Procrastination is not an exotic condition that only a few have come across. At some point in our lives we have all procrastinated for some reason or the other. For the most part, however, procrastination is detrimental to us. It provides a short-term satisfaction while sacrificing long-term satisfaction. For this reason, it is quite useful to try to overcome it. To overcome it, we need to understand where it stems from.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination has been such an integral part of the human experience that Greek philosophers have already come up with a word for such behaviour – Akrasia. Akrasia is the state of going against your better judgement and doing one thing when you know you should be doing another. This is quite similar to the modern definition of procrastination – the act of delaying or postponing a set of tasks, often by doing other unrelated tasks.
Be careful not to confuse procrastination with relaxation and laziness. Relaxation tends to make us feel energized at the end of things and doesn’t involve putting off other tasks. Relaxation occurs when we don’t have more important things to do. In contrast, procrastination leads to increased stress overall. Additionally, procrastination involves an active decision to not do tasks. There’s self-awareness involved. Laziness, on the other hand, suggests apathy and an unwillingness to act. A person who procrastinates may say “I don’t want to do this”, but at the back of their head “I should be doing this” still lingers. Laziness suggests the absence of this second part and thus an absence of stress.
We usually procrastinate by replacing an unpleasant task with a less important, more pleasant task. We do know that what we are doing is bad and this can lead to feelings of guilt alongside the stress. This sort of behaviour can cause us to miss out on opportunities and not reach our goals.
Why do we procrastinate?
On the surface, avoidance of an unpleasant task is the most basic reason for why we procrastinate. Digging deeper, we can find more complex reasons why procrastination exists.
Our brains are hard-wired to prioritise short-term rewards over long-term consequences. Think of yourself in terms of two competing selves. There is the future-self that creates goals and plans for the future, and there is the present-self that acts. So while your future-self can create plans, it is up to your present-self to act on those plans. So, how you felt and thought at the time when a plan of action was created may be different from how you feel and think in the present. Now that your present-self is acting, it will act in its best interests and not in the interests of you ten days from now or yesterday.
Psychologists of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa have defined procrastination as an emotional regulation problem rather than a time management problem. In their understanding, they have viewed procrastination as the urgency of repairing short-term negative moods over intended long-term actions. This management of short-term moods depends on the nature of the task. Perhaps the task itself is unpleasant, or deeper feelings regarding the task – low self-esteem, anxiety, or insecurity – may be what we avoid.
The momentary relief we feel when we avoid these unpleasant thoughts and tasks is what makes procrastination a bad, vicious cycle. We are rewarded for procrastinating and the relief is that reward. In psychology, this is called a “negative reward” – the removal of an unpleasant situation. This can, unfortunately, train our brains to think that procrastination is the solution to our problems since it prioritises short-term rewards.
How do we beat procrastination?
The best way to quell the stress caused by procrastination is by actually doing the task you are avoiding. There is something called the “Action Line”. Take a classic example of procrastination: there is a task that needs to be completed, but it’s put off until the day before the deadline. At that point, your future-self’s plans align with your present-self’s consequences and you fulfill the plan you made to finish the task. The nagging pain accumulates until the stress is enough to make you start doing the task. Once you start doing the task, the stress and unpleasant feelings associated with the task dissipate. Essentially, the hardest part of procrastinating is the act of procrastinating itself. Once the Action Line is passed, the task becomes bearable.
The logical thing to do to fight against the illogical part of our present-self’s brain is to find a way to make it easier for us to start tasks. Taking advantage of the way our brain works, we can come up with techniques such as bundling the long-term unpleasant tasks with short-term, enjoyable activities. For example, pair your work activities with music you enjoy. Your brain will be tricked into thinking that there is no need for short-term mood repair. Eventually, the continuous pairing may convince our brains that the task isn’t as unpleasant as we may have first thought.
Try and make difficult tasks more achievable. The feeling of completing a task counts as a short-term reward. This even works if we break up tasks into smaller tasks. Better yet, make the progress of completing a task more tangible. The Paper Clip strategy involves adding a paper clip to a bowl or such every time you accomplish a piece of your task. This visual representation of your progress will reward your brain and motivate you to do the task more. A variety of studies refer to this as the “Endowed Progress Effect”.
The next thing to do would be to take care to manage your emotions. Ask yourself if the task is really as unpleasant as it may seem. Remind yourself of a time you did a similar task and things worked out okay. Appeal to your present-self by imagining the positive effects of doing your task. What would your co-workers or spouse think once you’ve finished your task? Frame your tasks in terms of a positive reference instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of the tasks.
However, sometimes it is much easier to change our circumstances rather than ourselves. A good tool to use to prevent procrastination are “commitment devices”. Essentially, you design your future actions by acting now. You can manage your eating habits by purchasing individual packets instead of in bulk. You can’t procrastinate on social media if you don’t have any social media in the first place. This is what is meant by designing your future actions. Work in the present to narrow the opportunities, for you in the future, to procrastinate. Create obstacles between you and your temptations. They don’t have to be permanent, but at the very least, make the rewards for your procrastination less immediate. Fight your short-term-reward-loving brain.