As I sit down to start writing this article, the time is 1 pm on Tuesday afternoon. I have until noon on Wednesday (tomorrow) to get it finished and submitted to the newspaper to meet the deadline. Oh yeah, it’s important to note that I’ve known about the deadline for two weeks, but have just put off starting work on it until now. What does all this mean? It means I’ve procrastinated; with a capital “P”. Just like our kids do when they let us know on Sunday afternoon that they have a project or paper due on Monday. For this act of laziness, our kids usually get a stern “talkin to” with threats that if they do it again, woe will be the day!
All of us procrastinate on occasion. For some people, it’s a chronic problem; for others, it’s only a problem in certain life areas. Procrastination is always frustrating because it results in wasted time, lost opportunities, disappointing work performance, and generally feeling bad about yourself.
When you procrastinate, you allow less important tasks to take up the time and space that should be devoted to more important things. You do things like hanging out with friends when you know that an important work project is due soon, or going shopping instead of doing your homework or housework. It can also be evident in behavior such as talking about trivial things with your partner to avoid discussing important issues in your relationship.
Most people don’t have a problem finding time for things they want to do. But once they see a task as too difficult, painful, boring, or overwhelming, the procrastination behaviors begin.
Why People Procrastinate
If you were hoping for a simple answer to this puzzle, you will be disappointed to learn that there are many reasons why people put things off. Here are a few of the most common (check those that apply to you):
* Avoiding discomfort (“It’s too cold to exercise today. I’ll wait until tomorrow”). Wanting to avoid pain makes lots of people shift into procrastination mode. However, the longer we delay, the worse the uncomfortable problem usually becomes. The rash gets bigger, the tooth hurts more, or the brakes squeak even more loudly.
* Perfectionism (“I don’t have enough time right now to my best on it”). Those who believe they must produce the perfect report may obsess about uncovering every last information source and then write draft after draft. Their search for the perfect product takes up so much time that they miss their deadline.
* Laziness (“I have lots of time to get this done. I’ll watch a little TV first”). Sometimes people delay tasks that involve fairly slight inconvenience or minor discomfort.
* Thinking you’re not good enough (“It’s not going to turn out well, so why do it”). Some people are certain that they are incompetent. They think that they will fail, and procrastinate to avoid ever putting their skills to the test.
* Self-doubt (“Diets never seem to work for me”). If you second-guess yourself, you probably suffer from procrastination. You may avoid new challenges and opportunities unless you are certain that you will succeed. Perhaps you make feeble attempts to begin a project, and you tell yourself that you could do a better job if you put in more effort.
Why Don’t We Just Say No?
Since procrastination produces mostly negative outcomes, why don’t we just change our behavior and eliminate these undesirable consequences? The reason for this is that procrastination reinforces itself in two ways. First, it is more difficult for most humans to start change than to keep it going. We avoid getting started on things we need to do by cleverly diverting our attention with something we want to do. For most people, the things we want to do are usually much more desirable (and thus reinforcing) than the things we need to do.
The second way procrastination reinforces itself is by providing us with valuable, ego-friendly thoughts.
For example, because it now looks as though I’ll get this article done in time to meet the deadline, and I feel relatively pleased with how it’s turned out, I’ve reinforced my habit of procrastinating (i.e., “See, I can put things off until the last minute and still get it done”). My bad habit may be further reinforced by any positive comments I hear from others, such as “Wow, somehow you got it done!” or “I can’t believe you can wait until the last minute and then throw something together so quickly!” Paradoxically, I’ve also given myself a good excuse if the article isn’t very good (i.e., “If I had more time I could have done a much better job”).
Although recognizing how these diversions work won’t automatically cure your procrastination, being aware of it is a good place to start working on the problem. Once you are aware of the ways that you procrastinate, you can start to change your behavior.
In my next article, I’ll offer some tips to help you get started. Until then, begin the change process by thinking about which causes apply to you and writing down examples of these behaviors as you observe them.