Procrastination has always been a huge issue in my life. When studying I would wait until the very last minute to start assignments, often missing deadlines as a result and at one point resulting in having to restart a course. I remember the agony and devastation I felt when I considered myself a failure as a result of restarting my course. Fear of failure was one of my worst fears and, ironically, it was this very fear that caused my procrastination. These days I still struggle with procrastination, even although it may not seem obvious to others.
The main shift took place when I started keeping a diary and listing my to do items each day, a habit I got into shortly after beginning therapy. Indeed there were many habits I formed in therapy that, without my knowing it, made procrastination less of an issue in my life. Today I still psychologically resist doing tasks but rather than putting things off for days or even months I now take just a few hours before tackling items on my to do.
In this series I will examine the scientific and psychological research on procrastination and tell you the practical steps you can take to stop procrastinating – highly effective steps that have worked – even for a chronic procrastinator such as me.
But what is procrastination exactly? According to Wikipedia
“Procrastination is the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. It is the practice of doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, or carrying out less urgent tasks instead of more urgent ones, thus putting off impending tasks to a later time. Sometimes, procrastination takes place until the “last minute” before a deadline. Procrastination can take hold on any aspect of life — putting off cleaning the stove, repairing a leaky roof, seeing a doctor or dentist, submitting a job report or academic assignment or broaching a stressful issue with a partner. Procrastination can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression and self-doubt.”
I think this is a perfect description of how chronic procrastination can affect us all. I remember feeling completely inadequate and incapable of coping with life every time I failed to do an important task, putting it off until it was too late. When chronic procrastination grips us, it often leaves us with a sense of hopelessness, and sometimes, as with me, even depression.
What I found fascinating is the science behind why we procrastinate. Whilst the limbic system operates on automatic and teaches us to seek pleasure and avoid pain (being part of our instinctive older part of our brains), the pre-frontal cortex (a much younger part of the brain) is in charge of decisions and information. As it would happen, the pre-frontal cortex does not work on automatic and needs to be kick started, for example by saying to ourselves ‘I must do this assignment now’. What happens when we procrastinate is that we give in to our automatic limbic system until we reach the point where we feel we have to do the work, thereby kick starting the pre-frontal cortex.
The trick therefore, is to develop our pre-frontal cortex by developing more discipline, something research has suggested mindfulness meditation can help us do, amongst other things which I shall share with you later in this series.
What can make things more difficult when dealing with procrastination is when there are strong psychological reasons we choose to procrastinate. Though some of us are simply drawn to seek more pleasurable things to do, for some of us there are strong psychological reasons why we avoid tasks and these reasons cause our limbic system to perceive there to be considerable ‘pain’ associated with a task – making the desire to procrastinate even stronger.
Would you consider yourself to be a chronic procrastinator? What are the main reasons, beyond seeking more pleasurable tasks, that you procrastinate? How have you tried to avoid procrastinating in the past? Did it work? Please share your thoughts in the comments below to gain encouragement, insight and support from our community, we’d love to hear from you.
Stay tuned – next week we discover the two main psychological reasons that contribute to procrastination and how to overcome them.