Why do we procrastinate?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

You have a deadline and you are under the pump with other things to do as well. Yet, you are watching YouTube videos of crazy kittens. Perhaps there is house work that you find yourself doing, despite the fact that you usually hate it. Maybe you find yourself scrolling through Facebook endlessly. You are procrastinating – avoiding the task at hand. But why?

Procrastination is about control
We engage in procrastination when we want to control situations that are beyond our control. Ultimately it is about fear of failure and self-doubt, but we dress it up (in our minds) in different ways. 

  • Fear of failure
    If you avoid doing something that you doubt your own ability to do, you are trying to avoid negative associations with that task. The anxiety generated from this can prevent us from performing at out best and perhaps to self-sabotage any attempts at the task. By not putting in the effort and subconsciously deciding not to do the study or finish the project, we let people think we lack the talent for a job.
  • Fear of success
    Sometimes we procrastinate because we are afraid of succeeding and raising expectations that we will have to live up to and maintain.

In essence these are both forms of performance anxiety. Research shows that the higher the stakes (importance of completing the task or getting a good result) the greater the likelihood of procrastinating. If a task is considered as being done for fun, it is engaged in diligently. So the deliberate self-sabotaging of performance is a strategy to self-protect against performance shortfalls (Stenger, 2018).

Statistics on procrastination
It is suggested that  80-95% of all university students procrastinate. It is also one of the main reasons that doctoral students do not complete their theses. Therefore there should be no surprise when procrastination prevails.

The benefits of procrastination
Sometimes we need time to think about a topic or project. Sometimes this thinking needs to be more diffused than focused. Procrastination facilitates this. It may take the form of daydreaming, doodling or some other activity where your ideas can still percolate in the background and form productive and creative ideas. There is a limit to how long this can take before more focus on the task at hand needs to happen.

How do we counteract procrastination?
There are a number ways to deal with this avoidance behaviour that undermines our own success. Suggestions of how to address it follow. Procrastination is not a time-management issue, but a behavioural one. The ideas below are about how to shape that behaviour.

Getting to the root of the problem
What are the real reasons for your task avoidance – fear of failure or success? This can be said in other ways – do you feel like an imposter who is going to be found out? Are you concerned that your efforts will not shape up against peers or expectations? Perhaps you feel like you don’t want to draw attention to yourself and your talents/abilities? Recognising this is an important first step.

Be kind to yourself
Take some of the pressure off yourself. You have a task. Don’t over inflate its importance. Your completion of it will be satisfactory and if not, you will get feedback about it. Consider how you would advise someone else approaching the same task and apply the same consideration to yourself.

Chunk up the goals
Break down the overall task/project into smaller chunks. Set your goals to achieve something in part. That might mean working on something for a discrete period of time, or completing a particular segment of the work. At the end of each “chunk”, reflect on what you have achieved and acknowledge its completion.

By achieving things in chunks, you can track your own progress and “see” your success at getting through the bigger task. This sense of accomplishment helps build satisfaction and reward as foundations developing commitment to completing your goal.

Get into action
Sometimes it is important to do preparatory work in setting things up for a project. These may be establishing a plan, creating a physical space where work will occur and getting background research/information to use in the project at hand. While still not engaging fully in the task, they do assist in moving you closer to it. Such preparation needs to have a time limit. When done, it needs to be acknowledged as a milestone reached as an antecedent to the next one.

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway
The feeling of procrastination is a familiar one. Once we get greater understanding about what is going on, we can embrace those concerns and channel that energy into productive activity. We know that we fear something – but it is only fear, something we have felt before and survived. Notice the familiar sensation of fear of what to do and wanting to put it off. Start. Try doing something for an interval. Pause, reflect, review. Then continue. By engaging in the task, you get into the swing of what is required and actively doing something encourages you to keep going.

There are probably many more ways of dealing with procrastination. What are yours?

Source: Stenger, Marianne. 2018. The real reason we procrastinate in informED, 17 May 2018, an Open Colleges online publication.

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