Procrastination is like the fictional superhero Plastic Man, it easily changes its shape and form. Thus, we often mistake it for something else, causing us to choose the wrong strategies to deal with it. To understand what really helps counter procrastination, you first need to understand what it is not. The short answer is that procrastination is not about laziness, boredom, nor is it about time management. This is Part I of our Procrastination guide.
Procrastination and Laziness
Laziness is when you do nothing, instead of what you planned. For instance, it’s you deciding to skip your workout and just lie around on the couch, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the modern world, with our cult of productivity, idleness is usually judged negatively, but you can have a good reason for being lazy. One of those reasons is concealed fatigue and a need for rest. Taking a break from work can be a vital decision. But procrastination isn’t just dispensing with our obligations, or resting, it’s replacing one activity with another, or an important one with an unimportant one.
Cyberloafing is our most common distraction. Instead of working on a presentation which is due in a couple of hours, we start setting up a new email account or taking a YouTube course on mobile video editing that you planned to take last weekend. Yet, sometimes laziness is exactly what the doctor ordered, even though procrastination’s slogan would go something like this: exactly what you don’t need.
Procrastination and Boredom
Boredom is another cloak for procrastination. When we have nothing to do, we start doing anything. The mechanism at work here is simple: the desire for new experiences is one of our innate neurobiological instincts. In the face of a long absence of new stimuli, our brain switches to ‘search mode.’ Having spent plenty of time on the sofa, we get up in search of something interesting or appetizing, or better yet, pleasant. This is because our brain always rewards us for new experiences with a dose of dopamine.
But procrastination isn’t all roses. In theory, yes, watching YouTube is easier and more enjoyable than preparing your presentation, but in practice, the brain will sooner or later respond to this by releasing the stress hormone cortisol. This is because the thought of a delayed task lingers in the background, serving as an anxiety trigger. The negative effects of procrastination are associated with stress and anxiety, or, chronic tension, sleep deprivation, as well as problems at work and in relationships.
Even though you’re aware that avoiding what you have to do isn’t in your interest, you still continue to put it off. This situation is similar to self-destructive behavior. Procrastination expert David Burns calls it “Paralysis of the will”. And when the will is paralyzed, any attempt to deal with procrastination with self-discipline, which we use to combat laziness, is doomed to fail.
Procrastination and Poor Time Management
In its classic form, poor time management is when you allocate less time for a task than it actually required. This usually happens because of a lack of experience. For instance, while setting up a remote server for the first time, instead of the planned 20 minutes, the task takes an hour and a half. Well, next time you’ll take this experience into account. Procrastination is sort of the opposite to poor time management. It usually hits us when things are going normally. From experience, you know that it takes an hour to set up a server, and you have the time, but you keep wasting it on other things, until there is no time left, as if some force were preventing you from acting rationally. “Procrastination is essentially irrational,” says Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. “It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.” Incidentally, the Greek ‘Akrasia,’ which ‘procrastination’ comes from, simply means doing something against our better judgment. It’s pointless to only rely on rational time management in this situation, since irrational behavior is usually motivated by emotion.
What’s at the root of Procrastination?
Procrastination is very common. According to the latest data, 88% of people procrastinate for at least one hour during their workday. We assume that there must be some sort of a reason for it, since many of us are willing to endure the collateral damage of anxiety and stress. Incidentally, there is a reason. As research shows, procrastination isn’t only failed time management, or a mental misjudgment, or character weakness, it’s a coping mechanism for the painful emotions associated with bad planning. Put simply, when we take on any task, we always imagine both the work itself as well as the result, ahead of time. But if both cause us either frustration, negative emotions, or fear for whatever reason, we delay the job in order to avoid it.
So the first step to solving the problem of procrastination is to understand why the task at hand makes you feel negative emotions, and how you can make them more enjoyable.