CALIFORNIA PSYCHOTHERAPEUTIC RESOURCES, INC.
PATRICIA MCTAGUE-LOFT, MS, LMFT, FAPA, SAP
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Posted on: June 26, 2019
“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
The Earl of Chesterfield, December 26, 1749
Almost everyone has been afflicted by procrastination at one time or another – that nagging menace that compels us to put things off for another day, another time. For some people this is a persistent problem, and for others it appears in only some areas of their lives. The result, though, is the same for everyone – increased anxiety, wasted time, poor performance, missed opportunities, guilt, excusing ourselves, and avoiding people who depend on us. There are better ways of dealing with the demands of our everyday lives. Procrastination is not a trivial problem – it causes suffering for many people.
Who is likely to procrastinate? There is no research evidence that gender and intelligence have anything to do with a tendency to procrastinate. Age may have something to do with it. One research study finds that procrastination peaks in the middle to late twenties, decreases for the next forty years, and then increases again in the sixties. Other research finds that people who feel overwhelmed and cannot readily calm down tend to put things off. There is a relationship between anxiety and procrastination. It is no surprise that people who fear failure have the problem, as well as people with low self-esteem. People with poor tolerance for frustration, difficulty in delaying gratification, or people who cannot concentrate all find it difficult to stick with a task until it is completed. Research also shows that those who have conflicts with authority figures and are rebellious have a proclivity for procrastination. People with depression, who may have low energy and hold negative thoughts about their ability to get things done, frequently have problems with procrastination. And then there is the perfectionist. Those perfectionists who set their own standards seem to have no problem with “sloth,” but those who have adopted the standards set by others do have trouble completing their work. This is because they are sensitive to the evaluations they might receive from others – they want to avoid social disapproval.
Making Up Excuses
Clearly, we are neither accomplishing those things that need to be done nor confronting the underlying reasons for our procrastination. So what do we tell ourselves to justify our behavior? We may use any of a number of excuses – and here are some common ones:
Getting Bogged Down in Trivia
We spend our time on easy tasks and say that we are so busy that we cannot get to the major project. We might answer phone calls, read e-mails, clean the living room, have lunch – anything that we find simple and are emotionally prepared to do – rather than facing the task that we really have to do. We tell ourselves that we simply had to clear up these trivial tasks before tackling our project and there was no time left. Thus we gain some satisfaction from busying ourselves and alleviating our guilt, but the major task is never finished.
Putting the Blame Elsewhere
It is easy to externalize blame. “If only I had gotten that promotion, then I would be more involved in my job.” “If only my partner would take out the garbage, I would have time to do the things I need to do.” “If I had a faster computer, I would find more enjoyment in sitting down to write the report.” The problem here is that we selectively focus on one excuse and ignore the reality of the total situation. The simple truth is that we have a project to do and we have to take into account everything that helps or impedes us, and then move on from there. Things are seldom perfect in anything we do.
Letting Emotions Interfere With Productivity
Writing a report might bring up feelings of anxiety – after all, we have to think of the right words, organize it logically, look up relevant information. We might feel overwhelmed because of our past experiences with writing reports. Or we might feel angry that the lawn has to be mowed, especially when our partner keeps harping on us to get it done (in which case the anger is based in being told what to do, not the grass!). We need to separate our emotions from the task itself. In fact, working at the task gives us a good opportunity to see what our emotions are and to confront them honestly. This then allows us see where the feelings came from so that we can achieve more understanding of them. Avoiding painful feelings lets them linger on into the future, but acknowledging them can lead to resolution of our emotional issues.
Setting Up Roadblocks
“I’ll diet after the holidays.” “I’ll wait until I’m in the mood to call my old friend.” “I’ll buy new clothes when I lose twenty pounds.” Although there may be some logic to all of these strategies, they exemplify a major cause of procrastination. We set up artificial barriers which may have little do with actually completing the task at hand. When we place limitations on our ability to work, it makes the completion of the task all the more difficult.
Being Perfect… or Nothing At All
Our society places great emphasis on doing the best job every time. When we try to please other people, rather than ourselves, we run the risk of rejection and failure. Perfectionism has its place. After all, it can help motivate us to get started and to do the best job we can. But taken to the extreme, perfectionism can also inhibit our efforts completely. “If I can’t do the best job possible, I’ll do nothing at all – or at least not until I absolutely have to.” Coming to terms with perfectionistic tendencies can be a challenging but healthy process. We can examine why we need to please others rather than ourselves, the degree to which this pattern intrudes on various aspects of our lives, and the extent to which it helps – and hinders us.
Procrastination is a serious problem for many people. It can undermine our sense of well being and prevent us from experiencing the full potential of our lives. A portion of our time is spent pleasurably and a portion is spent on tasks we may not particularly enjoy. Such is the nature of life. To avoid the disagreeable is, unfortunately, to compromise the pleasurable. The person who is emotionally healthy is one who is familiar with and can tolerate the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the light and the dark. Living completely entails embracing our responsibilities, relishing our pleasures, and appreciating our time.
Fourteen Tips for Overcoming Procrastination
Can I Really Change an Old Habit Like Procrastination?
Procrastination may be such an ingrained pattern that it seems impossible to change it. While the tips presented on the previous page are effective for many, it may help to see procrastination as a symptom of some of our underlying personality issues. For example, negative self-image often plays a role in our tendency to put off accomplishing tasks. Sometimes we postpone our duties because we lack self-confidence or feel that we might be rejected or abandoned by others if we don’t turn in a perfect job. For some people, procrastination is a symptom of depression. Our reasons for procrastinating are as varied as people are different. Therapy is the best way to explore these deeper issues in a supportive, trustworthy, and professional setting. The goal is to define procrastination as a symptom of a deeper issue and then to explore the nature of this underlying problem and discover how to deal with it more effectively. Your life becomes more satisfying when you can find ways to express the most effective parts of yourself.
Yes, an old habit like procrastination can be changed. You have to use the techniques that work for you and remember that these techniques are not a simple all-or-nothing “cure.” Look on behavior change as a process composed of many steps. You may have success in dealing with some components of the problem only to find later that you are resistant to making more changes. Then, in therapy, you look into your resistance to see why moving on is difficult at a particular stage. And don’t forget that most people relapse. Research has found that only about 20 percent of all people make complete changes on their first try. Most people have setbacks during the change process. Expect this to happen and look on it as something positive – after all, you can learn from your setbacks. To relapse does not mean that you have to start all over again.
You can change uncomfortable patterns of behavior, and procrastination, fortunately, is one of those habits most amenable to change. But don’t put it off – just do it!
Posted in: Individual Counseling