I’m writing this post after the first sunny weekend of the year and as I look out of my study window my mind is contemplating the days of work that I’m going to have to undertake to get the garden back into shape after a horrible winter. Perhaps unsurprisingly I didn’t spend the pleasant weekend working in the garden. Nope, my wife and I spent Sunday walking down by the river rather than tackling those difficult jobs that can wait till tomorrow, or probably more accurately in my case for a few weeks.
According to Mark Twain “never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well”. Whilst most of us have periods where we put things off this is not normally a problem and is a strategy that probably works quite well for us. However there are a group of people for whom procrastination is a serious problem and we know that for this group of chronic procrastinators issues such as anxiety, depression and self-critical thoughts are a bigger issue than they are for most.
Why are people prone to procrastination? If we look at what people are liable to do when they are procrastinating it may give us a clue. For example, people are allegedly spending more time at work ‘cyber loafing’, rather than getting down to the work that they are paid for. Most of us can remember having taking exams in the past or have children that are in the process of doing so now. Perhaps you will also recall how despite setting aside what seemed to be plenty of time to revise there always seemed to be some more pressing matter to attend to, e.g. reorganising the CD collection in alphabetical order. At one level this can be explained simply as an example of an individual being drawn towards intrinsically enjoyable rather than potentially boring/psychologically demanding tasks. However for many it’s about avoiding the negative emotions that fully engaging in the task might elicit.
When chronic procrastinators are asked about their thoughts they frequently give an insight into a self-critical internal world in which failure is just around the corner and any less than perfect efforts only serve to confirm how stupid they are. Procrastination is a behaviour often associated with clinical perfectionism. Thus paradoxically a student with a perfect history of A grades may find themselves stuck, unable to complete a piece of work that may shatter their perfect record and confirm that they are the poor student that they feel themselves to be rather than the competent/talented student that they objectively are.
However psychologically procrastination isn’t always bad. Psychologists Hancock and Toma hypothesised that one of the reasons we put things off or take a timeout is to allow a bruised ego to repair itself after a setback. To check out this idea they asked participants to prepare and deliver a short speech. Following the speech half the participants received neutral feedback and half negative. They were then offered the opportunity to participate in online distractions such as browsing their own Facebook profile, watching YouTube videos or reading the news. The researchers found that those that weathered the criticism best were twice as likely to browse their Facebook profile as those receiving neutral feedback. They interpreted this action as an unconscious effort, on the part of those that had been criticised, to reaffirm their values and beliefs about themselves.
Dealing with procrastination isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. As we have already mentioned people that are prone to procrastination may also be prone to self-critical internal dialogue. Thus for example when they have wasted the time that they assigned to a task such as studying by browsing the Internet they are likely to psychologically beat themselves up, a way of dealing with the events that at a gut level feels right for these people. However most of the recent research suggests that at such times it’s far better to forgive oneself, acknowledge that you have made a mistake, accept that everyone makes mistakes at times and invest your energies in recovering lost ground rather than beating yourself up.
There are unexpected pitfalls involved in finding the self-control to avoid procrastination. For example, people might find that whilst succeeding in applying themselves to their study self-control in other areas diminishes. Thus at the end of the day whilst they have studied solidly they may have also made numerous unscheduled visits to the fridge and eaten all sorts of attractive foods that they might have been trying to avoid. This suggests that controlling one’s environment is equally as important as developing a strong self-will in tackling procrastination.
If procrastination is a problem for you and would like to develop more helpful strategies to deal with it just give me a call or contact me here