant procrastination “just isn’t his fault”. Frank whines a lot.
It is often truly difficult to stop hem-hawing and eradicate procrastination because delay and avoidance behavior has become an ingrained method of coping with day-to-day stress and responsibilities. It is obvious to the procrastinator that if he stops using delaying tactics, others will put new expectations and demands upon him. It is easier to create an excuse, delay or postpone.
Procrastinators often have trouble seeking help, or finding an understanding source of support, due to the stigma and profound misunderstanding surrounding extreme forms of procrastination. The problem is often mischaracterized simply as a lack of willpower, ambition or just plain laziness.
Research on the physiological roots or cause of procrastination focuses on the role of the prefrontal cortex area of the human brain. This area is responsible for brain functions such as planning, attention and impulse control and acts as a filter by decreasing distracting stimuli from other brain regions. Low activation or damage in this area of the brain may reduce an individual’s ability to filter out distracting stimuli, ultimately resulting in a loss of attention, reduced organizational skills and increased procrastination. This is similar to the prefrontal lobe’s role in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) where under-activation is common.
Acknowledging that we procrastinate and understanding how and to what degree it impacts our daily life is the first step in reducing its influence. Procrastinators can change their behavior. Keep working on it. You may still procrastinate but as you consciously decide not to delay you will experience more freedom from stress and gain personal self-satisfaction.
Old habits are hard to break. When you do succeed, be sure to take time to savor the the victory so you will remember how good it feels to act decisively. This will be a great help the next time you feel in need of a bit of encouragement.