Procrastination is a problem that quite a few clients of mine report having. So here’s a look at the procrastination “landscape.”
Putting off actions or activities that were planned or scheduled for actions or activities that are less important. Or, relatedly, putting off actions or activities that are less pleasurable in favor of those that are more pleasurable, irrespective of their relative importance. A pretty simple concept.
Procrastination is more common than you may realize. Statistics show that somewhere between 20 and 25% of the population employs “chronic” procrastination. This number has increased dramatically over the past few decades (it was reported at a level of 5% in 1978) as life has become increasingly complex.
3. “Foundational” Causes:
By foundational causes I mean those that are deeply held and fairly constant across time. Examples of these:
a) Low self confidence/fear of failure - If you don't believe you are capable of performing a task satisfactorily, you will be reluctant to embark on it.
b) Rebelliousness - Although this is a childish emotion, many adults manifest it in surprising situations. Refusing to do something you are supposed to can provide a (illusory) sense of power and control.
c) Mental health issues - Depression can make it virtually impossible to take initiative. Anxiety can be paralyzing. ADD's associated inability to focus for any length of time on a project can derail progress practically as soon as it begins, and makes distractions exceptionally hard to turn away from.
d) Disorganization - If you haven't learned how to organize the competing priorities of life at a relatively early age it is very difficult to order and tackle projects methodically. So it is easy for you to get overwhelmed and just give up.
e) Overoptimism - Some people are chronically Pollyana-ish in assessing their ability to get something done on time.
4. Situational Causes - These are causes that arise only in specific circumstances:
a) Distraction - The phone may ring, or a tone alerts you to a text or an email that just came in. It can be very difficult to let the incoming message go to voicemail, or avoid the temptation to check that email or text.
b) Interruption - Someone drops by your office just as you're beginning to work on that presentation that is due tomorrow. You find yourself caught up in the conversation that ensues and are reluctant to terminate it and go back to work.
c) Overwhelm - You think about all of the things you need to do today, or this week, and it just seems impossible to get it all done, so you retreat into undemanding and therefore more pleasurable activities (turn on the TV, head for the refrigerator, surf the Web).
d) Mood - Everyone is subject to mood swings, but many people use the fact that "they're just not in the mood" as sufficient reason to procrastinate.
e) Perfectionism - Some people feel that they need to perform perfectly, and the recognition that they can't do a perfect job causes them to delay even starting.
5. Negative Impact of Procrastination:
Chronic procrastination can have a devastating effect on just about all aspects of life. At work procrastination can easily lead to missed deadlines, a severe enough pattern of which can lead to termination. With your partner, in your family, or with a friend a failure to deliver on time / to accomplish tasks when promised can lead to mistrust and resentment. Finally, chronic procrastination can easily undermine your self-esteem, leading to depression, or create heightened anxiety due to the fear of the consequences of procrastination.
6. Techniques to deal with Procrastination:
a) Create the right environment - A cluttered desk at work or a home office that also doubles as the TV room are invitations to distraction and resulting procrastination. Find a quiet, orderly place where you can more easily focus on just the task at hand - perhaps the local library.
b) Schedule yourself - I am amazed at how many of my clients don't have a single calendar which contains all of their "to dos." Whether on your phone (preferred because it's always with you) or in a notebook list everything of importance that needs to be done in one place and refer to it frequently.
c) Take small steps towards completing a project or task - It's easy to feel intimidated and overwhelmed by something that you know will take quite a long time and involve some drudgery. Schedule only 15 or 30 minute blocks of time to tackle a small piece of the whole, and space them apart.
d) Create incentives - Most people deal with a tendency to procrastinate by trying to push themselves into getting things done: Will power. It can be easier to be pulled into working on a project by building in a little reward for working, perhaps a snack, or allowing 15 minutes to play a video game or check emails for every 15 minutes of productive work.
e) Accountability - There's a reason that so many people hire trainers at the gym; working out is inherently unpleasant for a lot of people and having someone to report to makes it easier. Perhaps you can arrange to report to your significant other about progress you are making (but careful: this also entails the possibility of creating new relationship strains).
f) Set artificial deadlines - If you have a persistent procrastination habit that traces to overoptimism try creating deadlines that are earlier than required; you could create a due date of July 27 for a project that is actually due on August 1. While this is unlikely to actually "fool" you, if you're committed to breaking the procrastination habit it can be helpful.
Procrastination is indeed a habit for those whose behavior is rooted in situational issues. For those whose procrastination is more related to "foundational" issues, professional help from a therapist, coach, or professional organizer will most likely prove to be a wise investment.