20% of American men and women are chronic procrastinators – higher than both people diagnosed with clinical depression and phobias in the U.S.
Procrastination isn’t “new.”
It isn’t an advent of modern society and the constant need for mental stimulation.
This behavior of putting an aspect of one’s life off to be done at a later time dates back to the dawn of civilization. In fact, ancient Greek philosophers even had a name for the phenomenon. They called it “Akrasia.”
The Constant Struggle Between Doing & Waiting
Akrasia refers to a state of mind in which one acts against one’s better judgment as a result of lack of will.
Procrastination or Akrasia seems to be an inherently human problem.
A decision that we make in moments of weakness, to not do something, anything, that we either planned to do or know we will inevitably have to do at some point.
We usually associate procrastination with putting off “work” tasks, but the term encapsulates much more than work.
Professor of Psychology, Joseph Ferrari, has done significant research into the reasons for and results of procrastination.
He’s found that chronic procrastinators“delay at home, work, school and in relationships. These 20% make procrastination their way of life. We are a nation of doers, but we are also a nation of waiters.”
This notion of “putting things off” permeates our lives constantly, whether we identify as procrastinators or not. Each of us has certain activities, tasks, or areas of our lives that we procrastinate with.
The questions we all need to face are, why, and how can I stop?
Why Do I Procrastinate & What I Can Do About It
“Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle.”
― James Surowiecki
Personally, I don’t identify as a procrastinator, but I procrastinate as much as anyone else when it comes to certain things. I don’t usually put off significant work tasks or relationships, but I’m not the most proactive person when it comes to very ordinary things like dealing with a parking ticket or filing my taxes.
I’ve been trying to use my own putting off of such simple and ordinary tasks as a basis for a little personal study about why we procrastinate, and here’s what I’ve come up with as the root cause of my own procrastination:
I project and associate a certain discomfort, fear or unhappiness with and onto the task I’m putting off, which naturally causes me to want to avoid the pain that I’m imagining I will feel by doing it.
These are some of the reasons that objective research has found to be the root cause of procrastination.
Fear of failure. The anxiety that you won’t be able to set out what you accomplish or that your performance will be unsatisfactory. This usually stems from a lack of self-esteem.
Fear of success. The anxiety one feels when thinking that if they’re successful, the outside world’s evaluation and expectation of them increases.
Fear of being imperfect. Perfectionists often become so overwhelmed with wanting to do something so well that they never get to doing it at all.
Absence of structure. The hardest part of any given task is starting it (more on this to come), and many people have trouble designating time towards tasks.
The present version of you thinks the future version of you will be more disciplined. This is the result of illogical thinking. When it comes to our future, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that you’ll “feel like” or “feel more like” doing something in a few days than you do in this moment. We don’t realize that the way we feel in this moment, our present self who doesn’t want to do the task will re-appear in the future moment. The desire for instant gratification and prolongment of pain is a constant, moment to moment struggle.
Regardless of the reasons for your personal procrastination, the act of saving for later what can be done right now is destructive behavior and has been proven to lead to stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction with oneself.
What Can I Do About My Procrastination?
“Every duty that is bidden to wait comes back with seven fresh duties at its back.”
― Charles Kingsley
What’s really comical about procrastination is that we know it doesn’t benefit us. We know we ultimately have to do or deal with whatever we’re putting off. We know it causes us needless anxiety and stress.
From this basic standpoint stems the very simple truth of just how illogical procrastination is when it comes to thinking about our overall happiness and well-being.
Learning to Front-Load Your Pain (The Band-Aid Approach)
The band-aid approach is about facing the discomfort, anxiety, stress or uneasiness you’ll inevitably feel later, in the present moment, in order to minimize any negative feeling and foster a positive one.
We become illogical when it comes to thinking about tasks that we attribute some negative association to. How many times do I have to pay double the amount of a parking ticket before realizing that the “pain” of doing it right now is much less than the pain of paying extra and getting upset with myself over it?
The key to actually being able to apply the band-aid approach in real time, in a moment of decision making, is to really ask yourself whether it’s worth it to procrastinate at the very moment you feel the desire to procrastinate on something.
These are some questions to help guide the thinking process:
How much pain, discomfort, stress or anxiety will I feel right now if I start or complete the action I know I need to take?
How much happiness will I feel if I get a part, or all of it done? How accomplished will I feel?
What is the activity I am thinking about procrastinating with? How much value do I gain out of the activity I’m procrastinating with?
If you can apply this approach to moments in which you’re debating procrastinating (or find yourself procrastinating), you’ll quickly develop a more logical approach to whether or not it’s actually worth it to avoid the extra pain you’ll feel later by not getting something done right now.
Just Start & Re-evaluate How You Feel
The hardest part of doing anything is starting it.
Whether you want to find a new home, pay for that parking ticket you got, start to read more, become someone who meditates, get fit, write a book, clean your bathroom or study for school, the absolutely most difficult aspect of achieving what you either need to do or desire to accomplish is taking that first step.
There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, we mentally project a lot more discomfort and anxiety to activities than we actually feel when approaching a given task. Once we start, we almost always quickly find that it isn’t so bad and we’re unsure of why we were so reluctant to just get it done in the first place.
Secondly, once you get started on something, momentum carries you along the way. The same way it’s way harder to start a fire than it is to throw an extra piece of wood on it, once we begin an activity, we’ve already taken the most difficult step and the force of momentum can help us along the way.
The Best Part
What’s most amazing about avoiding procrastination and just starting whatever it is you need to do is that it has the exact opposite effect of the anxiety that comes with procrastination. You feel accomplished, empowered, and able. You feel lighter. A load has been taken off and you now have time to enjoy whatever it is you would have procrastinated with, stress-free.
Learn to fall in love with that.