“My advice is never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!” – Charles Dickens
How often do we find ourselves putting off a task for later? It’s probably too often than we should. We have the time now, so why do we choose to do it later? And if we do decide to do it another time, does that make us lazy?
There are various reasons why people procrastinate and keep doing so even if they know it’s not a productive and healthy habit. There’s also a reason why people feel a sense of accomplishment completing a task they’ve put off for a while. Let’s talk about it more below.
Laziness, Lack of Self-Control, or Poor Time Management
Most of us believe that procrastination happens when we are lazy, lack self-control, or can’t manage our time properly. However, procrastination has very little to do with both. First, let’s go back to the origins of the word. In Latin, it is derived from “procrastinare” which means “to put off until tomorrow.” In Greek, it is derived from “akrasia,” meaning “doing something against our better judgement.”
While we’re more familiar with the Latin meaning, the Greek introduces the concept of judgement, which shows that how we think affects our decision to complete a task or put it off for later. Self-awareness becomes a factor here. When we procrastinate, we are aware that we’re avoiding the task, and still, we keep delaying.
Some professors believe that procrastination is self-harm and irrational. Dr. Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield said that “It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.”(1)
Hence, procrastinating isn’t about being lazy or not having self-control. It’s more about our decision to engage in this unhealthy cycle of irrationality called chronic procrastination. This begs the question, so what affects our decision then?
Emotion and Procrastination Are Linked Together
Dr. Sirois continued to explain that chronic procrastination happens because of our inability to manage negative moods. If we don’t feel like doing a particular task now, we delay completing it. On the other hand, when there are tasks we want to do, we are easily motivated to complete it quickly.
Apart from the mood issue, emotions also affect our decision to procrastinate. If we feel anxious, frustrated, have self-doubt, or lack confidence, we’re more likely to put off a task. This is why Dr. Tim Pychyl of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa described procrastination as “an emotion regulation problem” more than anything else.
Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl conducted a study in 2013 to explore the connection between mood and procrastination. In their findings, they said that procrastination is more focused on managing negative moods than the task at hand.
For instance, take the example of a writer who is asked to write about a topic he’s not familiar with, there’s a natural tendency of delaying the writing because he’s not confident in the task. What will his client think about his work? What if he can’t write a good piece? Together with these questions in his head, he starts to feel anxious and doubts himself, further delaying the task.
What Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl are saying is that while there may be natural aversions to certain tasks, it is compounded with the negative emotions and mood we have around it. Self-blaming is one of those challenging emotions we experience but fail to acknowledge. We have this fear of not being able to do a job well, so our procrastinatory cognitions make us feel more stressed and we continue procrastinating.
Why Do We Keep Doing It?
There is a sense of relief when we procrastinate.(1) We buy ourselves more time, and we feel great because we don’t have to think about a certain task for now. This relief makes it seem like we are being rewarded for procrastinating. So instead of breaking the cycle, we continue it. This also goes to show why procrastinating becomes a chronic habit.
If we feel good about procrastinating, why is it wrong? For one, this sense of relief we feel is temporary. The other reason is because of present bias, in which we tend to choose to fulfil our short-term needs. It is easier for us to think of the effects on our present selves than think of how our future selves will suffer from our decision to procrastinate.
According to Dr. Hal Hershfield of the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management, we perceive our future selves as strangers.(1) Hence, the negative consequences won’t affect us but will affect someone else. To add, it’s harder to think about our future selves when stressed because of the amygdala hijack. The amygdala prioritises dealing with the present threat even if we know that procrastinating will make our future selves more stressed out. And as we all know, stress affects the entire body, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Addressing the Causes
Now that we know that our mood and emotions are the driving forces behind procrastination, the best way to address this unhealthy habit is to get to the root causes. Why is there a negative emotion surrounding a certain task? Why don’t we like doing it? Knowing the root causes of our aversion would help us better understand where these emotions are coming from so we can address them properly. Here are the top causes of procrastination:
- Fear of making a mistake or not doing well
Psychologist Carol Dwick discussed this type of mindset in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” and differentiated fixed vs growth mindset. According to her, people who are afraid of making mistakes or the so-called perfectionists have a fixed mindset.(2)
People who have a fixed mindset believe that they are born with abilities and talents and they need not exert effort to improve them. They’re naturally gifted. So, when they are given a task that’s not in line with their talents, they are afraid to fail or fall short of expectations.
On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that they can continue improving the talents they have. These people are not afraid of making mistakes because they know they’ll learn from their experiences. Out of these two, those with a fixed mindset are most likely to procrastinate.
- Fear of truth
A perfect example of this would be experiencing a symptom of a possible health concern but not getting it checked. How many times have we shrugged off getting checked if we notice something abnormal? We often think that it will go away soon and it’s probably nothing. A mole growth may be cancerous, but not getting it checked right away could mean not getting an early diagnosis and treatment early.
As they say, the truth hurts, and so, we protect ourselves from possible pain by hiding from it. And yet, the truth is, knowledge is power, and the more we know, the more we can adapt to different situations. Ignorance is not bliss. Know the right information to take the right action.
- Smaller tasks are more rewarding
When deciding between doing smaller tasks or the big one, why do we choose to do the smaller ones instead? Not only are these filler tasks easier to accomplish, but we get instant gratification in completing them. No hassle, no fuss, no negative emotions.
And yet, what we don’t realise is that prioritising smaller tasks is another form of procrastination because we don’t want to do the tedious, bigger, and more challenging task. It will take us longer to complete that one and that means delayed gratification.
As discussed earlier, present bias plays a key role here. We often choose the short-term needs over the longer ones because we like getting our rewards sooner than later.
A Princeton University study made an interesting discovery. Fourteen Princeton University students took part in the study. They were given the choice of receiving a $5-$40 Amazon gift cheque now or get one with a higher amount after 2-6 weeks.
While making the decision, the brains of the students were scanned. Those who chose the long-term showed that the decision-making process activated the abstract reasoning area of the brain. Meanwhile, those who chose the long-term reward showed “a small swing towards the emotional area.”(2)
- Childhood experiences
Not many will look nto their childhood experiences as a source of adult aversion to certain things, but it should definitely be considered. The resistance we have today in doing specific tasks may have something to do with the past.(3)
Psychologist Dr. Margaret Rutherford explains that helicopter parenting can play a role in an adult’s procrastinating habit. Children who grew up with helicopter parents have almost everything done for them. Even if they don’t take action, the task still gets done by their parents. As a result, children of helicopter parents don’t experience learning from their own mistakes or trying to find ways to complete a task despite the challenge presented to them. This doesn’t help build their self-competence, which would make them feel inadequate in the face of complex tasks when they’re older.
At the same time, children who grew up with parents who criticise them often may also have the tendency to procrastinate when they’re adults. This is because they’re afraid of making mistakes or fear looking like they don’t know what they’re doing.
To address procrastination, we should ask ourselves where is this resistance coming from so we can address it properly.
- Lack of Motivation
Lack of motivation can be a result of stress, low energy, distractions, fatigue, failure in the past, the complexity of the tasks, lack of ideas, unclear goals, and low self-confidence. If we don’t feel a connection to the task we’re doing, have direction, or can’t project an outcome that we will feel happy with or be proud of, we are more likely to procrastinate.
According to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study on motivation, goal choice and self-confidence are its two major components. The study explains that self-confidence, in itself, is not motivating but rather a part of the conceptualisation of motivation. It is the ability to judge one’s capability of accomplishing a goal. To put it simply, if we believe we can achieve a goal, then we become more motivated to do so.
We highly value our time, so we have the natural propensity to protect it as much as we can. When we are assigned a project that will take a long time to complete, we tend to procrastinate more because we know it requires a significant amount of effort.
At the same time, the length of the project may cause us to sacrifice some opportunities we could take if not because of the effort and time we have to put into a certain project. All these make us lose motivation and delay working on the project even more. We don’t like not having full control over a task. The longer a project takes, the less control we have.
Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted a study to test delayed gratification and its link to success. Children were given choices between getting a small reward immediately or two small rewards after 15 minutes.
The researchers continued to track the progress of the children as they grew up. They found that those who chose delayed gratification were more successful in life. Meanwhile, the group that chose to receive the reward immediately, showed behavioural problems, lower educational attainment, and weight issues as they grow older.
What’s Your Reason?
Procrastination is a vicious cycle that will continue if we don’t put an end to it. The question is, how do we do it? We all have our personal reasons why we procrastinate, which is why it’s vital that we look into ourselves and identify the root cause. Remember, procrastination isn’t about being lazy; it’s how we think and feel. Let’s start digging deep to fight this cycle.
- Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)
- 8 Causes of Procrastination & Why People Put Things Off
- What’s the Worst That Could Happen?