What is Procrastination?
Procrastination involves making the decision to put off or not complete a goal or task you have committed to, and do something of lesser importance instead, despite there being negative consequences for not following through on the original task or goal. People can procrastinate in many different areas of their lives including work, study, health, household, family, financial and so forth. Everyone procrastinates to an extent, however procrastination becomes more problematic when the negative consequences of not following through become more serious.
Why do People Procrastinate?
So why do we procrastinate when we have committed to a task? The core reason is unhelpful rules and assumptions we hold about how the world works. These rules and assumptions create a level of discomfort about doing or completing a task (e.g. fear, anger, resentment, boredom) and procrastination becomes a strategy to avoid the discomfort.
Unhelpful rules and assumptions related to procrastination include;
Needing To Be in Charge – e.g. “I shouldn’t have to do something I don’t want to, or just because someone else says so.”
Pleasure Seeking – e.g. “Life’s too short to be doing things that are boring or hard, fun should always come first”.
Fear of Failure or Disapproval – e.g. “I must do things perfectly, or I will fail and others will think badly of me”.
Fear of Uncertainty or Catastrophe – e.g. “If I am not sure of the outcome it might be bad, so I am better off not doing anything than risking it”.
Low Self-Confidence – e.g. “I can’t do it. I am just too incapable and inadequate”.
Depleted Energy – e.g. “I can’t do things when I am stressed, fatigued, unmotivated, or depressed”.
Procrastination provides an immediate release from the uncomfortable feelings generated by thinking about doing the task, which is rewarding and thus leads to more procrastination. However, in the long term procrastination leads to greater discomfort including feelings of shame and guilt, maintenance of unhelpful rules and assumptions, self-criticism, punishment, loss and a piling up of uncompleted tasks – all which also keep procrastination going as tasks and goals become more overwhelming and aversive.
Thus procrastination can create a vicious cycle of more procrastination and bad feelings, but there are practical ways to stop procrastinating. For example;
- Write a “To Do” list of tasks and goals that need to be completed (this could be for the day or week or whatever makes the most sense for your circumstances).
- Prioritise the list of tasks, numbering them from most important to least important.
- Break each task into its smaller component parts or steps required to complete it.
- Work out your approach – are you going to do the worst task first so that the tasks that come after are easier by comparison or do the easiest one first to give you momentum to do a task you have been putting off.
- Set a time limit, for example plan to spend just 5 or 10 minutes on task, then if you could tolerate it try another 10 minutes and so on.
Other Tips That Can Help
- Work out your most productive time of the day and schedule your tasks for that time.
- Work out what environments you work better in. Removing yourself from your common procrastination activities can reduce distraction and the chance to procrastinate.
- Seize the moment! As soon as you remember you need to do a task, do it!
- Use visual reminders and prompts to help you remember tasks to be done.
- Use imagery to visualise the task being successfully completed in your mind and use the momentum from the visualisation to work on the task.
- Use breathing exercises to settle, relax and focus your mind on the task.
- Plan rewards! Reward yourself after something has been achieved as well as giving yourself a well-earned break.
Procrastination can, however, be a difficult habit to break. If procrastination is a problem for you a psychologist can help you work out what is maintaining the behaviour and help you break the procrastination cycle.
Greta Neilsen is a clinical psychologist working in Bowen Hills in Brisbane. She has a special interest in working with adults struggling with issues such as procrastination. To find out more or to make an appointment please see the main page at www.gretaneilsenpsychology.com.