Procrastination – why do we do it and how do we stop it?

How often have you had something important to do, but decided that you just don’t feel like doing it today, and that you’d rather do it tomorrow instead? Invariably, when tomorrow comes, you feel no more like doing it than you did yesterday, but now you have no choice and less time to do it in.

Procrastination, otherwise known as ‘putting things off’, makes little sense and only causes us more stress in the long run, but most of us do it at least from time to time. In the U.S., a study by the American Psychological Association found that as many as 95% of college-goers are guilty of dilly-dallying when it comes to completing assignments. While some of them may claim they prefer to work under pressure, most analysts believe that it usually just comes down to poor time management, especially since it tends to be “unpleasant” tasks that are put off the most.

Another American study suggests that the art of procrastination is on the grow, with the number of people describing themselves as ‘chronic procrastinators’ increasing from 5% in 1978, to 26% in 2007. This may tie in with the rise of digital and mobile technology, which have made it easier for us to complete many tasks on the go, while also providing all manner of distractions to keep us away from those important tasks we need to do, but don’t want to do just yet!

Is procrastination just laziness?

It might be tempting to think that these 26% of ‘chronic procrastinators’ just need a kick up the backside. If you have something that needs doing and you keep delaying it, you’re being lethargic and irresponsible in your time management, aren’t you?

Actually, you could argue that the laziest possible way to complete a task is to get it done straightaway in slapdash fashion. Imagine two students have two days to write an essay. Student A finds the task a bit daunting and appreciates the scale of it, so decides he doesn’t feel up to it today and would prefer to get started tomorrow. Student B, meanwhile, bashes the essay out in 20 minutes, doesn’t proofread it, plays video games for the rest of the afternoon and then goes to the pub.

At the end of the first day, one student can claim to have finished the assignment while the other hasn’t started it yet, but which student is really being the lazy one?

There’s no denying that we procrastinate because “tomorrow sounds better than today” and we may need that impending deadline to get ourselves in gear, but another commonly held theory is that putting things off makes you not a layabout, but a perfectionist. A 1996 essay by Pennsylvania State University’s Jason McGarvey found that ‘egodystonic’ perfectionists (ones who believe their level of perfectionism to be problematic) are very likely to procrastinate.

As any psychologist will tell you though, demanding complete perfection from yourself can only leave you disappointed, and this unhealthy pressure that some people put on themselves usually results in them adopting behaviours that make them work to a poorer standard than if they loosened up a little.

How can I overcome procrastination?

For many of us, the first thing we do in the morning is an act of procrastination. How often do you hit the snooze button when your alarm goes often, and why do you do it? Are you really going to feel any more like getting up in 10 minutes’ time, or are you just leaving yourself with 10 minutes less time to get ready? The snooze button serves only to start your day in an unassertive way.

So, start as you mean to go on – get up when your alarm tells you to!

Then, if you have a big task ahead, whether it’s an essay, a mountain of washing or a bathroom that desperately needs cleaning, you don’t have to do the whole task now, but why not make a start on it? That way, next time you go back to the task, you probably won’t feel any more like doing it than you do today, but at least you’ll be in a position where the task is already started.

In writing, this is known as the ‘blank page’ problem. Many writers find that the most difficult part of the task is getting started, and spend much more time that they should simply gawping at a page with nothing on it. This is why it’s important to brainstorm, carry out rough drafts and jot down ideas. You won’t use all of them, but once you realise that a degree of trial and error comes into composing your work, you’re on the road to breaking down the ‘perfectionism’ barrier on which procrastination often thrives.

Remember, procrastination by definition has to be unnecessary and counterproductive. There may be good reasons to do something another day instead of today, such as an already busy schedule, or the passage of time simply giving you more to work with. For example, if you have to write a report on a football match taking place tomorrow, there isn’t much point in starting it now.

However, if you’re one of those who leaves tasks to the last minute for no good reason, why not ease yourself of a lot of stress and address the root causes of your procrastination? And, at the risk of stating the obvious, why not do this today?

Categories: Motivation

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