Everyone procrastinates but it can become a problem when it takes over our lives, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
There’s washing to be ironed, bills to be paid and that murder-mystery novel you’ve always wanted to write (but never found the time). With all the tasks that need to be completed in your life, it’s hard to imagine that you have any spare moments to relax – and yet you’ve still managed to squeeze in a nap and countless hours of online shopping.
We are all guilty of procrastinating, that is, putting off or delaying a particular activity against your better judgement. Procrastination comes in all shapes and sizes; you might be postponing homework for playing computer games or dawdling over whether to wash the car when you could just do it now.
Procrastinating makes our lives worse. It seems counter-intuitive to dilly-dally on tasks we know need doing. Our mind is aware that we’re ignoring them, and it’s also conscious of the fact that we’ll probably regret doing this at a later point. In fact a 2007 study showed that students who were procrastinators at the start of a school term reported less stress than non-procrastinators. However, the situation had reversed by the end of the semester with procrastinators reporting higher levels of worry. So, why are we all so addicted to self-sabotage?
It might be tempting to label all procrastinators as lazy, but the issue is much more complex. Most of us are psychologically wired to delay annoying, burdensome or difficult tasks because we all have in-built reward systems bent in that direction. Human beings value immediate rewards and are willing to stave off other activities to reap these benefits.
For example, let’s say you really need to clean your car. You can project in your head how you will feel when the car is tidy. You’ll feel less stressed, more comfortable driving and won’t be embarrassed when you have a passenger. However, cleaning a car takes concerted focus and effort. Instead of completing it, you might decide to make an excuse about not having enough time to do it and opt for watching trash television. The benefits of doing this are immediate: you don’t have to get off the couch and you’ll be entertained. Behind the psychology of procrastination are two sides of one brain competing for your attention; the quiet one is vested in taking care of your future self, whereas the louder side is only interested in the present moment. More often than not, we muffle out the quiet voice and give priority to the shouting one.
Our propensity to postpone tasks isn’t just down to our reward mentality; there are other reasons at play too. Many tend to leave jobs to the last minute believing that they work better under pressure. Students are particularly prone to this with plenty of stories online detailing how undergrads managed to finish their thesis in one night aided by energy drinks. For some people, stress and pressure can apparently make them more productive.
However, according to Psychology Today Ireland, this is rarely the case. “Perfectionists are often procrastinators; it is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short on performance.
“Many procrastinators may contend that they perform better under pressure, but research shows that is not the case; more often than not that’s their way of justifying putting things off. And the contemporary environment abets procrastination by supplying an array of distractions, electronic and otherwise.”
It’s much better to take back control of your life and think about what your future self deserves.”
Others put off the task at hand because they’re not entirely sure what needs to be done or how they’re going to do it. Perhaps you really want to re-decorate that back room that’s been sitting dormant for the last few years. But where do you start? There’s so much to do and you don’t have a clear idea in your head of what it should look like. While you’re desperate for that change of scenery, your brain tells you it’s much easier to avoid the chore and focus on something easier like that crossword in today’s newspaper (you probably won’t complete that either).
Another common reason why people procrastinate is because they have too many things to do. When tasks build up on top of one another, you might think our bodies would kick into overdrive and try to get them all done. Instead, we enter shutdown mode and ignore the skyscraper of chores toppling over us.
In general, procrastination is nothing we should fret about too much and everyone is guilty in some shape or form. It’s not the end of the world if we delay going to the gym for a day by choosing to read a book instead. However, apocalyptic language is more appropriate if you consistently keep this up.
Chronic procrastinators put off important tasks often, if not daily, stopping them from functionally normally. They might avoid looking for a job as it’s easier to be at home or ignore their dissertation because a games night sounds much more enticing. This behaviour can have a detrimental impact on your quality of life, resulting in issues like depression or anxiety. Likewise, procrastination can also have negative effects on your social life and relationships with others. It can cause arguments with your partner and leave your friends fed up when you arrive to the party late once again.
It’s much better to take back control of your life and think about what your future self deserves.
But is it even possible to free yourself from the tight grip of procrastination?
There are countless ways to stop procrastinating, with some options working better depending on the type of person you are. One helpful way to complete that task gnawing on your mind is by projecting into the future and imagining how you will feel when it’s finally done. By having a clear picture in your mind of your future emotional state, you’ll be more likely to get the chore out of the way now.
A final way to avoid procrastination is by using the in-built reward system to your advantage.”
Perhaps your imagination isn’t strong enough to convince you in helping your future self; if that’s the case, try planning ahead and minimise what you have to do. Take the previous example of cleaning out your car – rather than getting overwhelmed by all the nooks and crannies that need tidied, compartmentalise the large task into small jobs. Write a checklist of the things you need to do to clean the car. It might look like this: Empty car. Hoover car. Wipe interior of car. Polish windows. Clean windows. Hose down exterior. By having a clear picture in your head of what needs to be done and break it down into small steps, suddenly the task doesn’t seem so daunting.
A final way to avoid procrastination is by using the in-built reward system to your advantage. Treat yourself only when you complete the task. For example, you might plan a night out to the cinema after hitting the gym consistently for a week. The system is more effective if you have a partner who will be surprising you with the rewards.
These suggestions aren’t exhaustive and a quick perusal online will help you find what option bests suits you. Whatever you do, don’t stay on it too long – your future self will be very grateful!