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Understanding Procrastination

Understanding Procrastination

Everyone is familiar with procrastination, and we’ve probably all done it to some extent. Putting off tasks we don’t fancy is a human enough response and, therefore, not necessarily problematic. But for some individuals it can develop into a behaviour that borders on phobic and the perceived reluctance to tackle the in-tray can be interpreted as laziness. A manager, for example, might look at an overdue project and conclude that the employee tasked with completing it is simply being tardy. But it doesn’t make sense for that employee to shy away from a job, knowing that there could be negative consequences. It is more likely that procrastination is a result of irrational behaviour based on mood or mindset.

Of course, it may be that we put forward supposedly logical reasons for not getting started on a task – I don’t have time right now, I don’t have all the information or materials to hand, or I don’t feel well enough today – but even if they are valid, these can only be temporary. Meanwhile, we engage in all sorts of diversionary or distracting activities to avoid the one we are reluctant to tackle, substituting one activity for another on the basis of which induces less anxiety. Procrastination isn’t about laziness, it’s about our emotions.

Researchers have looked into this phenomenon and concluded that there is the potential for a serious anxiety loop to develop. Anxiety surrounds an activity that we perceive as discomforting, either mildly – like responding to an email – or frighteningly – like addressing the repayment of debts – and we relieve the anxiety by avoiding the issue or substituting a less stressful one. But this is a temporary relief that serves only to reinforce the habit and make it more likely that we will procrastinate in future. When this pattern continues over time, the procrastination itself becomes a source of anxiety that traps us in a state of inaction.

Most of us will not find ourselves in this position and will get by with a little pricking of our conscience or a gentle nudge from those around us. But it’s as well to have a coping strategy if needed. Try to take a rational approach to what is, effectively, an emotional logjam. Identify the activity that is causing anxiety, assess the reasons why and identify the diversions you are taking to avoid that activity. After this analysis it should be possible to take alternative action: question whether your excuses for avoiding the task are valid, or if they are a by-product of anxiety; then, look at the benefits of engaging in the task as opposed to avoiding it, for example, drawing up a cashflow forecast may be a frightening prospect, but it could help you avoid getting into debt in the future; then, look at your distraction activities and be ready to recognise them as such for future reference.

Research also identifies the importance in this process of self-forgiveness. Procrastination is an understandable response to situations we don’t like. Avoid blaming yourself for taking that route, it is unhelpful and can reinforce anxieties. Instead, recognise your anxiety and remember that, if it becomes an issue, it can be resolved by testing out new behaviours.

Photo by Annie Spratt