Why do we do it?

"I love deadlines - I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by”

Douglas Adams (in The Salmon of Doubt (2002) - author, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Surprisingly, perhaps, procrastination is often used as a coping strategy; procrastinating - delaying doing something you need to do -  in order to reduce the anxiety you might feel as you contemplate doing a task that might appear to be overwhelming, e.g. an essay; a group project; or revision for an exam. Procrastination is typically an avoidant behaviour, and avoidant behaviours tend to reduce anxiety in the immediate short term, but then effectively reinforce the way you might interpret similar situations in the future. You may do something mundane instead, like cleaning your room or flat, as a means of distraction and creating an instant sense of achievement, so reinforcing the avoidant behaviour of procrastination.

Alternatively, you may procrastinate in order to make yourself more anxious, since it is only when really anxious that you are sufficiently motivated to actually do the work, i.e. when the deadline looms and it becomes so urgent that you have no choice but to get on with it.  It is the anxiety - the fight or flight response - that gets you focused and concentrated enough to do the work.

So how do you prevent procrastination, so you can get on with what needs doing and manage anxiety and workload in a more helpful way?  Well, in a previous blog, I discussed the issue of worry and problem solving.  Problem solving can really help with procrastination, because so often we procrastinate as a response to a task or problem that seems so massive or overwhelming.  In reality it may not be, and in fact at its roots the problem may be based on something much smaller.  Or you may be a perfectionist  and can’t face starting something so significant that you can’t do perfectly. So, breaking a problem down into much smaller tasks, each of which is much more readily achieved and in which you can experience satisfaction, means that the ultimate goal of the bigger task (or solving the ‘huge’ problem) can be achieved incrementally.  Baby steps! Often a good problem solving strategy.

Here’s a common example for anyone thinking about a future career:

“I’ve no idea what I want to do for a career - I’m scared I won’t find anything I want to do or am good at doing!” 

But maybe the problem is not that you’ve no idea, but you have simply not given yourself any space or time to reflect on what interests you, what you enjoy doing, what your real values are and how a career might help further or support those values.  So maybe try just allocating a couple of hours in your diary next week, or in two weeks time, to do some research on a wide array of companies, organisations, and sectors, just to get to a point where you have an idea of what might fall into an ‘interesting’ category and what falls into a ‘no way’ category.  This, of course, doesn’t have to commit you for life, just give you an idea of where you might see yourself gaining valuable experience and skills, while actually being interested in what you might be doing, say, immediately after leaving university.  Having done some initial broad brush, bigger picture research, the next tasks would be to hone that down a bit to maybe a short list of companies or organisations or job types that you could see yourself doing and that might match your skill set. Then, set about getting on job notification (email) lists for specific job types/sectors; and then doing some selective applications to jobs that match your skills. A seemingly intractable problem, now broken down into manageable and exploratory tasks. 

The process itself can become exciting, as you go on a journey of discovery of an array of plausible future careers.  And you can then be flexible and more responsive to opportunities as they arise.  This is ‘mindful learning’ applied to career planning - focusing on, and enjoying, the process in the here and now, not on the outcomes (which tends to promote worry about the future).

Understanding why you procrastinate is the starting point for change; you may need some help to do so because procrastination may be symptomatic of a more complex set of issues associated with anxiety, low self-worth, or low mood.  But it is quite feasible to change, if you want to.

Bill Sheate, 5 March 2019