Beating Procrastination (Part 1): Getting to grips with why we procrastinate

Finding direction and purpose, mental health, Motivation, Perfectionism, Procrastination, Stress & Anxiety

I’m not fat. But I’m not fit.

Well, not in the way that I used to be.

It’s that time of year again where a number of running photos pop up on Facebook, highlighting the various races I’ve run over the years. In 2015, I was training to summit the Matterhorn. In 2016, it was the Verbier-St Bernard 65km Traverse. And in 2019 it was “The Beast” (the 30km ‘baby’ race!) and the Whale Trail (53km, 25km of which comprised endless stretches of beach)! Ugh! Never again!

I was fit! Very fit! Even if I hadn’t quite grasped that at the time.

And then lockdown commenced and my motivation to run utterly dissipated.

Last year, as I prepared to turn 40, I wrote an article called: “Motivate Me: What to do when you’ve lost your mojo!”. The article explored the different types of motivation that encourage or force us to take action. It also gave me (and 35 of my followers who decided to join in with me) the opportunity to test out a new approach to tackling my/our goals. I loved the challenge and it worked! I committed to 40 days of yoga to kickstart a return to my practice and I’m pleased to report that I’m still practising a year on.

But motivation isn’t my current issue. I want to get fitter. I feel better when I’m fitter. And, I have the perfect excuse to get fit too. Our wedding is next April and hey, who doesn’t want to look their best in their wedding dress?

So, what is it that is currently holding me back?

That darned thing called: PROCRASTINATION!

What is procrastination?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the definitions, just see if you recognise any of these situations:

  • Scenario A: Your alarm goes off for the gym in the morning: “Oh just 15 more minutes in bed. It’s so cold outside. And, well, I didn’t sleep very well last night.” Before you know it, 15 minutes has turned to 30 minutes and the window for the gym session has gone.
  • Scenario B: You’ve a complicated contract to review and the deadline is two weeks away. You leave it until the last minute. Twenty things pile in during the last week, and then there is a mad dash to get it done.
  • Scenario C: You’ve set yourself a target to bring in more clients by the end of June. You know the best way is to make direct contact, but instead you spend the next few weeks perfecting marketing materials, writing lists of people you’d like to speak to, researching companies, but don’t make any contact.

Well, they are certainly all familiar situations to me. But, then again, I’m a prime example of a procrastinator!

As these situations highlight, procrastination is “the act of delaying or putting off tasks intentionally and habitually” [1]. What’s worse is that this behaviour sometimes occurs: even when negative consequences may result from the procrastination [2].

If we look at the Latin meaning of the word, it provides even more clarity. “Pro” meaning forward; and “crastinus” meaning belonging to tomorrow, results in a combined definition of “forward it to tomorrow”. In other words, “do it later”! [3]

Let’s re-look at the examples above:

  • In Scenario A, the intention of going to the gym to get fit is defeated by staying in bed. The consequences of continued procrastination are potentially weight gain, health issues and low self-esteem.
  • In Scenario B, the goal is to review and amend the contract and deliver within two weeks. By leaving it to the last minute, there are potential consequences of non-delivery (and an angry client) or a highly stressed 24-hours trying to deliver by the deadline. Neither of which are particularly helpful to your health or your business. And before you say: “But, I work at my best when I’m under pressure” – it doesn’t mean you’re not procrastinating.
  • In Scenario C, the goal is to bring in new clients – after all, they pay the bills and grow the business. By distracting yourself with other work rather than reaching out and making contact, procrastination in this instance could result in your business folding before it’s even had a chance to flourish.

The above are just a few examples of procrastination played out in the real world. But despite knowing the potential for detrimental consequences, why do we continue to procrastinate?

Why we procrastinate

In their book: Procrastination: Why you do it. What to do about it NOW., Burka & Yuen (2008) highlight four “roots” to procrastination (some or all of which may be present):

  1. The Time Root: This relates to a procrastinator’s complex relationship with time and the difficulty they have with conceptualising how long a task will take. As a result, tasks are often delayed.
  2. The Interpersonal Root: Our upbringing, our socio-economic settings and our culture can also influence our levels of procrastination. If procrastination has been evidenced in our childhood, it may well be behaviour carried into adulthood.
  3. The Biological Root: This really is explained by the continuing struggle between two parts of our brain: the limbic system (the part of our brain involved in emotional and behavioural responses, including our flight, fight or freeze responses) and the prefrontal cortex (the area of our brain utilised in planning complex cognitive behaviour and decision making). As the limbic system is a stronger, older and more developed part of our brain, it often overpowers the prefrontal cortex. As a result, automatic fear responses kick in when faced with certain situations and procrastination ensues [4].  
  4. The Emotional Root: The final root of procrastination lies in the desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings, fears, hopes, doubts, memories, dreams and pressures [5]. Perhaps we avoid doing certain tasks because we don’t think we’ll enjoy them? Perhaps it’s because we believe we can’t do them well? Perhaps it’s because we fear that we’ll do them so well that, in turn, it will increase the demands on our life? So, we push them out until the last minute – if we get to them at all. We’ll explore the emotional root in a little more detail below.

James Clear, in his article: Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating” [6] highlights an additional behavioural psychology approach to procrastination which also relates to time. He argues that procrastination stems from “time inconsistency”. Our brains value immediate rewards more than they do future rewards.

So, taking Scenario B above – you have 2 weeks to complete that complicated contract review. The future goal is obviously to complete it. The benefit to your Future Self of completing it is praise from your clients and your boss, and that great feeling of a job well done. But that’s two weeks away. Who wants to wait for two weeks if there is something that you could do now that would give you that “feel great” feeling? As James Clear says: “Your Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff”. So, instead, you distract yourself with the easier and quicker things on your to do list to get that instant fix. Ha! And you wonder why those prioritisation lists don’t always work!

Burka & Yuen (2008): Procrastination: Why you do it. What to do about it NOW.

The emotional side of procrastination

Although there are a number of “roots” of procrastination, for me, the time, interpersonal and biological roots feel easier to digest. They feel less personal. They are things that have happened to me (over which I had no control) rather than something to which I might have contributed.

I’ll be honest, as I deepened my research into the emotional root of procrastination over the weekend, I had to take a pause. I stepped away from the article and avoided it for a couple of days, distracting myself with a trip to my friend’s and the preparation of our weekly family pub quiz. There you go, procrastination in its prime!

The emotional side, for some reason, felt deeply uncomfortable. It forced me to question and consider the underlying motivations for my own procrastination and the potential impact it has had and could have on my life. What had procrastination stopped me from achieving? Was I really operating at my full potential? Was I using procrastination to my own detriment? Was I procrastinating or setting boundaries? Is all procrastination bad?

Needless to say, it was a confusing weekend and I’m grateful for my friends and other half who helped me process my thoughts and the research!

So here is a high-level summary of the four underlying motivations of emotional procrastination identified by Burka & Yuen (2008) in their book: Procrastination: Why you do it. What to do about it NOW.. See if any (or, in my case, how many) of these resonate:

(a) Procrastination: Because of the fear of failure

This rationale for procrastinating may be the most recognisable. Often, people delay tackling a task out of fear of failing at it. That failure could come in the form of being seen as “not good enough”, “not capable enough”, simply “not enough”. But rather than limiting the failure to an inability to be able to perform a task to a specific standard, people struggling with this type of procrastination view these failures as a failure of themselves as a person (Burka & Yuen, 2008). In other words, it directly impacts their self-worth.

Dr. Richard Beery identifies a direct correlation between PERFORMANCE, ABILITY and SELF-WORTH [7]. Think about this in the context of Scenario A above.

  • If you go to the gym and work out (PERFORM) and get fitter/slimmer and start achieving your goals, you have ABILITY and you feel really good about yourself (HIGH SELF-WORTH).
  • If you go to the gym and work out (PERFORM), but don’t see any weight loss or any fitness improvement, you see this as a lack of ABILITY (a failure of the task) and feel bad about yourself (LOW SELF-WORTH).

What procrastination does is step in to try and protect the individual by breaking the correlation between ability and performance (thus protecting self-worth).

Think about it. If you avoid going to the gym and working out or only go to the gym with a week to go before your big event, you know that your ability has not been fully tested. Therefore, the fact that you have not got fitter or slimmer isn’t as a result of your personal failings, merely a lack of effort. You always have the excuse: “Well, if I’d given myself more time, I’d have easily been able to lose 5kg.

But what procrastination actually does is prevent you from operating at your full potential. It prevents you from challenging your abilities; seeing just how far your potential can take you. It risks keeping you locked in a place of mediocrity because it feels more comfortable. After all, being labelled as disorganised, lazy or a “last minute Nellie” feels like a less bitter pill to swallow than “you’re unworthy” or “you’re inadequate”, doesn’t it?

(b) Procrastination: Because of the fear of success

This concept may be a little harder to grasp. One theory is that procrastination is driven by a fear of success even if we want to be successful. This requires us to look both at the light and dark side of success, and is probably easier through the use of an example.

Success to you may be the launch of your own business. The pros are that you get to work for yourself, you are your own boss, you choose your own clients, you dictate your own hours etc. You gain independence, freedom and time.

But depending on your experience or upbringing, deep-rooted concerns and beliefs about success could also be triggered:

  • Perhaps you believe that, by running a successful business, more demands will be placed on your time. There is a risk that you become a workaholic and lose control of your time. As a result, procrastinating on tasks (leaving things to the last minute) is seen as a way of avoiding that risk (i.e. preserving time), but it also undermines the likelihood of success.
  • Perhaps success is seen as “unbecoming”. I have a friend who, throughout childhood, was taught to believe that money is evil. It leads to arguments within the marriage. People with money are deemed to be “selfish”. Success separates and differentiates you from your friends and family etc. If that’s your belief pattern, is it any wonder that you find yourself procrastinating and stalling the establishment or growth of your own business?

(c) Procrastination: Because of the fear of intimacy / separation

Procrastination is also used as a means of regulating the closeness of our interpersonal relationships. Burka and Yuen (2008) explain that:

  • For some people, that desire for closeness in a relationship is driven by anxiety (a fear of separation). In order to feel safe / capable of surviving in this world, they need to have their partner / friends / family / colleagues present. So procrastination is used to preserve that dependence e.g. seeking out help with work; leaving things to the last minute so that you can “be saved”; helping a colleague shine in the work environment whilst you take a back seat; or postponing things that you want to do in favour of the things your partner wants to do.
  • For others, procrastination is used as way to maintain distance in relationships (i.e. avoid intimacy). Intimacy (romantic or otherwise) scares some people. They feel that if they allow people to get too close to them, people may take advantage of them. Perhaps they’ve experienced painful relationships in the past and want to avoid repeating these scenarios, so use procrastination (e.g. a delay in committing or progressing the relationship) as a way of maintaining their independence.

Both of the above scenarios, Burka and Yuen (2008) explain, highlight how procrastination can be used to maintain a “comfort zone”. In reality though, procrastination in these scenarios impedes the development of healthy relationships and that balance between dependence and independence and the testing and establishment of boundaries.

(D) Procrastination: Because of the fear of being controlled

Lastly, Burka and Yuen (2008) talk about the use of procrastination to avoid being controlled. The theory here is that people delay performing certain tasks as a means of asserting their independence and autonomy. And actually, it may be more familiar to you than you think.

Think about children and their school projects. When I was 10 years old, I had to do a project on the Wirral (the peninsula next to Liverpool in the UK). It was staggered over the whole school year and various topics were covered: geographical features, religion, Roman influences, the origins of place names. Our teacher had told all of our parents about the Wirral Project because they needed to help us take photos and explore various places. The delivery of each chapter was every 4-6 weeks.

Now, I am sure there were some very compliant children in my class, but one of the things ensconced in my personality is the need for independence. I hate being told what to do! Despite my poor mother setting rules and routines about getting each chapter of this project done early, I would leave everything to the last minute and then, in a blind panic and with a lot of drama, throw something together. But at least I retained that sense that I wasn’t being controlled!

Procrastination, in this context, goes back to that correlation between performance, ability and self-worth discussed in Fear of Failure above. Only, in this context, self-worth is closely linked to the ability to maintain control by NOT performing [8]. So, using the above example:

  • If I do my homework (PERFORM) in accordance with my mother’s rules and routines, I have no autonomy or independence (ABILITY) and I feel bad about myself (SELF-WORTH).
  • If I avoid /delay doing my homework (NOT PERFORM) in defiance of my mother’s wishes, I retain my autonomy and independence (ABILITY) and I feel good about myself (SELF-WORTH).

This form of procrastination (the desire to avoid being controlled) doesn’t just operate at a child level though. It can easily be identified in adult life too. How many of you resist paying bills until the last minute? How many of you file your taxes late and get hit with the late filing penalty? How many of you attend meetings late despite specifically been told to turn up on time?

What’s interesting is that, although this form of procrastination (rebelling against parental, societal, corporate control) preserves this sense of independence, it prevents you from choosing what you actually want to do. Perhaps you do want to pay your bills on time so you have peace of mind? Perhaps turning up for a meeting on time is beneficial because you’ll get back to your desk earlier?

In my case, had I just complied with my mother’s wishes and got on with the Wirral Project, I could have avoided one of the most mortifying experiences I had as a child and achieved the A Grade I desired. Due to procrastination, I’d begged my grandad to help me complete one of the chapters the weekend before it was due in. Bless him, he had painstakingly copied (i.e. plagarised) a chapter from one of the library books I’d taken out about the Wirral’s geographical rock formations. I’d copied what he’d written and handed it in! Needless to say, my teacher humiliated me in front of the whole class and called me out for cheating. My procrastination had had the direct opposite effect to the one intended. My self-worth was not exactly in tact!

Now what?

Well, I did say that the emotional root of procrastination may feel quite confronting. I can certainly see how it has impacted my own life, particularly the fear of failure. The reality is, it still does. The reason I’ve struggled to get back into running isn’t a lack of motivation or an inability to prioritise. It’s the fear that if I set myself a goal to get fit and toned for my wedding and fail, what does that say about me as a person? My ability? My commitment to myself?

There is a great line in the book which I’d like to leave you with which certainly helped me to feel more positive about the whole procrastination saga. “We believe that when you know what you feel and understand why you feel it, you are likely to be more confident, at ease with yourself, and then able to proceed without procrastinating” (Burka & Yuen, 2008).

In other words, if you’re prepared to work through your procrastination, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s what we’ll focus on in Part 2. The steps which you can take to beat procrastination depending on the type of procrastinator you are.

And, just so you are aware, the irony has not escaped me. I could have made this article twice as long and covered off the strategies here. But, hey, in true procrastinator fashion, why would I do something today which I can push to July? The challenge for me is whether I’ll give myself two weeks to write the next article or just a couple of days? Let’s see. 😊

Side Note

The summary above of the motivations driving the emotional root of procrastination is exactly that – a high level summary. It, by no means, does justice to the book. If you are struggling with procrastination or would like to discover more about it, I highly recommend you take the time to read Procrastination: Why you do it. What to do about it NOW.. It’s a fabulous book with a wealth of examples of how each of type of procrastination is displayed.

references

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/procrastinate

[2] What is procrastination? https://www.verywellmind.com/the-psychology-of-procrastination-2795944

[3], [5], [7] and [8] Burka, J., & Yuen, L. (2008). Procrastination: Why you do it. What to do about it NOW. Da Capo Life Long. https://www.amazon.com/Procrastination-Why-You-What-About/dp/0738211702

[4] Le Cunff, A. (n.d.). Why we wait: the neuroscience of procrastination. Ness Labs: https://nesslabs.com/neuroscience-of-procrastination#:~:text=Procrastination%20actually%20finds%20its%20roots,Its%20processes%20are%20mostly%20automatic.

[6] Clear, J. (n.d.). Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating. https://jamesclear.com/procrastination

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