You might be someone who occasionally jokes about how they put things off till the last minute, or how they sit down to start a task and end up watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones for six hours instead. Or, you might have a friend who is like that. Most of us (statistics indicate about 95%) are no strangers to this behavior of putting things off every now and then. But, for some people, it can become a serious, chronic, and self-destructive habit that jeopardizes a person’s mental health and possibly more.
Even short periods of procrastination are usually followed by spells of guilt or shame. Chronic procrastination, on the other hand, can lead to extreme demotivation, depression, and disillusionment in one’s own work and abilities. Extreme cases could lead to someone losing their job and failing to develop good professional or social relationships with others. But even long before this stage is reached, procrastination can become a source of chronic misery for the procrastinator.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
In some ways, procrastination is quite “natural”. Our bodies are built to seek pleasure and avoid pain and effort. Therefore, we would much rather lay down and watch a movie, or do some easy chores around the house, than start a long, complex, risky, and/or unpleasant task, such as calculating annual taxes, writing a novel, going to the gym, or working on an assignment that is due in a month. This avoidance may continue until the risk of negative consequences gets too high (e.g. a deadline comes too close), at which point the task may get done out of fear more than anything else. Even if the procrastinator knows rationally that delaying a task will eventually lead to panic, cramming, and sleepless nights, the instant gratification of doing something easy right now is too attractive. In today’s world, where we can watch entire series online whenever we want, immediately order food and shop with a few clicks, or get 50 likes on a post on social media within minutes, addiction to instant gratification is becoming a real and serious issue; it makes it even more difficult for young people to develop the discipline of working hard for long term rewards.
The avoidance of effort and addiction to instant gratification, however, are not the only reasons behind procrastination. For many people, the habit can be rooted in deep shame and anxiety. A procrastinator may be so anxious about failing at a task that the mere thought of starting to work on it turns their stomach. This fear of failure can drive the person towards self-sabotage in order to have a legitimate excuse for failing if they do in fact fail. This is why perfectionists – not underachievers – are actually among the worst procrastinators! Perfectionists falsely attribute their self-worth to their ability to do things perfectly or do everything just right. They tend to be very hard on themselves and experience deep shame when they make mistakes. For them, at least subconsciously, they would rather not start a project at all than consider the possibility that they might do it imperfectly. By putting it off, they could always attribute any flaws in their final product to the fact that they did not work on it long enough (which is more acceptable to them than considering that their own skill is lacking). Ironically, by having such unrealistically high standards, they end up with sub-standard results because of procrastination.
Source: Awesome Quotes about Life
How and What We Procrastinate: The Eisenhower Matrix
Procrastination tends to have predictable patterns. The Eisenhower Matrix below divides all tasks into 4 basic types: important and urgent (Q1), important but not urgent (Q2), urgent but unimportant (Q3), and neither urgent nor important (Q4). The important tasks, urgent or not, are the ones that usually get put off (Q1 and Q2). The important and urgent tasks (Q1) include tasks such as assignments, projects, presentations, or proposals that have deadlines in the near future. These tasks may be put off for a while until deadlines loom too close, panic sets in, and they get done. Important but not urgent tasks (Q2), however, are usually those tasks that have the biggest reward in terms of fulfillment, personal development, or self-improvement, such as, writing a novel or learning a new language or skill, but, because they have no deadline, or their deadline is too distant, they might in fact never get done.
Procrastination is often confused with laziness, but procrastinators actually keep themselves quite active and busy with Q3 tasks – anything other than that difficult, risky, or unpleasant task. They convince themselves that, right now, they should clean the house, organize their desk, write endless to-do lists, spend hours planning their work, reply to emails, and so on. Such tasks are urgent, or appear to be urgent, but unimportant in the sense that they do little or nothing to get the person closer to their goal. These tasks are used by the procrastinator as excuses to avoid Q1 and Q2 tasks as long as possible. Activities in Q4, which are neither important nor urgent, are also used to avoid important tasks, and they include activities such as watching TV, losing oneself on YouTube or Facebook, or making yet another cup of coffee. When properly utilized, Q4 tasks should be effective short breaks that serve to recharge a person mentally or emotionally, get them inspired, or get them in a good mood to keep going. But, for the procrastinator, Q4 together with Q3 tasks are endless time-sucking loops that start with avoidance and end with guilt, shame, and self-loathing.
The Impact of Procrastination on Mental Health
When someone becomes a habitual chronic procrastinator, their mental health, and possibly their future, may be at risk. Even if the person recognizes their bad habit, they often find themselves unable to quit it, as if it were an addiction. The person may feel “stuck” and lose all faith in their ability to get anything important done. They no longer feel in control of their actions. This despair, in turn, may lead to depression, recurring anxiety, and certainly a lot of unrealized potential.
Strategies for Managing Procrastination
There is no need for despair, however, as there are many effective strategies for overcoming procrastination. Most of these strategies can be applied by the procrastinator alone or with the help of a friend or two. In particularly difficult cases, it could also be useful to seek professional help from a therapist. You should also seek professional help if you suspect your procrastination habit may be a symptom of an underlying condition such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Depression, or any anxiety disorders.
Below are some, but not all, of the best strategies for managing or overcoming procrastination.
· First, recognize the habit. As always, we must first become aware of a problem before we can deal with it. So, ask yourself, do you put things off all the time? Do you busy yourself with meaningless tasks when you know you should be doing something else? Do you repeatedly say you’ll do something “tomorrow”? Do you tend to do things at the last minute?
· Try to understand why you are procrastinating: Are you afraid to fail? Is the task too large and daunting? Is it unpleasant or boring?
· Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past and show yourself some compassion: Things will only get worse if you beat yourself up for procrastinating. Negative self-talk such as, “I’m useless”, “I can’t get anything done”, etc., will only serve to demotivate you even more. Instead, try thoughts such as, “OK, this task is really hard and scary, but I know I can do hard things”, “I know I’m worried about this, but it’s ok to be worried, it’s normal to be afraid”, or “I know I put things off too much in the past, and that wasn’t in my best interest. It’s ok, we all make mistakes. I know I can do better”.
· If the task is too big, break it up into many smaller tasks. For example, writing a novel or a long paper can seem like an impossible task, but writing 200 words a day seems much more achievable. Very often, the most difficult part of a task is starting it, so, breaking it into smaller tasks may make starting easier, and you might find yourself continuing to work even after you have achieved the first small goal!
· Set a time limit followed by a break. Instead of breaking the task itself into smaller tasks, you can, instead, decide to work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break when the timer goes off, then work for another 25 minutes, etc. This is called the Pomodoro Technique, and it is quite effective for many people. Again, you may find that, once you’ve started, you may not want to stop for a break. You can use smartphone applications such as “Pomodoro” and “Tide” to time yourself and have some ambient white noise to keep you focused. Having the promise of a break may also help those whose habit stems from an addiction to instant gratification, because they only need to put off satisfying this need for short intervals of time, which can gradually be lengthened as the habit starts to break.
· Promise yourself a reward. It is generally important to reward your accomplishments, but, specifically, the promise of reward helps in resisting the need for instant gratification.
· Eliminate distractions. In today’s always-connected world, this could be the absolute most difficult and most critical step. Even if you switch off your phone, if you are working on your computer, it is too easy to click away to YouTube or Netflix or Facebook. It can be almost involuntary! But there are tricks you can do to still keep yourself focused. First of all, you should close any browser tabs that are not related to your task. Second, if you don’t need the internet to finish your task, you could ask a family member to temporarily change the Wi-Fi password and not tell you what it is. If this is too extreme or inconvenient, you could use software such as “Cold Turkey” which can block you from using the internet until the time limit you set is reached or until you reach another goal that you have set (e.g. writing 200 words).
· Schedule your tasks according to your strengths: If you are someone who is more focused in the morning, then schedule tasks that require the most focus in the morning, and if you are more of a night owl, then schedule them at night.
· If the task has too many unpleasant aspects, start with the most enjoyable or least unpleasant part. This isanother trick that may help you get past the inertia of getting started.
· Or, if you’d rather, do the exact opposite! For some people, starting with the toughest or least enjoyable part of a task works better. They prefer to “get it out of the way”, and the sense of accomplishment they feel after doing that fuels them to complete the rest. In other words, they prefer to “eat the frog”.
· Ensure accountability. Make sure someone holds you accountable to completing your task. Usually, it is better if this person is not very close to you, but rather a colleague or acquaintance. Sometimes, simply asking the person to check on you at the end of the day and ask if you’ve completed your task is enough, but sometimes, the stakes need to be higher. Some people will go so far as to promise the person that if they don’t complete their task for the day, they must pay the person money, wash their car, or any other unenjoyable or inconvenient task. Personally, I am not in favor of using negative deterrents to motivate myself to work, but it can be an effective last resort.
Could Your Procrastination Habit Be Trying to Tell You Something?
Last but not least, it’s important to mention that, while procrastination is usually a bad habit that should be overcome, it is not always so. In some cases, it would actually be prudent to listen to your inner procrastinator. Sometimes, chronic procrastination can simply be a sign that you are too
stressed, overwhelmed, or that perhaps you would be happier doing the thing you do when you are procrastinating for a living. Jorge Cham, the creator of the hilarious PhD Comics, is an example of someone who successfully turned a Q4 activity into a Q1 and Q2 activity. Cham gave up his career in science in favor of making his comics, which are now world-famous. Before he made this decision, he was creating comics at times when he was “supposed to” be working on his PhD! For most of us, though, we just need a little help overcoming a bad habit. There are many online resources that can help you learn more about procrastination and how to beat it. One of the most creative and enjoyable reads on the topic is this article by Tim Urban on his blog Wait But Why? You can also find many articles in Psychology Today listed in this link and several TED talks on the topic. If you’re a chronic procrastinator and getting tired of your habit, you are not alone, and there is a way out! You are just a few steps away from unlocking even more of your own potential.