Procrastination

Procrastination

If not now, when?

I often work with individuals who experience procrastination. Sometimes, this is over a specific task, but more often it is because procrastination has become an unhelpful trait that effects many parts of their lives. This post has been written to offer an overview of the types of procrastination, theories and ways to start to manage this using Cognitive Behavioural techniques.

“If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.” 

Rita Mae Brown, Author

Have you ever:

  • put off arranging an appointment, even though there is no real reason for this?
  • found reasons to not sit down and finish a report or piece of work?
  • suddenly found yourself engrossed in social media, when you have a task you need to complete?
  • offered to make cups of tea for everyone in the office, when you have a deadline coming up?
  • persuaded yourself that an extra half an hour in bed is better for you than going to the gym?
  • found something that you tell yourself is really important to do when the house needs cleaning?
  • spent hours watching some bad TV show instead of completing a chore around the house?
  • put the onus on someone else to make a decision, because you are unsure of yourself?

What is procrastination?

The word procrastination comes from the Latin ‘procastinatus’ where ‘pro’ means forward and ‘castinus’ means ‘of tomorrow’. It relates to a needless delay of things we intend to do.   There are many different definitions of procrastination, but research by Klingsieck (2013) suggests that there are seven parts to this:

  1. Something that we need to do is delayed.  This could be a behaviour/ action or making a decision. 
  2. There is some intention to start the task
  3. The task is necessary or of personal importance
  4. The delay is voluntary, and not because of external factors or other people.
  5. The delay is irrational and unnecessary.
  6. The delay occurs even though the person is aware that it will have negative consequences.
  7. The delay is accompanied by some discomfort for the person.

Procrastination leads us to do something either at the very last minute, after a deadline, or not at all. 

Seven part of procrastination
Seven parts of procrastination

What kinds of things do people procrastinate over?

Some people will only procrastinate every so often, or in one area of their life, such as work.  For others, procrastination can be a chronic bad habit.  Three areas we can procrastinate over are:

  • Personal maintenance – put off taking action in day to day activities – work, health, finance, living conditions.
  • Self-development – deliberating about things which will enhance our lives such as personal interests, improving opportunities at work, further education.
  • Honouring commitments to others – completing tasks which we have agreed with others – such as house maintenance, financial help, making decisions that impact the whole family.

Hidden Procrastination

Sometimes, our procrastination may be ‘hidden’, in that we find ourselves doing things which seem useful but are actually our minds way of tricking us into avoiding something. For example:

  • Deciding it would be lovely to bake a cake when you have work to do.
  • Spending so much time making a to-do list you don’t have time to start a task.
  • Texting friends or family and having a long conversation with them on the spur of the moment.
  • Cleaning the house to put off work admin.
  • Doing another task that may be simpler or more enjoyable ‘to get it out the way’.

In these situations, asking yourself ‘am I doing this to avoid something, or because I really think it is the best thing to do right now?’ will help you to identify whether you are falling into a procrastination trap.

The Procrastination Cycle

One of the problems with procrastination is that it can lead us to feel guilty or bad about ourselves for putting the task off. We may focus on how we are letting others/ ourselves down, and start to question our abilities. All of this can lead to higher levels of anxiety and panic, and a regular response is to then avoid – often through making excuses or avoiding others. However, this does not solve the problem that is causing the procrastination, leading to the vicious cycle below:

Cycle of procrastination
The cycle of procrastination

Strategic Delay

Sometimes it can help us to delay a task.  For example, if we have a lot on, or we are feeling unwell.  This is referred to as ‘functional procrastination’ or ‘strategic delay’.  Research says that a strategic delay will include delaying a task when we have an intention to start or complete this, where it is of importance to us in some way and we make the decision ourselves to delay it.  However, if we think about it there will be a rational reason to do this, and the positives to delaying will outweigh the negatives. 

Strategic delay is likely to feel very different than procrastination.  We are control of our decision and we know the benefits of doing this. Whatever we do instead of completing the task will probably have been thought out. When we procrastinate we may not feel in control and are likely to avoid thinking about the task we need to do. We will focus instead on something without consciously realising we are doing this.  The feeling of anxiety may remain, or will come up again quickly.

Are there different types of procrastination?

Some psychologists have made the distinction between ‘Arousal Procrastination’ and ‘Avoidance Procrastination.

‘Arousal Procrastination’ – Where someone puts things off because of a belief that they will work better under pressure.  Have you ever heard someone say that they work well under pressure, and only get the results they do because they put things off until just before the deadline?  Some researchers call this ‘active procrastination’ and see it as a positive strategy. This is the most common form of procrastination.

‘Avoidance Procrastination’ – putting things off due to real and imagined fears. This can be an avoidance of something that may feel threatening. It could be feeling scared of how others will react if they do the task, or scared that they will embarrass themselves in some way. It may also be an avoidance of something that would make them feel discomfort if they face up to a situation. For example, talking to someone about how they are feeling, or having to give bad news.

Windy Dryden, a well known psychotherapist, suggests that other types of procrastination include:

Procrastination as restoring the balance: This is to do with people who have a strong need for autonomy.  Procrastination gives them a sense that they are independent individuals who will do the task when they choose to do them, and not when others want them to.  They may have sensitivity to feeling controlled by others.

Procrastination as a logical consequence: This is where someone is overcommitted to lots of activities, and so they put off some activities as a consequence of not having enough time. It is not a ‘real’ type of procrastination, as the real problem is being overcommitted, but it can feel like this at the time. A book which may be helpful for this is ‘Eat that Frog‘ by Brian Tracey.

“If the first thing you do in the morning is to eat the frog, then you can continue your day with the satisfaction of knowing that this is probably the worst thing that will happen all day”

Mark Twain

Theories

Procrastination and motivation
Procrastination and motivation

Procrastination as a personality trait: 

This theory suggests that procrastination occurs as a response to our personality traits.   People who procrastinate chronically have been found to have increased neuroticism (are more likely to worry over things), and perfectionism. They may be more prone to boredom. They can also be people who are less conscientious, have lower self-esteem and are not naturally optimistic.    With this perspective, procrastination is believed to happen as a way of preserving self-esteem – if the person procrastinates and does not get something done, at least it is not because they tried and failed. 

Other research has suggested that procrastination may be more likely if someone has an Obsessive Compulsive Personality.  There is also some overlap with diagnosed ADHD and procrastination. 

Procrastination and motivation:

Research has found that people are less likely to procrastinate when they are doing a task that they are personally motivated and have chosen to do.  People who have an approach of wanting to do something well, and who are goal orientated are also less likely to procrastinate.  There is some research by Klingsieck et al (2013) which suggests that when people focus on external reasons for doing a task, or blame external reasons for not being able to do it, they may also be more prone to procrastinate.

Procrastination and situation
ProCATstination

Procrastination and the person’s situation:

This theory suggests that procrastination occurs due to the characteristics of the situation and task. For example, how difficult the task is for the person, whether they find it interesting, whether they view the task as plausible, and the characteristics of any teacher they may have. For some people, they may be asked to do a task which they do not have the knowledge of skills to complete well. Or, someone may start a task thinking that they can do it even if they have no past experience, and when it becomes too hard they may procrastinate instead of problem solve.

Procrastination and Thinking

There appear to be certain ways of thinking that are more associated with procrastination. These include someone having greater doubt about their own abilities to do a task, a fear of failing, and a fear of what others will think of them if they do fail. Windy Dryden suggests that procrastination goes through a cycle of thoughts. A person starts by putting rigid demands on themselves – ‘I must do this well’ or ‘I can only do this if I feel relaxed’. It is usually unlikely that they can meet these demands, so they start to awfulise – ‘it will be terrible if I can’t do this’. Following this, a person may start to feel like the discomfort is intolerable – ‘I can’t cope with this stress’. Finally, this may lead them to think negatively of themselves – ‘I am stupid, I can’t even do this right’. At this time, the person’s brain will help them to find excuses or other tasks to do to avoid the emotions that come from such thinking.

Procrastination Thinking

Chronic procrastination:

For some of us, procrastination may be a symptom of other longer term psychological issues.

  • From a trauma perspective, procrastination may occur when certain parts of a traumatic memory that has not been processed fully are unconsciously triggered. An individual may not be able to understand why they put things off, or have a strong emotional response to being asked to do something. For example:
    • if someone has grown up in a home environment where they were shouted at, physically abused and put down, they may unconsciously avoid situations at work where they could be criticised or given feedback (such as supervision, or completing a piece of work). They are unlikely to make this connection, leaving them feeling as if there is something wrong with them.
    • if someone has gone through financial hardship, lost their house or business, they may find themselves putting off opening letters, even when things have been sorted. This is because the brain continues to associate anything to do with money with a threat and the stress of what they went through.
    • The trigger to the procrastination may not be obvious. For example, someone who has suffered a traumatic loss in their family may put off cleaning their house even though they know it needs to be done. This could be because to clean would seem like they are moving forward in their life, something which takes time to accept.
  • From a Schema Therapy perspective, long term procrastination may be one way in which people try and manage dysfunctional patterns in their life. In my experience, people may say that they know what they should do not to procrastinate, but they can help falling back into the bad habit.
    • One schema that is often seen is Unrelenting Standards – where people put high standards on themselves to achieve things as a means to boost their self esteem. The childhood origin of this can be where a person has had to perform to a high standard due to pressure and demands from their parents. Procrastination may occur as an adult if they start to feel like they are unable to achieve a task, or put unrealistic demands on themselves to do something perfectly. There may also be situations where someone (such as a boss or colleague) reminds them of their parent in some way, maybe the way they express themselves, which could trigger anxiety about their ability. In this case, they are unlikely to be aware of this connection, and so the procrastination feels like it comes from nowhere.
    • Another schema that could lead to procrastination is Failure. This can come from a childhood origin of being unfairly and harshly criticised, put down or abused by a caregiver. People with this schema internalise the messages they received as a child that they are going to fail, or are not worthy of good things happening to them. They may feel anxious when expectations are put on them, which can lead to procrastination. It is often the case that people with a Failure schema can overcompensate for this by succeeding and pushing themselves, so procrastination can feel all the more crippling and difficult for them.

Tips for managing procrastination

If procrastination is having a big effect on your life, you may benefit from seeing a therapist. There are also Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques that can help you. Below are a few tips to think about.

Diary log of procrastination
  • Help yourself to be more conscious of your procrastination, and understand its themes. Keep a daily diary. Are there certain themes in the tasks you put off? What happens just before you start to procrastinate? Do you find yourself procrastinating at certain times of the day, if so why might that be? Is your procrastination linked to a certain person, maybe a particular colleague or family member?
  • Identify the type of procrastinator that you are (see above). This may help you to understand further the reasons why you do this.
  • It might also be helpful to complete a mindfulness exercise that involves ‘cognitive defusion’ to notice the themes in your thoughts when you start to procrastinate. This involves helping you to notice your thoughts, but take a step back from them. A favourite of mine is ‘leaves on a stream‘.
  • Re-evaluate the task that you need to do or decision you need to make.  If you are expected to do this due to external reasons (such as a work project) try and reframe. Ask yourself ‘How does this meet my values or is important to me?’  For example, ‘I have to do a presentation because it is part of my job’ is very different to ‘it is important for me to develop new skills and connect with other people, doing this presentation will help this’. 
Questions to ask
  • Understand your unhelpful thinking.  Some questions that can help are:
    • What is it that I am worried about failing at?  Is it realistic that this would happen?
    • What the worst thing that would happen if I did this task and my fears about it came true?
    • Am I insisting on unrealistic conditions before I start this task? 
    • Am I making things worse in my mind than they really are?  Could I be awfulising?
    • What am I telling myself that makes me feel like I can’t cope?
    • Am I putting myself down right now?
  • Think about times when you have completed similar tasks and not procrastinated.  What helped you?  What could you use from this time to help you now?
  • Understand the relevance of what you do when you procrastinate.  Notice the activity and ask yourself ‘what is the function of doing that specific thing?’  If you go on social media, or go and chat to others, what does this tell you – is it that you are seeking connection, and doing the task makes you feel isolated?  If you watch TV which helps you relax, is it that the task is too demanding for you right now?   
  • Work out the pros and cons of doing and not doing the task.  Consider the advantages/ disadvantages in the short and long term.  Using the example of doing a presentation at work:
Advantages of procrastinating Disadvantages of procrastinating
Short term:
I feel less stressed
I can focus on other things
I don’t have to put the mental
energy in
Don’t have to ask for help
Short term:
I don’t do the presentation
I can’t stop worrying about it
I get more grumpy
I am scared about failing
Long term:
None really



Long term:
I will look stupid if I don’t do
the presentation
My boss will be angry
I will let people down
Feel guilty and stupid
Example pros and cons of procrastinating
  • For any advantages to procrastination, think about how you could manage these in a different way. For example, how else could you cope with stress? Can you ask for help with other work? Would getting advice about the presentation help?
  • Think about if there is something realistic getting in the way. If there is, you could use a Problem Solving approach to manage this. Some realistic reasons could include physical or mental illness, emotional problems, a lack of skills, a lack of information or having too much to cope with in other areas of your life.

If you are interested in further self help, Windy Dryden’s book ‘Overcoming Procrastination‘ is a good place to start.

If you think you have chronic procrastination, I recommend therapy. Please Contact Me for further information and to discuss what therapy may be suitable for you.

References:

  • Dryden, W. (2021). Overcoming procrastination. Hachette UK.
  • Klingsieck, K. B. (2013). Procrastination. European Psychologist.

GPPSYCHOLOGY

Therapy | Supervision | Assessment