Procrastination. Such a delicious word, don’t you think? It’s derived from the Latin verb procrastinare, meaning “to put off until tomorrow”.
Sadly though, whilst the word rolls so beautifully off the tongue, possessing this particular skill is not so great. And believe me, I should know. Over the years I have really mastered the art of procrastination. In fact, I’d say it is one of my most practiced and honed skills!
For example, I’ve been talking about blogging for at least 10 months, yet I’ve done nothing about it. Nothing, that is, other than have loads of extra thoughts swirling around in my already very busy and somewhat chaotic mind. Which in turn has led to various feelings – occasional delight at the ideas I’ve generated, but mostly just frustration and a sense of failure directed towards myself, and then…more procrastination.
So, what on earth is procrastination all about? And just how many of us slip into this pattern of behaviour without even noticing?
I only really became aware of my incredible ability to procrastinate a few years ago, whilst on quite an intensive course of study. Every time I had to write an assessed piece of work I’d sit down well in advance of the deadline with my laptop open, notepad and pen at the ready, surrounded by text books and journals, determined to complete the project in plenty of time so that the process was a stress-free as possible.
After staring at the blank screen for a minute or thirty, I’d perhaps write a sentence or two before finding myself suddenly overcome with a compelling need to tidy out the kitchen cupboards. Or arrange my bookshelves alphabetically. Or search for a recipe for mango chutney. Or clean the bathroom… basically, anything at all rather than the job I had set out to do.
This pattern would repeat again and again until I was up against the deadline, whereupon I’d spend all day and often most of the night frantically trying to complete and submit what I should have started weeks earlier. Miraculously I always managed to get the work in on time but it was SUCH a stressful process.
As I began to identify these patterns of procrastination I had the realisation that they weren’t a new thing. Instead, I could see I’d practiced procrastination – to a greater or lesser degree – throughout my adult life.
Was it because I’m lazy, or unmotivated, or simply that I couldn’t be bothered? Did I REALLY – as I told myself and others – ‘work better under pressure’? (Or was it just that tidying the kitchen cupboards one of my favourite pastimes 🤣?)
Well…. no to all of the above. Instead what I recognised was that my procrastination was closely linked to my drive to achieve the impossible goal of perfection in everything I did. Which in turn was linked to my inherent fear of failure and my underlying, deep-seated feeling of not being good enough.
And when I started to do some research around the topic it soon became clear that one way or another this is true of all of us procrastinators.
Whether we are bored, anxious, frustrated or filled with self-doubt, procrastination is not about us not wanting to get on with the task in hand. Not at all. It’s not a bad habit, a lack of self-discipline or an inability to organise ourselves.
Instead, it’s a way of trying to cope with and regulate difficult or challenging emotions, negative feelings about the task or ourselves, and automatic thought processes. In fact in a 2013 study procrastination was found to be “the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.”
The trouble is that when we procrastinate, the short-term relief we experience is logged in our brain as rewarding and helpful, and so the behaviour often becomes a habit and before we know it we fall into a cycle of procrastination.
The downside of this is that it is also likely to invoke feelings of anxiety, guilt, remorse, failure, stress, and panic. Which in turn impacts our self-belief and may lead us to self-criticism and self-doubt.
Interestingly, I learned that the word ‘procrastination’ is also a derivation of an ancient Greek word “acrasia”, which means doing something against our better judgment. And that, it seems, is exactly what procrastination is. We know what we should do, what we want to achieve.
However, because it’s challenging and because we feel doubt or unease we regulate the emotions by doing something entirely different… even though we know it’s not the best thing to do.
The good news is that, with a significant degree of effort and practice, we can change these behavioural patterns. First of all, when you find yourself furiously organising the kitchen store cupboard instead of dealing with a difficult email, forgive yourself!
It may not be an urgent task however it will probably make your life easier when you’re cooking dinner. Forgive yourself, finish that task then return to the more difficult one. You may find that it’s easier to address when you’ve left it to sit for a short while.
Also, practice self-compassion. We are all human. None of us are perfect. We all have flaws and make mistakes. The saying “talk to yourself as you would to your best friend” is a really important one. Tune into what you actually need, not what you “should be doing”. If you need time out, take it – you don’t always have to be productive!
You might also find it helpful to break a task down into smaller parts. Not completing a 3,000 word essay in one sitting, or landscaping your whole garden in an afternoon, does not make you a failure! Doing things in chunks allows you to celebrate smaller successes as you go rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the project.
Also remember that if (for example) you are struggling with depression, anxiety, have ADHD or autism, if you’re menopausal, if you have TOO MUCH going on in your life right now, if it’s just ‘one of those days’, procrastination may be the best coping mechanism available to you. So, show yourself some kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
Finally, think about working towards changing your mindset about yourself and your abilities. Change the language you use towards yourself, challenge your inner critic.
Instead of “I can’t do this” try saying “I’m still learning and I’ll keep trying”. Replace “I’m not good enough” with “I’m doing my best and my best is good enough”. Strive for excellence, not for perfection.
Let yourself off the hook – mistakes are human, mistakes are acceptable, mistakes are how we learn. In the words of Mark Twain:
“Continued improvement is better than delayed perfection”.