The origin of the term procrastination comes from the Latin word ‘pro’ (forward or in favor of) and ‘crastinus’ (of tomorrow). It also has its roots in the Latin word ‘procrastinare’ which means to put off, delay, prolong, defer, stall, or postpone performing a task. It implies performing an alternative activity to the one intended and is synonymous with idleness. Procrastination refers to the avoidance of any task or its deferral to a later, often unspecified, time. For example, you may well know that you need to pay your tax bill or mail your passport application form but fail to do what is required (and important!) which therefore involves the idea of avoiding what we know we should be doing.
We can procrastinate in many ways and our strategies can be exceptionally creative. The best definition for procrastination is ‘the delaying of a task that was originally planned, despite expecting being worse off for delaying it’. We all delay from time to time, but we also feel the pressure to begin new tasks continually in the modern world. We re-order the pens on our desk, we empty the bin, and we surf the web; all the while our deadline hangs over our head like an executioners axe—the anticipation feeling worse than the task we are avoiding. In management speak, they talk of creating a burning platform, from which we should be compelled to jump, but don’t. In reality, we are holding back from an action, like a train that has arrived, and now we must get on. Yet we persist with the pens, with the bin, with the internet.
A few characteristics of procrastination include:
- Procrastinators find it hard to start working on something.
- Procrastinators complain about how hard things are and how busy they are.
- Procrastinators usually don’t finish what they start.
- Procrastinators have too many things on their mind and on their to-do list.
Our search for some compulsive pointless activity to begin or persist with gives us an escape, a reason not to begin what needs to be done. The downside is that all of the uncompleted work remains on our agenda and on our to-do list, further exacerbating our inability to begin the necessary task. This state of affairs also means that in our downtime, we are usually obsessing about the things we have not yet completed and the time freed up. Avoiding the discomfort of the task is now also mildly or severely unpleasurable and so, whether we are busy or free, we lack a sense of contentment and so we seek yet more pleasure by delaying until we feel right. Procrastinators recognize that they are postponing, delaying a task or decision, and continually delay beginning or completing an intended course of action.
Delaying the Inevitable
The series of delayed or postponed actions results in an imperfect and undesirable behavioral outcome for our brain, which further leads to emotional upset. Procrastination is fast becoming a topic of interest across many professional contexts, from finance (as people put off dealing with their money troubles) to health (as people delay seeing their doctors).
There are numerous debates in psychology about what exactly procrastination is but the fields of neuroscience and behavioral economics point to procrastination as an irrational delay, where we put off actions despite being worse off because of it. Consistent with our neurobiology, long-term intentions seem to be generated and observed, primarily in what’s known as the prefrontal cortex of the brain. These impulses can be generated by our limbic system, which is particularly sensitive to very concrete stimuli, suggestive of immediate gratification. The result is that we intend to work but put it off when the moment comes, finding that our preferences suddenly change as we pursue more readily enjoyable concrete temptations. This would explain why impulsiveness is one of the traits most strongly associated with procrastination. We are putting off tasks with long-term rewards because we are impulsively distracted by short-term temptations.
Putting off making a decision when dealing with conflicts or choices is quite normal in procrastination. People who avoid numerous decisions tend to be afraid of errors and are likely to be quite perfectionistic. These procrastinators obsessively seek out increasing amounts of definitive information on all the available alternatives (as if it were possible!) before attempting to decide. The perfectly reasoned solution never arrives. Procrastinators experience deep uncertainty about their decisions, find themselves unable to take action and continually seek certainty before they act. The mechanism, leading to the formation of a deep-rooted distrust in their abilities, has a detrimental effect as they overestimate others’ capabilities or underestimate their own. This delay in action transforms itself into increased anxiety, blocking them further still. The repetition of these tactics of postponing something merely increases their shame and contempt for themselves, which further exacerbates their feelings of impotence and incapability. These behaviors usually terminate in the person suffering from low self-esteem and eventually becoming chronically insecure.
Behavioural procrastination is a form of self-sabotage that allows people to shift the blame and avoid action. Procrastinators would rather create the impression that they lacked effort rather than ability. Their logic is best represented by the idea that ‘if I never finish the task, you can never judge my ability’. Their blaming approach and their failure to achieve usually results in time being the culprit. Concern about others and how they may criticize or judge their abilities is paramount in their mind. It’s not unusual that those who procrastinate to view themselves based solely on their abilities and continually seek to build a sense of themselves and their self-esteem on this basis. However, the closed loop they are stuck in becomes a vicious circle in which the avoidance leads to anxiety. Their non-achievement feeds the anxiety and their low self-esteem, and on and on it goes.
Self-Deception: “I Work Best Under Pressure”
Procrastinators can have the uncanny ability to underestimate the time required to complete a task and can suffer from the self-deception that they have everything under control. The logical extension of this thinking is therefore, ‘there’s no pressure to begin’ as there is more than enough time. At this point, usually excessive and considerable effort is directed towards completing the task and work progress. This sudden spurt of psychic and physical energy sees them progress because of time or resource pressure, leaving them eventually spun out, tired and exhausted.
Blocks to Action
A procrastinator may struggle with feelings of low self-confidence and low self-esteem, as we have mentioned previously. The real trap can also be found in their insistence on the highest of standards as they can’t accept their work not being good enough. When people procrastinate, they may insist upon the highest level of performance, despite their pervasive sense of incapability. My dearest colleagues, Dr. Claudette Portelli and Dr. Matteo Papantuono, (2019), have written a ground-breaking book on the compulsive aspects of pleasure and they point to the fact that pleasure is also a source of great pain. Too much pleasure can inhibit our ability to experience pleasure. Procrastination brings with it a desire for more pleasurable activities and experiences, to distract from the work ahead of us that appears so unpleasurable. We adopt distractions such as the pleasure to do something enjoyable; having a coffee or going for a beer with a friend. It can also be the pleasure to resist and take control, epitomised by the statement to others or to ourselves that ‘I will do it when I’m good and ready’.