What is Procrastination?
How to deal with procrastination? It is a question that we wish we knew the answer to every time we face the consequences of not acting when required.
Procrastination comes from the Latin word ‘procrastinare’ which means to ‘leave it to tomorrow’. It happens to all of us.
We have an important task to complete and yet we just cannot seem to get ourselves to do it.
Most people cannot even start working on their tasks until the last few days and some chronic procrastinators do not even start until the last few hours.
This makes one thing clear; procrastination is not a time management problem.
We procrastinate not because we are not efficient in doing our work but because we cannot bring ourselves to work.
We know what we should do and yet we cannot bring ourselves to. Procrastination is conscious behavior and it has been around for centuries.
Ancient Greek philosophers called this ‘akrasia’ meaning to do something against our better judgment.
We all procrastinate even though we do not want to and even when we try to make sense of it we can’t because it is irrational behavior. So let’s give it another try.
To deal with procrastination we must first try to understand why we procrastinate.
Some people as mentioned above think procrastination is a time management problem.
You played videogames too much and thus you could not finish the work assigned.
Others think procrastination is related to self-control. All you had to do was sit to work and that was it.
However, let me ask you this if you were cleaning your room or washing the dishes or getting up to eat something every time you get close to working, is it really a self-control problem.
You are avoiding the important task, yes. However, in place of that, you aren’t going out to a party, playing games, or binging the latest series.
You have the self-control to sit in the house and get to working and yet something is still stopping you from doing your work.
Here is the dangerous part. As we mentioned before, procrastination is conscious behavior.
You do not lack self-awareness when you procrastinate.
Not only do you know when you procrastinate, but you also know that it is harmful and hurting you.
You do it still and it makes you feel worse. This has detrimental long-term effects on your self-esteem.
Procrastination according to Dr. Tim Pychyl is when people “give in to feel good”.
He says that procrastination is caused by negative moods and thus it is an ‘emotional regulation problem not a time management problem’.
Give in to feel good?
To deal with procrastination let us first try to understand, how procrastination happens and why eventually grows into a behavior pattern.
Dr. Tim says that to avoid feelings of fear or dread people tend to procrastinate.
The brain senses discomfort while working and to escape that discomfort the brain gives in to any activity that gives immediate pleasure response.
This helps shortly because when we do procrastinate, by watching videos or playing games we feel better.
We have temporarily distracted ourselves from the fear and dread we were feeling.
However, now that we have less time to do the same task, we feel much worse.
We feel internal guilt and lack of self-esteem.
This makes us even more prone to give in to further procrastination.
This forms a downward spiral that makes it impossible to deal with procrastination.
Since procrastination is
1) inducing a pleasure response in our brain and
2) we are giving in to it consistently,
it eventually becomes a habit.
This habit that seeps into all areas of our lives.
Those who procrastinate at work are very likely to do the same when it comes to their relationships, or studies, or any other area of their life.
Disconnected Future selves
Now we will try to know why procrastination happens and what is happening in the back of our minds that is making us so susceptible to it.
An important reason why we aren’t able to deal with procrastination is that our brains have not kept up with the rapid change of civilization.
Like most animals; our brains too, are hard-wired to put short-term needs ahead of long-term aspirations. This is why living by a long-term philosophy is so challenging.
Psychologists have a word for this called cognitive dissonance. We seek immediate mood repair and thus give in to instant gratification.
Research done by Dr. Hal E. Hershfield shows what you just saw in the short clip of How I met your mother above.
His research concludes that people who view their future selves as different people on a neural level are more likely to procrastinate.
This is because they have a disconnect with their future selves. They see them as a different person.
Thus the important task, as well as the fear and stress accompanying the task, is put off for their future selves to handle.
In their brain, it almost feels as if ‘it is someone else’s problem’.
Impact of future self-continuity
In an experiment, some students were shown images of their future self in a VR environment using a ‘Facegen modeler’ software. Other students were shown images of their current self.
All the students were assigned a hypothetical monetary allocation task.
Those that were shown images of their future selves were much more likely to allocate to a hypothetical retirement savings account than other students were.
He concludes his paper by saying that –
“..when the future self seems similar to the present self, when it is imbued with realism and vividness, and when it is seen in positive terms, people are more willing to make sacrifices today that may benefit them at some point in the years to come.”– Hal E. Hershfield
Steps to deal with procrastination
So now that we understand it a little better let’s think about how to deal with procrastination. We can do that by attacking it on several fronts.
1)Start working to deal with procrastination
Now, I know how that sounds. If you could already get to work you would not have been reading this.
However, bear with me a little while 😛
When I say start working, it doesn’t mean you have to will yourself to work straight for 3-4 or as many hours till the work isn’t finished.
I mean it in the literal sense, just start.
An easy way I have found to do this is to make a commitment to sit for 15-30 minutes to work.
Now working for 15 minutes is not going to help you much. However, just because you have already started, most of the resistance is already gone.
It is difficult to start but, when you start working, it is easy to keep working.
If you still want to get up after 15 minutes then that is ok. Just make sure you sit again for 15 minutes after a while(like a 5minute break?).
Do not try to do everything and most importantly don’t try to be perfect if you are spending your time on creative work. Just start and avoid the trap of Perfectionism.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”-Anonymous
2)Forgive yourself to deal with procrastination
The more critical you are of your procrastination, the easier it is to procrastinate more. A negative and uncompassionate attitude for your mistakes emboldens your internal critic.
This may not only increase procrastination but also deteriorate your self-esteem. A study by Dr. Tim Pychyl showed that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating before an exam were less likely to procrastinate while studying for the following exam.
The paper concludes-
“…Self-forgiveness for procrastinating appears to be constructive in the short-term by allowing the individual to overcome the negative affect associated with an earlier task and engage in approach-oriented behaviors on a subsequent similar task. Learning to forgive the self for procrastinating will likely be beneficial by reducing procrastination, but also more generally by promoting feelings of self-worth and more positive mental health….”–Michael J.A. Wohl, Timothy A. Pychyl, Shannon H. Bennett,
Paper titled – Personality and Individual Differences
3)Learn to manage moods to deal with procrastination
In our blog on How to stay consistent towards our dreams, we talk about the six steps that can help you manage your moods.
It explains that we humans must start by understanding the sensitivity of our minds.
Sensitivity is a virtue without which we would not be able to enjoy the experiences life throws our way.
Next is to manage our body as well as our social circle well. If we ignore our health or indulge in a peer group that is toxic, we will be much more likely to have negative moods.
Besides, we have to improve on our internal qualities of self-empathy and self-control.
These qualities take conscious effort and time to improve but eventually become the foundational roots of a strong character ethic.
Lastly, we need to have patience. When you feel any urge to act, take a step back, and introspect how you feel at that moment.
Do not try to suppress your feelings. Acknowledge how you feel and surrender to them.
Only when you do that you can truly let go of the uncomfortable feelings you have been holding on subconsciously.
4)Rewire the habit of procrastination
The habit of procrastination depends on a two things.
First is the reward you feel when you procrastinate.
Second is the resistance you feel when you try to work.
Thus, breaking a habit is simple if we look at it this way.
All we have to do is to increase resistance to procrastination and reduce resistance we feel to work.
Dr. Judson Brewer calls it a Bigger Better Offer.
So let’s say you procrastinate by looking at videos on your phone, a simple solution to increase resistance can be to keep your phone away from you and block notifications temporarily.
To reduce resistance to work, a simple thing you can do is to dissect the task at hand into small easy to do parts.
If all you have to do now is a simple 10 min task, there is less resistance.
Dr. Judson Brewer however throws a word of caution that when trying to break the habit of procrastination be careful of the several potential substitute actions that are still forms of procrastination.
For example- cleaning your dishes to avoid important work. To make sure we do not fall into that trap I’ll introduce you to a tool.
In ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’ author Steven R. Covey gives a matrix named after Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It gives us four quadrants that we can classify our work in.
If we look at our lives, where do we spend most of our time? Most people might admit that they spend their time doing urgent things.
People who procrastinate all the time will spend most of their life in quadrant 4.
When they can’t procrastinate any longer and the deadline strikes they might visit quadrants 1 and 3 momentarily.
Others that do things that are necessary like an assignment in a school or a deadline at their job might spend their time in quadrants 1 and 3 all the time.
That keeps them up to speed on their work but it is a path that results in stagnation in their life.
If all your life is filled with doing only things that are urgent, you will miss out on the things that are important.
This is especially worse for things that have no deadlines or ones that we don’t know until we cross them. Tim urban explains this beautifully in his ted talk.
Do you take time out of your schedule to spend quality time with your daughter even if it isn’t her birthday?
Are you making an effort in your marriage? Have you spent time writing that book you always wanted to?
Will you ever learn the musical instrument that you bought and never got to?
Quadrant 2 is filled with things that truly matter in our life.
These are the things that people regret not having done at the end of their life or things they are truly grateful they did.
This week use the Matrix above and list the things in the quadrants where they belong.
Write about those things that are truly important that you have been procrastinating on.
Use the steps above to break the habit and build resistance to things that aren’t urgent or important.
You won’t be able to eradicate it completely from your life, after all, it is ingrained in your behavior patterns so remember to not be too hard on yourself even if you fail.
To deal with procrastination start with the first step. Just start working even if you don’t want to. Do not procrastinate on changing your lackadaisical attitude.
A thousand-mile journey cannot be completed in a moment. To travel a thousand miles, you have to travel the first mile.
Then the next and then the next. All you have to do is travel for one mile repeatedly.
A person who can travel a thousand miles is after all a person that travels one mile a thousand times. It is time to take your first step.
If you have trouble finding out what is important to you there is a free eBook you can download on our site called The Perfect Beginning that might help you.
That is all for this week. I hope you have a good day and a good life.