“Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried.” unknown
Who at some point hasn’t put off doing something he or she didn’t want to do? Then joked , “I’m just procrastinating”.
And yet for chronic procrastinators it goes much deeper then having a one-off lazy day. Procrastination becomes a behavioural condition that affects every area of their life.
They aren’t just stuck buying their presents on Christmas Eve, they are also ruining their credit rating with late payments, frantically searching eBay for tickets to the now sold-out concert they promised to take their teenager to, running late for their dream job interview…. you get the picture.
Chronic procrastination can become severe enough it becomes a debilitating disorder and is often linked to an underlying health problem like Adult ADHD or depression. And it can lead to addictive behaviour like gambling, internet addiction, or alcoholism.
ARE YOU A CHRONIC PROCRASTINATOR?
Here are four signs that might indicate you are suffering from chronic procrastination.
It’s habitual. Procrastinating a few times a month is not something to be to concerned about, and might be a case of needing some downtime or being in a bad mood. Chronic procrastinators, on the other hand, put off important tasks several times a week if not daily.
It stops you from functioning normally. Procrastination can cause anxiety-related health issues like sleeping problems, leaving you struggling to ‘keep it together’. An inability to get things done can also damage any chance of a normal social life, with the stress of always being behind making a friendship or romance one demand too many. Or perhaps you feel too ashamed about the failure procrastinating causes to be comfortable around successful people, so would rather hide out alone.
It’s connected to depression/ADHD. There is an idea that procrastinators go off and have tons of fun instead of doing what needs to be done. But the truth is that most chronic procrastinators feel unhappy and distracted, also suffering from adult ADHD and/or depression. They are passing time instead with destructive habits to numb out their poor self-esteem, such as overeating, gossiping, and cruising the internet.
You are busy all the time. Chronic procrastinators are rarely lazy like assumed. A good procrastinator is often so busy with ‘tasks’ they don’t have a down moment. They are hanging the laundry, sorting out their inbox, doing research on that vacuum they want to buy… as their dissertation sits untouched. They then suffer from exhaustion and anxiety as they are never able to truly relax.
WHY IS CHRONIC PROCRASTINATION A BIG DEAL?
It can have practical consequences. It can mean someone has difficulty handling a real job, and can result in things like always living in poverty. Sometimes the habits chronic procrastinators use to delay their work become increasingly destructive, such as gambling and other addictions. And as discussed above, it affects relationships with others.
Emotionally, chronic procrastination often brings on feelings of guilt, failure and shame. These can lead to depression. Depression might already be present from before the problem with procrastination – if we feel very down it’s hard to get the energy to start tasks. If this sounds like you, it’s an idea to seek the help of a therapist because dealing with the depression might alleviate your procrastination.
Procrastination takes a physical toll. The anxiety it causes can lead to sleep disorders, which can cause a weakened immune system. And procrastinators can lead their lives constantly on edge, which can lead to things like high blood pressure and other stress-related conditions, or addictions like substance abuse or overeating.
WHY DO WE PROCRASTINATE, ANYWAY?
So if procrastination leaves us feeling so terrible, why don’t we just stop?
It’s simply not that easy to overcome procrastination. As a behavioural condition, chronic procrastination is linked to complex emotional and cognitive patterning that can take some time to undo or to reprogram.
Here are some of the main reasons you might procrastinate:
You suffer from low self-worth. This can result in constantly over-promising in order to prove yourself, which means you then panic and procrastinate because you don’t think you are good enough to do the job well.
You have a negative ‘thought loop’ running. A core belief is a strong belief, usually developed in childhood, that is deeply-rooted in your unconscious. It acts as a sort of ‘programming’ that affects all the decisions you make in life. If one of your core beliefs is a negative one, such as “nothing ever works out for me”, or “I am no good at finishing anything”, then you will procrastinate to prove that negative thought loop correct.
You can’t handle anxiety. If the task you need to complete makes you feel worried, you might find the physical sensation of anxiety (tense stomach, sore neck) unbearable and delay doing the task. Of course not doing the task often creates even more anxiety.
You are suffering from perfectionism. If you only dream of being the best and nothing less, then it’s no wonder you can’t see the point in getting something done just for the sake of it. (Learn more about perfectionism here.)
You are afraid of losing control. If have have deep-rooted need for control, and the project or decision you are faced with doing is too big to possibly control (building a house, sending a parent to a seniors’ home), you will balk.
You mind does not naturally prioritise. Not everyone has the built-in logic to naturally understand what things are important versus what things can wait. Early childhood conditioning can leave us unable to differentiate. For example, if as a child we were spoiled, we might be addicted to pleasure and not understand that we need to get work done to survive as an adult.
Your high intelligence has left you an adrenaline junkie. If we are smart and we know it, we can put things off and get away with it. This can lead to a sort of game that gives us an addictive rush. It can be such a rush that we begin to only do our best work under pressure.
THE PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENCE OF PROCRASTINATION
Procrastination is seen for the most part as a learned habit — more nurture the nature.
If we are educated in a school with relaxed attitudes toward curriculum and deadlines, or we are raised by parents who spoil us, never encouraging us to work for things, we are more likely to grow up with time-wasting habits.
Procrastination can also result from the exact opposite of a lax upbringing. If parents are too controlling and authoritarian, the child won’t learn self-regulation as they are always being told just what to do.
Although procrastination is connected to the environment we are raised in, being taught cognitive distortions (faulty thinking) can then affect the brain long-term. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for things like planning, controlling impulses, and paying attention, can end up with low activation if you are never taught to meet deadlines and see rewards as something you must earn. Low activation then results in an inability to filter out distracting stimuli, leading to chronic procrastination.
HOW TO DEAL WITH PROCRASTINATION
There is a lot of advice floating around that can just make procrastinators feel worse. “Just get on with it! Make a list and cross things off.” Remembering that chronic procrastination is a deeply ingrained cognitive pattern, often propped up by self-esteem issues and negative beliefs, it’s no wonder such tips don’t work. To overcome chronic procrastination you need techniques that actually reprogram your brain and give you a new perspective on yourself. It will require some trail and error and persistent effort. Try these tools below and see if they work for you.
Prioritise yourself. If you are the sort who answers any phone call or email immediately and feels guilty if you don’t, or the sort who goes to help a sad friend even when you have a huge deadline the next day, you have a problem with valuing yourself. Counselling or coaching can help you to get over feelings of guilt around putting yourself first. Get a head start by writing a list of why you are worthy of a calm, organised life and deserve to overcome procrastination.
Engage others. Procrastination works best in privacy. Letting others know we have something to accomplish can be helpful. And learn to ask for help.
If you aren’t starting something because the overwhelm is real – you actually don’t have the skills required to complete the task – then delegate over thinking you will ‘teach yourself’. Is leaving the sitting room with exposed plaster walls for six months because you are ‘going to learn how to hang the wallpaper’ really worth it, or could you just hire a decorator?
Remove emotions. If you wait for the ‘right mood’ to hit, or to ‘feel good’ about the project, or are sure you’ll ‘feel more like doing it tomorrow’ you’ll never get started. Flip this belief system around by telling yourself that the worst you feel, the more perfect time it is to start. It actually is true, because we only tend to feel better once we get going with things.
Do things you are bad at. If your chronic procrastination is heavily linked to perfectionism, then try your hand at something you don’t care about being good at. Go to an art class if you’ve never drawn, do a dance class if you are all left feet (standing in the back where nobody can see you is perfectly acceptable). You might be surprised at how liberating it can be to drop your standards and how this energy of just ‘having a go’ can carry over to the things you are usually so hard on yourself about.
Think small. It might seem obvious to some that everything is the sum of its parts, but procrastinators are often very intelligent ‘big thinkers’ who see things in broad strokes only. Big things are overwhelming, so no wonder you procrastinate. Think rocks instead. The mountain breaks down into boulders breaks down into rocks. Dissect every task into its smallest component, making yourself do this process on paper at first until your brain learns to do it naturally. Then start with the smallest step and work your way in.
Even when you think you have things down to their smallest bits, ask a non-procrastinating friend and see if they can take it even further. For example, if you have to buy a car and you think that going to the dealer is the smallest step, your friend might kindly point out you have to research the dealers and find out how to get to the dealers first, as well as book the time out to visit.
Learn to differentiate between urgent and important tasks. Again, many procrastinators don’t naturally have this habit and have to train themselves. The most common technique is called the Four Quadrants created by Stephen R. Covey, where you divide tasks into Not Urgent and Not Important, Urgent and Not Important, Not Urgent and Important, and Urgent and Important. Read about the Four Quadrants here.
Turn off technology. It can be a hard one, but the hardest things tend to be the most effective. If your chronic procrastination is connected to ADHD especially, turning off your phone and internet for 45-minute long timed intervals followed by a 15-minute timed ‘on’ slot can do wonders for your ability to focus and get things done.
Get a handle on time. Speaking of timed intervals. People who suffer from chronic procrastination often have an unrealistic sense of time. The answer is to spend a few days timing everything. From your breakfast to your phone calls to your news reading to your time spent trying to work, get an exact idea of how long things are taking. Write it all down, and you’ll be amazed to see where time goes and what you can get done or not get done within certain time frames. This alone can be a sort of procrastinator’s paradigm shift. Take it a step further by then making a rough schedule for every day and using your timer to make sure you are on track.
Schedule in down time. Creating slots in your day that are there to expressly do nothing at all – an hour where you are ‘supposed to’ cruise the internet, chat with friends, and piddle around the house – means your usual delay tactics are no longer delays but consciously accepted choices. This leaves your mind less able to sabotage when you do sit down to work and makes it easier to overcome procrastination.
Name your losses. Sometimes what we need is a good reality check. Write a big list of all the things that procrastination costs you.
Get honest about your passion. You are no longer a student forced to take classes you don’t like. If you delay all work tasks because you actually hate your job, accept that as an adult you have the power to change your job, or whatever else it is you secretly don’t enjoy. If the prospect of choosing a life you like seems terrifying, consider hiring a mentor, coach, or counsellor.
Learn to like yourself. Procrastination is often a form of self-abuse. We sabotage our life because we don’t think we deserve good things. Start a list that you constantly add to about why you are a good person, adding to it with everything you do that you are proud of. Nobody else has to see it. Again, therapy can help, from a support group to working with a practitioner.
Try CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been proven to be useful with helping your overcome procrastination because it helps you stop the negative thought cycles that lead to putting things off.
Has this guide to chronic procrastination and how to overcome it been helpful? Or would you like to share about your experiences with procrastination? Use the comment box below, we love hearing from you.