Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.
With this post, I probably risk to gain the image of riding the hype, but maybe it is just me who is more in touch with the topic over the past months. If you believe Google Trends interest in the topic increased somewhat since 2005.Procrastination has it’s roots in latin and in the human brain.
It’s latin origins trace back to the word crastinus, that means literally of tomorrow, and the related verb procastinare that means to delay, to put off until the next day, to postpone.
That said, it seems that the procrastination habit is not something that struck humanity since the industrial age. Hesiod writes in Theogony and Works and Days:
“Do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.” (405ff).
Cicero states in his Phillipics:
“In the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful, […]”
On a different note, procrastination may be caused in the limbic system, that regulates many of our actions and behaviors, while flying under the radar of consciousness. Fear of threat or loss, as well as fear of success (mind you, that does exist), are rooted deeply in the limbic system. However, to complicate the matter even more, procrastination may even be caused by higher level executive brain functions hosted in the much cited prefrontal cortex (PFC). People are literally thinking themselves into procrastination.
Reasons for procrastinating can be manifold, as Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen tout in their book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. Their Procrastinators Code reads as follows:
- I must be perfect
- Everything I do should go easily, without effort
- It’s safer to do nothing, than take a risk and fail
- I should have no limitations
- If its not done right, its not worth doing at all
- I must avoid being challenged If I succeed, someone will get hurt
- If I do well this time, I must always do well
- Following someone elses rules means that I am giving in and am not in control
- I can’t afford to let go of anything or anyone
- If I show my real self, people won’t like me
- There is a ‘right’ answer, and I will wait until I find it
Looking behind the scenes of this code, I think that one of the best summaries of the procrastination root cause is written in the first chapter of Shoma Morita’s book Morita Therapy and the True Nature of Anxiety-Based Disorders: Shinkeishitsu:
I coined the term shisō-no-mujun to define the opposing tension between one’s desire that life and a sense of self be a certain way, and the facts about how life is and who one is. Shisō-no-mujun is directly translated as ‘the contradiction by ideas’.” (page 3)
Whatever perspective or angle, and whatever level of detail you chose to look at procrastination, ultimately, it boils down to the inability to close the gap between desire and reality, and the emotions caused by the reflection of that gap. These emotions can be negatives, such as anger, frustration, fear, or positive, such as joy, gratitude, and pride. The important fact here is that all of these are caused by a gap between desire and reality.
Take this fact together with the brains preference for reward discounting, that is attributing a much higher value to immediate rewards than to (even bigger) future rewards, and you get the perfect procrastination trigger.
One of my previous clients, Sharon (yes, name changed), came in a coaching session, totally destroyed. She had missed an important deadline on a project. “I knew that I had to deliver this huge piece of work yesterday, but I just couldn’t get to even start working on it. Every time I was sitting in front of my computer to get started, my brain just went blank. I rather called a friend on the phone, wrote an unimportant e-mail, or went shopping on Amazon.”
Digging deeper, it became quickly apparent that Sharon had been experiencing an extreme feeling of anxiety that was caused by a number of triggers, such as the fear to fail and the fear to tackle the project because it was so huge and she didn’t know where to start. The closer the deadline got, the more the additional recognition that she wouldn’t be able to deliver on time, and the fear from the consequences became. In other words, her limbic (threat recognition) system went on overdrive, completely inhibiting her ability to execute.
What could have Sharon helped to complete the project and to avoid procrastinating altogether?
You will find many different anti-procrastination strategies out there. Entering “procrastination strategies” in Google returns 4’520’000 results at the time of this writing. (Interestingly, when this post appeared in my blog the first time in 2015, Google returned 671’000 results.)
Whatever strategy you think to chose, ultimately will boil down to three habits to take, that are deceptively simple. Making it any more complicated than that is nothing else than lying at yourself, and complicating a simple matter.
Habit 1: Consciously decide by when you will take action.
Habit 2: Consistently act upon your decisions.
Habit 3: Curiously experience and esteem your feelings in the particular moment.
Consciously decide by when you will take action will enable you to take a rational step back from the root cause of your concerns, notably the action itself. When deciding upon when to act, take into account which prerequisites you may need to take action, such as environment and tools, but also your internal prerequisites. These include the level of focus and attention you will need, and the level of energy the task requires. These variables have a direct impact on your schedule.
Consistently act upon your decisions will move you towards the habit of sticking to commitments you gave yourself, hence increase your sense of self-accountability and ownership. Ultimately, you decide about your life agenda and you should be trusting your decision-making. Having committed to work on a particular task today at 4pm requires you to stick to the commitment, or you will lose trust in yourself and your own judgement. Don’t leave yourself a way out, and don’t let yourself excuses. If your agenda says: “Write blog article”, then sit down (or stand) in front of your writing block or computer and start writing. There is no reason whatsoever that you shouldn’t get started.
Curiously experience and esteem your feelings in the particular moment will allow you to value yourself and allow your self-confidence to grow. Whether your feelings are positive or negative doesn’t matter. They are just feelings and they do not have to drive your actions. However, as they are your feelings, and as such in that particular moment a part of your reality, there is no benefit in suppressing them, instead label them, give them a name. Neuroscientific research (3, 4) shows that labelling feelings does quiet them. Quieting your feelings will allow your brain to reactivate executive functions that are required to get the job done.
1. Rabin, L.A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.
2. Hear Dr. Laura Rabin talk about her research in this podcast: http://iprocrastinate.libsyn.com/a-neuropsychological-perspective-on-procrastination
3. Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way. Psychological Science 2007;18(5):421-428.
4. Subjective Responses to Emotional Stimuli During Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distraction. Matthew D. Lieberman, Tristen K. Inagaki, Golnaz Tabibnia, and Molly J. Crockett. Emotion 2011;11(3):468-480. See more at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21534661/