Why do we Procrastinate?


Temporal Motivation Theory
How do I get over my habit of procrastinating?
is among the very top questions on Quora, “a question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users#.”

When we procrastinate we “put off activities that were planned or scheduled, for activities that are of a lesser importance.” In response to why we put off tasks, Dr. Margaret J. King, Director, Cultural Studies & Analysis, says:

it's usually a combination of factors: 1) a challenge to your ability or expertise, which 2) imposes an unwelcome demand on your time, abilities, emotional reserves, or resources.  Much of procrastination is a species of protest against these demands and resentment about the fact that forces from the outside have the power to enforce those demands if they aren't met from your own resources.

A recently study by Dr. Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary concluded that procrastination is on the rise. According to Steel’s research, in 1978 about 15 percent of the population were considered moderate procrastinators. Today that number is up to 60 percent, a four-fold increase.

Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada say:

  • 20 percent of people auto-identify as chronic procrastinators
  • that is represents a problem of self-regulation
  • and is not a time management or planning problem
  • we become procrastinators based on our environment growing up
  • because of poor self-regulation, procrastinators tend to consume more alcohol
  • procrastinators tell themselves lies like “I work best under pressure”
  • and actively look for distractions — see for example, this stop-motion video

PROCRASTINATION from The DMCI on Vimeo.

  • there's more than one flavor of procrastination — Dr. Ferrari identifies three basic types of procrastinators:

– arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush

– avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability

– decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events

  • procrastination comes at a high cost for self (health), and others (unfulfilled responsibilities)
  • it's possible to learn to change behavior

British philosopher Derek Parfit says “we procrastinate because we think of our future self as strangers.” For example, the boy who starts smoking:

“This boy does not identify with his future self. His attitude towards this future self is in some ways like his attitude to other people.”

In Reasons and Persons, hailed a seminal book on identity, Parfit challenges our commonsense views of personal identity. He argues that as humans:

“we are not a consistent identity moving through time, but a chain of successive selves, each tangentially linked to, and yet distinct from, the previous and subsequent ones.”

This dis-connection between our present and our future selves impacts how we make decisions, including what we choose to focus on right now.

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For the avoiders, there is a solution to both fear of failure and fear of success, and that is called turning pro. In the The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield describes procrastination as Resistance:

Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. We don't tell ourselves, 'I'm never going to write my symphony,' instead we say, 'I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow.'

The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.

He says we would rather learn a little bit more, or OVERthink something in place of constructing an action plan and then sticking to it. Even when we have an action plan, we don't really commit to it fully day in and day out. In the forward, renown screenplay writer Robert McKee says:

I hold the Olympic record for procrastination. I can procrastinate thinking about my procrastination problem. I can procrastinate dealing with my problem of procrastinating thinking about my procrastination problem.

[…] Some years ago I was blocked as a Calcutta sewer, so what did I do? I decided to try on all my clothes. To show just how anal I can get, I put on every shirt, pair of pants, sweater, jacket, and sock, sorting them into piles: spring, summer, fall, winter, Salvation Army. Then I tried them on all over again, this time parsing them into spring casual, spring formal, summer casual… Two days of this and I thought I was going mad.

Want to know how to cure writer's block? It's not a trip to your psychiatrist. For as Pressfield wisely points out, seeking 'support' is Resistance at its most seductive. No, the cure is found in Book Two: 'Turning Pro.'

Resistance can be beaten by turning pro. A pro commits full time to doing the work.

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For the decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision on what to tackle, it's useful to parse urgent vs. important:

Urgent is often a posthaste type of adjective, something that gets attached to a project, action item, piece of correspondence, phone call that says — we have not planned for this contingency, or we failed to plan altogether. Urgent may be accidental, is time-driven, and imposed by someone else.

Important matters, it makes a difference, thus not everything is important. There's no time limit for important, and it is something we decide and drive. Hence when we talk about doing important work, what we're saying is work that matters, that puts us in flow. Important is planned.

Having a process to document what we commit to and how we regulate our energy levels go a long way in helping us stay the course and make a difference in how we decide and our role in taking responsibility.

When problems feel daunting or too complex, we can solve them by thinking small. To stay focused, instead of trying to take on multiple parts of a project at once, we can single task. We also underestimate the importance of rest to recover cognitive abilities and of sleep to balance our over-committed lives.

 

[top image via Ryan Perera]