I should really write a new blog post. I’ll do it at lunch. But it’s so sunny out. I should walk on lunch. I’ll write it after the gym. I’m tired. I’ll do it on the weekend. Huffington Post is much more important. Or vacuuming. Or creeping on Facebook for 2 hours, on autopilot, until I “come to” and am on my “friend’s” sister’s ex’s family vacation photos. True story. That’s a dirty feeling, realizing you’re looking at an album of a whole family, Grandma included, in Cancun. Voyeurism at its finest. Anyway, I digress. What I’m trying to get at, here, is that phenomenon with which most of us are at least somewhat familiar: Procrastination. Even the word seems like it’s trying to avoid something. If you’ve never experienced procrastination before, I’m not going to say I envy you, because you’re probably on the other end of the spectrum and struggle with feeling compelled to complete tasks as soon as you become aware of them (which is an anxiety-ridden process). This article will explain a bit about different types of procrastinators so you can identify “which type” you are, and hopefully give you some insight into how you can start to get over your procrastinating ways.
Think about the last time you procrastinated. Yesterday? This morning? Maybe you’re engaging in procrastination right now by reading this article. OK, now try to think: what was/is the goal of your procrastination? What are you hoping to achieve by putting off the task? I recently listened to a podcast (probably to avoid doing something else) by Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. on procrastination. She describes six types of procrastinators, identifiable by their motivation to procrastinate. Keep in mind more than one of these “types” might apply to you at any given time, and there is much overlap between them, so you may want to think about a couple of situations during which you procrastinate, and try to see what fits (I certainly can identify with all of them!):
This procrastinator uses distraction to avoid doing something they are dreading. For example, I tend to let my bills sit, unopened, either on the kitchen table or in my inbox for weeks. Realistically, this does me no good, nor will it make my Visa bill magically disappear, but I avoid the task of opening them because I can foresee it being an unpleasant experience. Menial work tasks, overwhelming assignments, tedious chores…avoid, avoid, avoid.
The disorganized procrastinator procrastinates partially out of innocent ignorance (“I have a paper due tomorrow?”), and partially because they are too disorganized to know where to start, feel overwhelmed as a result, and underfocus. Underfocusing is what happens when we feel pressured to do mutliple tasks and can’t get started (“To-do” lists, anyone?). Additionally, these people usually underestimate how long a task will take them (“30-page research essay? That should take about an hour and a half…”)
The self-doubting procrastinator lacks confidence in his or her decisions, and therefore feels hesitant to move forward (“But what if I make the wrong decision?” “But what if I break up with him and I’m less happy than I am now?”). Generally, if you identify as being an anxious person who fears change (remember the “3 C’s” from my post on anxiety), you may be a self-doubting procrastinator a lot of the time. You fear taking risks and seek reassurance that you’re going the “right direction” before getting started.
The interpersonal procrastinator is a sly fox. Shoot. Cliche. A sly…wolf. They procrastinate because they know if they do so long enough, someone else will do the task they were expected to. For example, cleaning the bathroom. Generally, this strategy only works if responsibility of the task is shared or is not clearly defined, allowing someone else to pick up the slack.
The all-or-nothing procrastinator is generally perfectionistic and shares qualities with the self-doubting and avoidant procrastinators. Once they start a task, they are doing it to completion. There is no other way. The all-or-nothing procrastinator generally has a fear of failure; they exercise avoidant procrastination until the last minute, because the task at hand brings up a lot of anxiety about not performing well enough. Self-doubt comes into play about how to get started, and they put it off until the last minute, when the anxiety around failing outweighs the anxiety around not doing perfectly, and they start (and finish) the task. If you’re an “all-nighter” kind of person, or if you say you “perform best under pressure,” you’re like an all-or-nothing procrastinator.
Pleasure-seeking procrastinators are somewhat the opposite of avoidant procrastinators, although you wouldn’t know it by observing them. These are the people that truly just would rather do something else than do the required task. Some might consider them “lazy,” or “poor prioritizers,” but they really just would rather do something pleasureable than something boring or difficult. What defines a pleasure-seeking procrastinator is the absence of conflicted, anxiety-provoking emotions around the given task. These are usually the clients that come into my office needing “motivation” and “time-management skills,” because they recognize they will fail their course if they don’t change something soon.
So How Do I Stop? Errr…or Start?
Pay Attention, Be Patient, Practise Compassion
As always, the first step to change is awareness. Try to take an inventory of when and how you procrastinate, so you can recognize when you might need to implement some strategies. Don’t pressure yourself to give up procrastination entirely–it’s human nature. Instead, try to procrastinate less in one of two areas of your life, or make your goal simply to be aware of when you are procrastinating. With any change we’re trying to make in our lives, it’s all about knowing yourself and how you operate, and gaining tools for changing your habits :). Be kind and patient with yourself in the process!
Set SMART Goals
You may remember learning “goal-setting” in high school, or some sort of personal development course. Or you may not remember, because it probably seemed tedious, irrelevant, or juvenile at the time and flirting or doodling seemed much more important (guilty). On an aside, I sometimes wonder how the generation of smartphone high-school students learns anything. I’m eternally grateful we didn’t have that distraction. Or Facebook. How do teacher’s handle it? How do tweens and teens survive? Anyhow, the reason setting SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals is so helpful, is that it gives you a place to start and takes away the overwhelming nature of the task (negating the Avoidant’s feelings of dread). It also allows you to be organized, manage your time, and create deadlines (good for the Disorganized or Pleasure-Seeking), and breaks up the task into stages (good for the All-or-Nothing). Check out this link for details on how to make your goals SMART. Also, keep in mind spending time setting goals is completing a task in itself, reward yourself after each “step” (again, this can help with the All-or-Nothing!), and make your goals small, especially if you’re feeling down or unmotivated–otherwise, you will still feel overwhelmed and avoid them!
Lower your Expectations for Achievement
This relates to my previous post on the 75% rule. If you expect 100% from yourself, you will experience more feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and dread. However, if you expect 75% the task seems more manageable.
Know your “Vices” and Change your Environment
You could always tell when it was exam time for me in my undergrad, because my room would be spotless, my laundry would all be done, Groceries would be stocked, emails would be returned, the gym would’ve been visited…you get the idea. If you find you always procrastinate when you’re trying to do work at home, change your environment. Head to a coffee shop or the library. You’ll be less likely to go on Facebook when you’re being “held accountable” by your environment, and if you start trying to clean or bake, they’ll probably kick you out (or, worse, give you a job).
As always, this is just a window into understanding and changing your procrastination. I recommend exploring the role procrastination plays in your life, and, of course, practising compassion as you engage in attempting change. If you recognize procrastination is stemming from an underlying struggle, for example, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, seek help for that issue as well. You may notice procrastination comes around less often as a result!