I suppose I first realized that I had a major problem with procrastination when my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. With her agreement, I assumed responsibility for her finances. Oh boy. What a mess. Long story short, she hadn't been able to organize her affairs for quite a while. And now they were my responsibility.
I took one look at the heap of bills and unanswered correspondence, rolled my sleeves up, and... found something else to do. Anything else. All the time. It was only when court summonses started rolling in that I finally started making panic-stricken phone calls. My stress levels went through the roof. Everything seemed out of control.
It shouldn't have been that way. A normal person, I told myself, would make lists, set priorities, and actually do something. Not me. What was wrong with me?
I've always tended to ride deadlines. Been afraid of committing to action. I'm probably even writing this blog much closer to the copy date than most of my co-workers would. Down the years, I've had a few tries at improving matters. I've written action plans and endless to-do lists. And though this enforced self-discipline has had some effect, the underlying problem doesn't go away.
So what is wrong with me?
In the past, I’ve fielded plenty of opinions. They usually focus on personal organization, and specifically time management. So is that the answer? Set enough goals and deadlines, tick off enough achievements, and everything will be OK?
Maybe not. Because research suggests that the root cause of procrastination may not be as simple as poor time management. It's about poor emotional management.
Professor Fuschia Sirois and Dr Tim Pychyl are leading researchers in the field of procrastination. In their 2013 research paper, they suggest that individuals often resort to procrastination as a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions associated with stress, anxiety, fear of failure, or even boredom.
By postponing tasks or avoiding them altogether, people temporarily relieve these distressing emotions. This short-term relief, however, comes at the cost of increased stress and anxiety as deadlines loom.
One of the worst things about procrastination is that, most of the time, we're aware we're doing it. This self-awareness reinforces our sense of shame and promotes self-blame. And that reinforces the negative emotions that led to procrastination in the first place. It's a vicious circle.
At this point, it's important to note that not everyone experiences procrastination in the same way. OK, so almost everyone does it from time to time. But for some people it's a serious problem. And the causes aren't always the same.
People with ADHD, for example, have an increased tendency to procrastinate. But research suggests that this is more to do with the difficulty they experience in paying attention than with emotional problems.
If you're managing someone who struggles with procrastination, or if you're prone to it yourself, it's worth bearing all possible causes in mind.
So, what can we do about all this? If it's a problem with managing our emotions, then we need to start by acknowledging that. Here are a few ideas about coping with the emotional roots of procrastination:
OK, so you procrastinate because you don't handle negative emotions well, not because you're a lousy time manager. But there are a few techniques that can help with the practical side of beating procrastination. For example:
So will all this lead you (and me) to be better at getting things done? Only time will tell. I do believe that my future self would like to be a bit less stressed by my current self's inaction. Believing that is a start.
So it’s back to the piles of paper and the urgent phone calls. But at least I've got an idea of how to get through it, and what to focus on. And that helps. A lot.
To help you learn more about tackling procrastination, Mind Tools members have a range of resources to choose from, including:
About the Author
Simon has been researching, writing and editing non-fiction for over 30 years. In that time he's worked on educational courses, scientific journals, and mass-market trade books about everything from popular psychology to buying houses in Bulgaria. In the past 20 years he's specialized in simplifying complex subjects, and helping readers to learn new skills. Away from work he listens to good music, watches bad football, and is fascinated by medieval history.
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