by Heidrun Hoppe
When I was a young Psychology student there was one new word I got to learn before many others. Procrastination. I remember sitting in one of those first lectures, along with a bunch of newly enrolled young students, eyes sparkling with motivation, while my statistics professor introduced us to a phenomenon we would soon experience ourselves. Only few mental health issues are downplayed as much as procrastination, which might be an explanation for why it is so prevalent. 20 – 25 % of all men and women across the globe are affected by chronic procrastination. That is quite a number. The lifetime prevalence of Major Depression lies at around 10-15%. Did you friends ever give you an amused smile when you told them about another genius activity you found to avoid what needed to be done more urgently?Many of us have, and chances are that our friend’s reaction did not exactly cause us to reconsider our avoiding behaviour. But is procrastination really such a big problem? What about seizing the day – Carpe Diem? What does the term procrastination really mean, and when do I know it’s time for intervention? Let’s get a few facts straight.
Most of us have an idea of what procrastination is. A scientific definition sounds like this:
Procrastination refers to a prevalent self-regulatory failure that alludes to deferring necessary actions required to successfully complete tasks on time, and instead engaging in activities that are more rewarding with short term over long term gains (Abbasi & Alghamdi, 2015). Okay, lots of smart words. What the researchers are saying here, is that someone consciously waits with doing something rather boring or unpleasant, and instead starts doing something more interesting. Other definitions add the aspect of regretting this pattern of behaviour. So a person avoids something and thenfeels bad about it.
But not every type of procrastination is problematic. Postponing an unpleasant task is a deeply human experience. The so-called pleasure principle, defined by Sigmund Freud, hypothesises that humans instinctively try to seek pleasure and avoid pain in order to fulfil their needs. And we all know this too well, don’t we? If you finish the essay in time and eventually get your health checked, don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with choosing to finish the written assignment tomorrow, if your favourite TV show is on right now. Or calling your doctor for your annual health check next week, if this week is just really full of other fun stuff to do. You’re absolutely normal. And didn’t a wise John Lennon once say Time you enjoy waisting, was not wasted?
But it’s just so easy to postpone the task for another day, and then another. Since there is no one holding us accountable for our avoiding behaviours, there are no negative consequences involved. Well, not yet. When too many tasks are left undone, life gets messy and inconvenient. We have to determine, whether our procrastination is causing us significant distress. If serious consequences get in sight, are we able to free ourselves of our immobility? For almost a quarter of humans across the world, procrastination has turned into a so-called maladaptive lifestyle. A behaviour is maladaptive, when it keeps someone from adapting to new or difficult circumstances in life. And people who delay tasks to this extent are called chronic procrastinators. Instead of eventually paying the bill, even if it’s in the last moment, a chronic procrastinator won’t act. They have become really good at making excuses towards both themselves and others.
The biggest impact of chronic procrastination is one we can all feel; stress. I often hear fellow students justifying their avoiding behaviour by saying they need the pressure in order to get things done. Fair enough. As long as this pressure doesn’t turn into chronic stress, which it might, if someone constantly postpones important tasks. The tricky thing about procrastination is, that it can produce stress, but stress in return can also produce more procrastination. A never-ending cycle, it seems. And stress, especially long-term stress, can cause significant damage to our health. Our health can also suffer, if we don’t attend to it, by putting off important health behaviours like working out, eating healthy and getting a regular check-up at the doctor. Moreover, research has observed further aspects to be related to procrastination such as low self-esteem, ineffective learning skills, anxiety, depression, fear of failure, cheating and poor time management. These aspects can both be caused by procrastination but also serve as causing factors – the chicken or the egg problem.
Now that we’ve talked about effects, let’s briefly touch on possible causes. I say briefly because the variety of explanations is big. It reaches from certain promoting personality factors, like low levels of conscientiousness and high levels of neuroticism, to cognitive thinking styles involving unrealistic views of oneself and others. More tangible possible reasons are poor time management, low ability to concentrate, anxiety and perfectionism.
But here are the good news; procrastination is very treatable. And the treatment of choice is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). If you have never heard of CBT, it is a short-term intervention that targets dysfunctional thought patterns and makes us aware of their impact on our emotions and our behaviour. By changing the way we think, we can then change the way we feel and behave. If you have identified yourself as a chronic procrastinator, schedulingsome therapy sessions with a skilled mental health professional will be the best thing you can do.
But there are lots of reasons it might not be as easy as that. Financial issues, long wait-lists or simply you realising, that your own stigma about psychotherapy is bigger than you thought it was, are just a few possible obstacles. Or maybe you wouldn’t call your procrastination chronic and just don’t see it as urgent enough to require treatment.
Well luckily, I have good news again. Many CBT techniques don’t require a lot of expertise and are easy to implement into our everyday life. Let’s look at a few of them.
A helpful thing to do, when feeling overwhelmed and anxious, is to face the enemy. Fear tends to decrease in size once we actually look at it. That counts for many areas in life, but especially bigger projects turn out to not be as impossible as they seem, once we break them down into smaller tasks. Just like we don’t start packing the day we’re moving houses, no one should write a whole blogpost half an hour before it’s due. It is wise to get an overview of all the little parts that make up a bigger task, and when it would make sense to get them done. This closely relates to our ability of managing our time. You think you’re just naturally really bad at it? Let me remind you; no one is born a master. Humans are lifelong learners. Prepare yourself for a few setbacks when starting to be strategic like this, but if you’re patient enough and you can follow through with your new intention, you’ll likely be rewarded. The more we practice something, the better we become at it.
If you have a habit of writing to-do lists, great! That’s a first step. But we all know that the difficult part starts when trying to work through those lists. A wise thing to do here, is to sort the list by priorities. When we can foresee that certain things will be easier and more comfortable to do than others, of course we’ll start with those. Remember the pleasure principle we talked about? But this habit leaves us frustrated once we realise, that we – again – failed to get the important things done. Try the three categories “urgent”, “moderately important” and “put off until later” and start with those urgent things.
Lastly, we are all different, and recognising and accepting that can be good for all of us. Some people like to be social first thing in the morning, others need some quiet time for themselves. If we can, we should consider this fact when scheduling an important phone call. Does your ability to concentrate rapidly decrease after lunch? Then schedule the cognitively challenging tasks in the morning. Not everyone has the same degree of freedom when planning their day, but to a small extent, we all do, and we can all make decisions wisely.
Note that these tips are just scratching the surface of what is possible therapeutically, when it comes to procrastination. Being part of a society presents us with the gift of becoming an expert in certain areas ourselves, while leaving other important issues to our fellow human beings. And then we share.
Abbasi, I. & Alghamdi, N. (2015). The Prevalence, Predictors, Causes, Treatment, and Implications of Procrastination Behaviors in General, Academic, and Work Setting. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 7(1).
Balkis, M. & Erdinç, D. (2007). The Evaluation of the Major Characteristics and Aspects of the Procrastination in the Framework of Psychological Counseling and Guidance. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 7(1).
Ferrari, J. & Díaz-Morales, J (2014). Procrastination and mental health coping: A brief report related to students. Individual Differences Research, 12(1).
National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). Common Mental Health Disorders: Identification and Pathways to Care. Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society; 2011.