I had to laugh at myself. While thinking about doing an article on procrastination, I looked like a classic case. I got up early to get to it. Really I did. But I figured I first had to pay my monthly bills. Then I started dinner in the slow cooker and sponged off the kitchen counters. A long phone call with my daughter was followed by throwing in a load of laundry and washing some dishes that had been left to “soak” last night. (Apparently the son who had kitchen duty never got around to it. Grrr.) I think I’ll get another cup of coffee.
Am I procrastinating? Actually, no. My behavior of the last few hours is a case of things looking the same but being very different in cause and effect. In my case, the futzing around is a kind of incubation period. I did the research I needed for this article last week and have been thinking about it ever since. There is no deadline to rush to meet. I’m not inconveniencing anyone, risking disapproval from my editor, or pressuring myself. In fact, as I scrub a pot, or sort the laundry, or get another cup of coffee, I’m thinking about just what I want to say and the words I want to use to say it. Even my conversation with my daughter included trying out a few ideas. Now that I’ve finally turned on my computer, writing a draft will be, if not easy, at least well thought out.
If you are like me, and have a working style that rarely puts you in a bind, don’t let people accuse you of procrastinating. Tell them you’re “incubating” and just keep on keeping on. Why fix what isn’t broken?
True procrastination looks much the same but has an entirely different feel. It is self-defeating, stressful, and anxiety-producing. Instead of incubating a person’s best work, it provides excuses for doing work that isn’t up to their own standards or for avoiding it altogether. Often it is accompanied by shame, resentment, lowered self-esteem, and exhaustion. Putting things off to the last possible minute is qualitatively different from taking one’s time or engaging in a productive work style.
Different people have different reasons for procrastinating. That is why general advice for getting on task and staying there so often fails. If the “cure” doesn’t match the motivation, it simply won’t work, no matter how conscientiously it is done. Most procrastinators know they are procrastinating. Most know it isn’t good for them. Most have tried to defeat it by doing such things as learning better time management, making lists, setting up rewards and punishments, or enlisting a buddy at one time or another. But unless a person understands and works on their individual motivation for self-defeat, none of these tactics is likely to be successful or successful for long.
Common Motives and Helpful Strategies
Procrastination’s twin: Perfectionism.
Consider my online student, Jim. His work always comes in one minute or less from the time the assignment will shut down and shut him out. Although his contributions in class chats are insightful, even brilliant, his papers are consistently a B+ instead of an A. I know he can do A work. When asked about it, he sullenly admits that he hates getting less than an A but suggests that I’m the one with the problem because I insist on a deadline. Never mind that he has weeks to do every assignment or that everyone else in the class meets that same deadline. My guess is that Jim is a perfectionist. He really wants to do excellent work. He wants it so much that he rewrites and revises his work until there isn’t time to clean it up and make a final draft. He says to himself, “If I’d had more time, I could have. . .” which of course can’t be challenged. And another B+ gets entered into the grade book.
Jim needs to take a look why being “perfect” is so important that he sets up situation after situation where he has an excuse for not showing what he can really do. Perhaps if he understood, he could decide either to reset his standards or reject the notion that perfection is all that counts. After all, if he were perfect already, he wouldn’t need to be in school. Creative ideas and novel approaches to problems come from experimenting with the unknown rather than being perfect at what has already been established as fact. Developing the courage to take risks and to be imperfect will help him be a much better student and more successful in the long run.
Procrastination as an addiction to stress.
Amy says she works best under pressure. What she’s really saying is that the pressure makes her work. When she’s in a panic about finishing on time, the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Stoked by adrenaline, she finally gets focused and gets her work done.
Like other junkies, Amy has become addicted to a “rush,” in her case the intoxication of that fear-driven push to the finish line. And like any other addiction, this one is hard to break. Staying up all night and getting a decent grade anyway is self-reinforcing. She pulled it off so it must work. Now she’s convinced it’s the only way she can get her work done. Somehow she needs to get some direct experience doing an important assignment over time and without the stress. Without personal proof that a more systematic and calm approach will get results, she won’t be convinced. If she needs excitement in her life, as most of us do, learning other ways to get her thrills besides risking her academic success now or a job later would probably be a good idea. (How about bungee-jumping? Paragliding?) Seriously, there are thrills that come with doing things with excellence that are at least as intoxicating as doing things in a panic.
Procrastination as a coping tool.
For some people, putting things off is the only way they know to reduce stress. Ben is an excellent student. He is intelligent, thoughtful, and a hard worker. But putting his thoughts on paper for teachers to evaluate makes him very, very anxious. It’s not that he’s a perfectionist. He knows he has lots to learn. He understands that he won’t be perfect. But he works himself into a state as he tries to decide just what he wants to say. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience that he tries to avoid as much as possible. Avoiding his assignments is a way to avoid a case of nerves.
Ben could benefit from building up his repertoire of coping skills. High-strung by nature, he often gets more upset and anxious than a situation calls for, whether it’s writing a paper or telling his girlfriend she’s done something that bothers him. Learning some relaxation strategies, getting more sleep, perhaps taking a class in yoga or meditation would help him generally take stress in stride. Learning now how to do some positive self-talk and calming techniques when he starts to freak out will stand him in good stead throughout life.
Procrastination as a signal.
Sometimes procrastination can even be a useful signal to ourselves that we’ve taken on too much. Bonnie’s computer is surrounded with papers and books. She has two screens open. She’s got three exams and two major papers due this week. She signed on to lead a charity project for her service sorority and her boyfriend is complaining that he’s feeling neglected. What’s Bonnie doing? She’s staring out the window – just as she has been doing for the past half hour. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that needs to be done, she can’t think clearly or work productively.
For Bonnie, what looks like procrastination is an inner signal that she has pushed herself beyond reasonable limits. She needs to reduce her load so that she can balance obligations to others and time to recharge herself. It’s not shameful to ask for help or to reset priorities when good intentions have outstripped your time, energy, or resources.
Most professors will offer an extension to a good student who has more things due in a week than is reasonable. Maybe Bonnie could ask for a co-chair or committee to help with the service project or to trade with a sorority sister for one that isn’t happening during midterms. And, yes, she needs time with her boyfriend as much as he needs time with her. Bonnie’s brain is doing her a favor. By going on strike, it has told her that it’s time to rethink and reprioritize to get her life back in balance.
Getting around to it.
People procrastinate for many different reasons. Knowing what you’re up to is the key to turning things around so you can get things done and feel less stressed. Of course, that means taking the time to do a little honest self-analysis instead of straightening up your desk or checking the fridge to see if something grew in there since the last time you looked. Take a deep breath. You can get around to it.