What is procrastination?
Procrastination, simply, is the process of habitually putting things off.
When we procrastinate, instead of doing what should be done in the moment, we find other ways to fill our time. We might start doing other helpful things (ex: washing our dishes instead of completing an assignment). Or we might just distract ourselves so we don’t have to think about what we should be doing (ex: watching TV instead of completing an assignment). Either way, the end result is the same.
Why do we procrastinate?
There is this idea that procrastination is simply due to a lack of willpower, but that’s not actually true. While it definitely can influence some procrastination habits, procrastination is often more about the feelings a certain task brings up for us, than it is about simply not wanting to do a thing.
A few reasons people procrastinate include:
Lack of energy/burnout:
If you’re looking at your to-do list for the day and you see something that is going to take a lot of time and energy, and you’re already worn out from everything else you’ve had to do, how are you going to be able to convince yourself to keep working? When we’re burned out it’s already hard enough to motivate ourselves to do little things, so a big project can seem insurmountable. And instead of trying to tackle it bit by bit, we put it off & put it off, hoping that our energy will be renewed enough to tackle it the next day or the day after that.
Another big reason people procrastinate–especially larger tasks & projects–is because they simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to focus on something like that in one sitting. If you’re overwhelmed or anxious or exhausted, your attention span starts to decrease, and getting things done gets harder and harder. And so sometimes, when we can’t seem to make ourselves focus on anything, it seems like the best move is to just put it off and try again another time.
Why is it that we always seem to procrastinate things that are really important? Well, probably because we’re afraid we’re going to mess them up. If something is a big deal, it comes with a lot of pressure. And instead of facing that pressure, many of us choose to just avoid it. If you have a week until your final paper is due, and it counts for 50% of your grade, the best thing to do would be to work on it a little bit each day. The pressure that comes with knowing a paper could tip your final grade one way or the other, however, is extremely daunting. And rather than deal with that fear, you might just push it out of your mind until you absolutely have to deal with it.
Hand in hand with anxiety, perfectionism is often at the root of procrastination. The pressure to make sure everything you do is perfect can make even small, regular tasks seem daunting. Everything then requires a huge investment of energy. There is also the idea that it’s better to not do something at all, unless you are going to do it perfectly. This kind of pressure makes perfectionists avoid or procrastinate things regularly.
Lack of interest in task:
And, of course, sometimes it really is just that we don’t want to do something. Motivating ourselves to complete a task that isn’t enjoyable, or doesn’t immediately benefit us in some way can be extremely difficult, so sometimes we just put it off instead of rallying that effort.
Effects of procrastination:
More than just messing with our time management skills, procrastination can have a huge impact on our day to day lives. Even when we distract ourselves from what it is we should be doing, there is still that stress & pressure hanging overhead which can lead to things like:
- Decreased enjoyment in typical hobbies/activities
- Increased anxiety & depression symptoms
- Increased stress
- Lower quality of mental & physical health by way of chronic stress, increased feelings of guilt, or, in some cases, ignoring medical symptoms instead of going to the doctor until the situation is an emergency.
So how can we learn to resist, or at least manage, our procrastination?
Break things into small chunks:
If you’re procrastinating because the thing you need to be working on just seems too big: don’t do it all at once! Break up big, intimidating tasks into smaller chunks, and spread them out so that there isn’t the pressure to get everything done all at once.
There is an idea that goes along with both procrastination and perfectionism that it is better to not do something at all than to do it poorly. If this is a reason you find yourself procrastinating, really explore that idea the next time it comes up. Is that really true? Is it better for you to avoid it forever? Or would it be better to get it done–even poorly–so you can move on and release that stress from your mind? Ask yourself: what will happen if I don’t do a good job? (And: what will happen if I don’t do this at all?) If you don’t do a good job, you can build off of that. You can try again, improve & grow. But you can’t improve if you don’t give yourself a starting point.
Work regular breaks into your day:
Learn to prioritize regular self care. That includes taking breaks throughout your day! Don’t work endlessly until you’re too tired to think. Learn to notice the signs of burnout, and take preventative measures. Sometimes your brain just needs a break to reset. If you find yourself mindlessly avoiding whatever task it is you should be doing–pause. Go get some water, grab a snack, take a walk. Give your mind a reprieve from the go go go of the work day. Then, when you’re settled, come back and try again.