It’s 10:00 pm on December 24th, and you’re just beginning your Christmas shopping. You lost $1000 in extra taxes because you didn’t prepare or file your documents properly, on time. Your boss is upset because of all your missed deadlines, and your partner is truly “over” all your undone domestic work. If this resonates, you are one of the 20% who chronically procrastinate, and you are undoubtedly paying a high price.
Definition and characteristics
Procrastination has been called a self-defeating behaviour pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs in which less urgent tasks are carried out in preference to more urgent ones. It is not, experts say, a question of time management or planning. Rather, it is a maladaptive lifestyle which costs us money, time, health, and good will – and sees our performance drop.
Reasons abound for becoming a procrastinator. Let’s look at the different personalities you could be displaying if you typically put things off.
The procrastinator profiles: which one(s) are you?
Your put-it-off persona involves a deficit of self-control. You sit down to do your report, but decide to “just check a few emails”. Soon your report-writing time has been chewed up with distractions. If you drink alcohol, you probably don’t know when to stop. Taking a “Big Five” (trait) personality test, you are low on “conscientiousness”. With little ability to stay on-task, your potential for finishing school, getting important work done, or even accomplishing your goals is seriously jeopardised.
Your big word is “avoid”. You continually handicap yourself because of deep-seated fears of either success or failure. You turn in your work right at the deadline and are one of the many whose performance suffers for this (although you claim you are more creative under pressure). Truth be told, you are deathly afraid to succeed (and have to live up to it) or fail (and have others think you have no ability). Better to do a last-minute job and have them think you just didn’t put the effort in. Your parents may have placed excessive emphasis on accepting you for what you could do rather than who you are.
First cousin to the self-saboteur, you might actually miss the deadline, because you are fussing with details. It’s never really good enough (or is that the voice of your parents with high standards we are hearing?), so you keep toiling and “tweaking”, not wanting to face the inevitable appraisal of “not good enough”. With all areas of life continually being tweaked, you are burned out and exhausted. “Compassion” is not a word you are familiar with.
Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? Tomorrow you may feel more inspired, or perhaps more emotionally “up” to the task. Present-focused and out for short-term hedonism, you are a true bon-vivant. You optimistically believe you can get it done quite quickly once you begin. Your parents modelled enjoying life, and you want to uphold their ideals.
Distantly related to the pleasure-seeker, you also get your kicks from having a good time, but for you, it’s most thrilling when you are one stroke short of a catastrophe and energised by trying to avert it. You love flirting with danger, so you set up situations where you must get that loan from the bank or the time-extension for the project or the taxes. It’s no fun if it’s all done in an orderly way with time to spare; where’s the adrenalin rush in that?
You had similar parents to the self-saboteur and the perfectionist. They made the consequences for decisions so huge that a decision – any decision – is a fraught process which you avoid at all costs. You live life by default, so important stuff gets delayed because it’s too scary to decide how to do it – or whether it should be done. You might suffer from mild anxiety and/or depression, so requests for decisions are just too hard. Putting it off until tomorrow might mean that it resolves itself.
Getting it done
I hope I haven’t discouraged you with these profiles. If you are a chronic procrastinator, all is not lost.
The impulsive needs to work at building self-control gradually, with increasingly larger issues.
The self-saboteur and the perfectionist could employ Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where they learn to replace maladaptive thoughts (like “I can’t do this” or “This isn’t good enough”) with more encouraging thoughts. Developing self-compassion helps.
The pleasure-seeker can employ CBT, too, reminding him/herself that research has shown how much more procrastinators suffer (in terms of both mental and physical health) than non-procrastinators as the deadline looms, even though they are less stressed when the deadline is far off.
The thrill-seeker may be encouraged to seek that adrenalin rush in a way that doesn’t have such severe consequences. Missing the long-haul flight because of delaying packing to the last minute, for example, is rather expensive. “Just” catching it makes the airport personnel irritated.
The decision-dodger needs to work on self-esteem, self-compassion, and developing that inner authority that allows standing behind one’s decision, whatever the consequences.
Procrastination has been described as a self-inflicted wound that chips away at our most valuable resource - time, but hopefully with a few insights into the emotional patterns underlying it, time can be on our side.