Almost everyone has at some point put off making a decision or finishing a task. And some of us do this repeatedly, even when we know there may be negative consequences. So why do we do it?
Imagine you’re in the following situation: it’s 20 minutes before an important deadline, and you’re still working on the final bits and pieces. You are, however, experiencing so much stress that it significantly interferes with getting the job done: your blood pressure is up, your heart is racing, and you’re assailed by negative thoughts (“How could I have let it get so badly out of hand? Only an idiot would fall into the same trap over and over again. I am NEVER gonna make this deadline. What will they think?”) and beset by a constant feeling of dread, uneasiness, and lack of competence.
The thief of time
Sound familiar? I sincerely hope it doesn’t, but chances are that you’ve been in this situation all too often. Research shows that procrastination is widespread amongst children, teenagers, students, and adults… with a whopping 75% per cent of students (!!) often engaging in procrastination. Even amongst adults, it seems to be a considerable problem – up to 20% of the general adult population are estimated to be chronically engaged in procrastination. I myself am even a culprit – I could easily have started writing this blog ages ago, and finished it well in advance. It would have saved me a lot of time and stress (and potentially some grey hairs), but still I chose to write it last minute and accept the negative effects detailed above. What is this phenomenon that Dickens calls “the thief of time”, and why do we keep on doing it even though we have experienced its negative effects more than once?
In favour of tomorrow
As you probably know, the term ‘procrastination’ finds its origin in the two Latin words ‘pro’ (in favour of/forward) and ‘crastinus’ (of tomorrow), which literally means something along the lines of ‘ in favour of tomorrow’. Of course, it refers to postponing or delaying (intended) tasks or decisions, but also includes an element of irrationality – we consciously choose not to proceed with a certain task or decision, even though we know that this delay will most probably not have a positive effect on our goals, interests and, maybe, even our well-being. Although we do not have a thorough understanding of why we procrastinate, some suggestions have been made concerning its causes.
Aversion to a task
An important reason why we seem to procrastinate is task aversiveness. This concept refers to the extent to which we dislike, or are averse to, a certain task. Logic teaches us that the more we dislike a task, the more likely we are to avoid it (i.e., postpone or delay it, put it off…). Reasons for feelings of aversion to a certain task include expectations about its difficulty level, the time and effort it will take, as well as its usefulness. If we then combine this with how we think about our competence in relation to said task, we have a very good case for why people procrastinate. If we think we don’t have what it takes to complete a task and will never do so satisfactorily, chances are we will put it off. Since we are more likely to procrastinate with regard to tasks or decisions that are further away in time rather than those that are closer in time, we are more likely to put tasks off when we feel we still have plenty of time.
There are also some positive consequences of procrastination: sometimes there can be benefits to not acting on something. In the meantime, the situation may change, or you may receive new information you can use to your advantage. These are examples of what we would call ‘functional delays’. In most cases, however, procrastination is not functional – up to 95% of procrastinators indicate they really want to reduce this behaviour, in some cases maybe even dramatically.
How then can we reduce our procrastinating tendencies? The simple answer would of course be “just do it”. This can be quite challenging if you're a true procrastination addict. It might already be helpful to realise that you are not alone in trying to combat procrastination. Literature on behaviour change teaches us, though, that procrastination may be easier to overcome if you set realistic goals for yourself, break the task or decision up into smaller fragments, visualise your success, and reward yourself generously if you do successfully conquer the beast of procrastination. Try and focus on the reasons why you wanted to finish the task or make the decision in the first place. If none of this helps, then the only advice I have left is "stop procrastinating, and GET ON WITH IT"