As the end of term nears, you may be feeling the time crunch. Unsurprisingly, this is also the time when procrastination tends to be at its peak.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Paper due tomorrow? Perfect time to clean my apartment.
Need to research the history of Rome? I think I’ll start by tidying up my “Downloads” folder.
Final exam next week? A Netflix documentary sounds like a good place to start.
If, like me, you've ever stared down multiple deadlines—and then found almost anything else to do, other than school work—it's time to understand what's really making you procrastinate.
Not today, maybe tomorrow
Procrastination is when we avoid or put off doing something that we know is important, either to us or to others. It usually happens when we fear—or even, dread—completing a challenging task. To get around these negative feelings, we do something else that makes us feel better temporarily.
The problem with procrastination is that it can lead to a vicious cycle: the more you wait to complete a task, the more impossible it seems. The more impossible it seems, the less motivation you have to start. Rinse and repeat.
Those of us who are master procrastinators can end up feeling guilty because we attribute the procrastination to a flaw in ourselves. We are lazy, bad at time management, have a poor work ethic, etc.
But I think we’re being too hard on ourselves.
First off, there is such a thing as constructive procrastination. If the tasks you choose to do to avoid the bigger ones are helping you reduce the length of your To-Do List, at least you’re getting something done. Also, in some cases, procrastination can actually be helpful for people doing creative work, according to one Harvard professor.
Beyond that, a more nuanced understanding of procrastination shows that it may not be as simple as poor time management skills, but is, instead, a way that we respond to anxiety. It’s an avoidance strategy that can be caused by multiple things, including a fear of failure, social anxiety, stress, or perfectionism.
Why do we procrastinate?
The mainstream understanding of procrastination is that it’s a matter of managing your schedule. If you are organized and stick to your calendar, then you will always get things done, right?
According to Dr. Alex Abdel-Malek, a professional therapist and instructor, it’s not that simple:
“Procrastination manifests itself in how we manage time, but it is not primarily about how we manage time.”
Dr. Abdel-Malek runs workshops on procrastination where he tries to debunk some common myths that procrastination is caused by laziness, poor time management, or lack of work ethic. In reality, he says, it’s not about any of these things. Procrastination is a coping mechanism for dealing with anxieties.
Procrastination can have many root causes, but here are some common ones:
This is when you avoid doing something because you don’t think it’s important or because you think it’s a waste of your time. Maybe it’s a task at work that you don’t see the bigger purpose for, or you don’t understand the application of the assignment for your future career. Either way, without a strong motivation to complete the task, you end up avoiding it altogether.
Lack of confidence
You doubt your ability to complete something. This is maybe because you feel unequipped or confused about what the requirements are.
This was the area in which I struggled the most, when I was a student. In university we are challenged to do things that we don’t always feel capable of doing on our own. Instead of reaching out for help, we struggle to get started.
Fear of failure
If you are afraid of the consequences of failing, then the logical next step is to avoid doing whatever will lead to said failure. After all, you are guaranteed not to fail if you don’t even attempt that thing to begin with. For those who fear failure, procrastinating serves as a protection mechanism that shields them from the possibility of failing.
Perfectionists want to make sure that everything they do is of high quality. They take great care to prepare for their work and think deeply about how to make it their best. But perfectionists can run into problems when they have to try something new or different from what they are used to.
Similar to those who fear failure, perfectionists will put off attempting a task until they are sure they can meet their own high expectations. Unfortunately, they don’t always have that much time and sometimes it is impossible to meet their overly high expectations for themselves.
An uneasy relationship between you and a co-worker or a group member may also cause you to avoid completing your work. If making progress on your task requires you to interact with someone you are not comfortable interacting with, it can be easier to avoid doing it altogether.
Dealing with procrastination
Procrastination is something that will most likely never go away. But if you do want to limit your procrastination, you need to understand the root causes of it, says Dr. Abdel-Malek.
This can be difficult, because you may be procrastinating one task for one reason and a second task for a different reason.
Understanding the root causes of procrastination requires taking a deep look inside ourselves to find out what is motivating it.
Firstly, ask yourself, what are the reasons these worries are coming up for me?
Dr. Abdel-Malek suggests keeping a log of the tasks you have and how quickly you got started on them. Then look it over to see what they have in common. What are the things you procrastinate more on than others?
Once you understand the underlying reasons for your procrastination, you can attend to those anxieties and worries first.
Another suggestion is to forgive yourself for procrastinating. Recognize that it is a very human behaviour. Forgiving yourself can help to reduce the guilt you feel for avoiding a task, which is one of the main causes of procrastination in the first place.
As with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But it’s good to start by recognizing the underlying reasons for your procrastination. They may not be what you think they are.