July 6

Understanding the procrastination cycle and why we do it

Procrastination is a common part of human behaviour.

In everyday language people use definitions like, “putting off”, “postponing”, “delaying”, “deferring”, and “leaving to the last minute”. We also often mistake it for “laziness”.

Procrastination is … making a decision, for no valid reason, to delay or not complete a task or goal you’ve committed to, and instead doing something of lesser importance, despite there being negative consequences to not following through on the original task or goal.

It is important to remember that everyone procrastinates. However, problematic procrastination can be distinguished from more general procrastination, by how bad the negative consequences are of us not following through on things.

What Do You Procrastinate About?

Any task we need to complete, any problem we need to solve or any goal we might want to achieve, can be a source of procrastination. For many people, there will be certain areas of their life they are able to follow through on, and certain areas where procrastination reigns.

Procrastination activities are the things you do as a diversion from or substitute for the key task or goal you need to accomplish. These can involve activities such as pleasurable tasks (e.g., movies, reading, surfing the net, etc), lower priority tasks (e.g., sorting, tidying, checking emails, etc), socialising with friends/family/your partner, distractions (e.g., sleeping, eating, smoking, etc) or daydreaming.

The Excuses We Make

To avoid the guilt associated with procrastination, we often generate excuses for our procrastination which help us feel justified and OK with putting things off.

These excuses often imply that because of some set of circumstances, we are better off leaving the task to another time. Some typical procrastination excuses are:

  • “I’m too tired, I’ll do it tomorrow”
  • “I don’t have everything I need, I can’t start it now”
  • “It is better to do it when I am in the mood”

The Procrastination Cycle

Procrastination arises from our unhelpful rules and assumptions about what we expect of ourselves and the world. When these are activated, they lead us to feel (or detect) some sort of discomfort about doing a task or goal we are faced with. If we can’t tolerate this discomfort (that is, we detest the feeling), we will be likely to use procrastination as our way of avoiding or dodging the discomfort.

If we can come up with convincing excuses and justifications for our procrastination, we will be all the more likely to travel the path of procrastination.

As such we will engage in procrastination activities, such as doing pleasurable or distracting things, as a substitute for the tasks and goals we need to be doing.

Unhelpful Rules & Assumptions

The reason people procrastinate is because they hold unhelpful rules and assumptions about themselves or how the world works. These unhelpful rules and assumptions often generate some form of discomfort about doing a task or goal (e.g., anger, resentment, frustration, boredom, anxiety, fear, embarrassment, depression, despair, exhaustion, etc), and procrastination then becomes a strategy to avoid the discomfort.

The negative consequences of procrastination, such as more discomfort (e.g., guilt and shame), preserving one’s unhelpful rules and assumptions, self-criticism, piling up tasks, punishment or loss, also keep procrastination going, as they make the task or goal even more aversive, so next time procrastination looks likes like an attractive option.

How To End The Cycle

The first step to ending the cycle is to recognise that you’re procrastinating. Practice mindfulness, be aware of the times when you’re likely to engage in behaviours that lead to putting off important tasks. 

Think about why you’re doing it and take one small step towards completing the task instead of distracting yourself with other things.

If your procrastination is chronic and the resulting chaos is having an impact on your life in general, it may be time to speak to a professional psychologist. They will help you to identify the root causes of your procrastination habit and work with you to address and overcome these issues.

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