“Procrastination is like masturbation, in the beginning it feels good, but in the end, you’re just f***ing yourself!”
– Author Unknown, Michael McCarthy or Monty Python
What a memorable quote!
Without pulling any punches, this quote takes us to the heart of today’s blog post topic.
Procrastination is almost always treated like a dirty word.
In addition, society has little compassion for the person doing the procrastinating.
But what exactly fuels procrastination?
What happens if we stop labeling procrastination as either good or bad, and instead consider what purpose it serves.
Towards a compassionate definition of procrastination
The typical model of procrastination is avoiding anxiety-provoking tasks or situations and distracting oneself with less important activities.
My definition of procrastination is: “the avoidance of something you are scared of.”
I prefer this simple definition for two reasons.
Firstly, this definition creates an opportunity for us to foster compassion for the person doing the procrastinating.
They are avoiding something that frightens them after all.
Secondly, this definition encourages curiosity about the specific fear driving the anxious avoidance.
Surely, if we can start by naming the underlying fear it will be easier to address this same fear and stop avoiding?
6 REASONS WE PROCRASTINATE
The fears driving procrastination are diverse.
You might find these six general reasons (Oregon State University) helpful in brainstorming some of the fears driving your procrastination.
ONE: Skills or perfection deficit: “I don’t know how to do this.” / “It is not good enough…yet.”
Sitting down to complete a task may highlight your need to acquire more skills.
This may be overwhelming.
Similarly, constantly expecting yourself to churn out a “perfect” result may make it really hard to either commence or conclude (and ultimately let go of) the task at hand.
TWO: Lack of interest: “This stuff is boring!”
There are always going to be tasks that one does not enjoy.
Doing them limits the amount of stress and guilt attached to postponing them.
Once complete, you can legitimately enjoy your hard-earned free time.
In addition, longer-standing “boredom” may be a sign that you are enrolled in the wrong course, or that your work is not well suited to your strengths and interests.
THREE: Lack of motivation: “I don’t feel like doing this.”
Two motivation-related assumptions may stand in your way from tackling tasks.
Firstly, “I need to be motivated in order to get started.”
The truth is that sometimes one needs to actually begin a task in order to feel motivated.
Secondly, “Everything in life needs to be interesting and worthwhile.”
Unfortunately, some tasks always seem boring and far from worthwhile.
You might want to find a reason for viewing these tasks as worthwhile in order to motivate yourself.
For example, Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) reminds herself that making her bed first thing in the morning leaves her feeling happy when returning home from a long day’s work.
FOUR: Fear of failure: “What if I can’t do it well enough?”
Delaying starting a task or project until the last minute does not allow you to do it to the best of your ability.
If you then achieve poor results, you can always say that you would have done better had you given yourself sufficient time.
According to this logic, your level of ability is never brought under scrutiny.
Instead, your time management skills become the center of focus.
FIVE: Fear of success: ”What must I do to improve my personal best?”
In conscious and unconscious ways we may procrastinate in order to avoid negative consequences of success.
These negative consequences may include:
- envy by one’s social circle and family
- increased expectations and demands from others, and
- anger that you only feel good about yourself when you achieve glowing results
SIX: Rebellion: “You won’t make me do that!”
We may rebel against completing a task for reasons both immediate and distant.
For example, you may put off completing your monthly stats sheet at work because you want to annoy your boss (i.e. immediate) that you secretly despise.
Or you refuse to wash the dirty dishes as an adult because it was a daily chore when growing up (i.e. distant and past-related rebellion).
The costs of procrastination
The unfortunate thing about procrastination – as a method of coping with fear – is that there is a host of negative consequences linked to employing this strategy.
My sense is that when people castigate themselves for procrastinating, they have these negative consequences in mind – not so much the immediate (and ultimately short-lived) advantages of avoiding something feared.
These negative consequences or costs, include:
- guilt about delaying working on tasks until the last minute
- all night marathons chasing deadlines set weeks in advance
- heightened anxiety and panic
- a sluggish productivity
- questioning personal worth and ability, and
- allowing your fear to grow to monstrous proportions because it remains unchallenged.
In this blog post we have looked at a compassionate definition of procrastination and explored six broad fears that fuel this coping strategy.
We have considered that while the benefits of procrastination are both immediate but short-lived, the longer term costs of procrastination can result in much personal anguish – including those gnawing feelings of guilt.
When you next find yourself procrastinating, take a few moments to consider what fear is fueling your need to cope in this manner.
Are there ways of holding and facing what you fear, rather than avoiding the fear until the very last minute?
Academic Succes Center, Oregon State University (no date). Six reasons people procrasinate. Available on: http://success.oregonstate.edu/six-reasons-people-procrastinate . Last accessed: 31 January 2016.