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Why You Procrastinate and What to Do About It

Know why you procrastinate and how to stop it.

We all have theories about why people procrastinate. For example, a reporter told me space aliens plague humanity with procrastination. Where is the proof of that? A radio commentator kept insisting to me that fear causes procrastination. How does "fear" explain hyperbolic discounting when you markdown future consequences as you go for immediate rewards?

Psychological theories are different from everyday ones. Grounded in repeat observations, they are descriptive, plausible, and have testable hypotheses. Psychological theories guide action and invite research. For example, I propose that procrastination has biological, psychological, and social roots. These factors weave together, but one factor may dominate the other two.

I'll briefly give some basic ideas on procrastination, summarize my multiphasic theory of procrastination, propose a tripartite approach for change, and then point to how to make a radical shift from a procrastination to a productive perspective.

Procrastination Basics

Procrastination is on a continuum from a nuisance, to a hindrance, to disabling. It ranges from periodic to persistent. It's a normal extension of your bio-psycho-social inheritance. This view takes procrastination out of a moral category and puts it into a corrective category. This is a problem habit where you put off a timely, relevant, activity until later. You always detour into some diversionary activity, such as surfing the net. Procrastination can be a simple default reaction. You feel uncomfortable. You impulsively duck discomfort. It can be elaborate: one reason to delay blends into another; one distraction follows another. Both simple and elaborate procrastination may continue until you take effective problem-solving actions.

Procrastination starts at different levels from perceptual to conceptual. At the perceptual level, your natural sensitivity for tension can trigger avoidance. At a conceptual level, your thoughts can trigger tensions that are catalysts for procrastination. Procrastination is nuanced, as in the following:

1. Procrastination normally coexists with other negative states, such as discomfort, anxiety, or self-doubts. This complex procrastination may be universal.

2. When procrastination leads to an emotional state such as anxiety, I call this primary procrastination. When procrastination is a symptom of a coexisting condition, such as anxiety, I call this secondary procrastination. Whatever came first may not matter. By simultaneously addressing both procrastination and the co-existing condition(s) you can earn a two-for-one benefit. You relieve yourself of the coexisting condition(s). You operate more productively.

3. Procrastination comes in different styles, such as decision-making or deadline procrastination. The styles refer to context, triggering condition, or a distinctive feature about a particular procrastination hotspot zone. When different procrastination patterns co-occur, I call this combination procrastination.

A Multiphasic Theory of Procrastination

As a species, we tend to go for what is easiest (biological tendency). You may think that tomorrow will take care of itself, and so delay is okay (psychological factor). Seeking immediate gratification and justifying delays may feel natural yet lead to missing deadlines. This subverts responsible actions (social dimension).

Pleasure (rewards) and pain (penalties) shape behavior. When the pain of the outcome of delay is in the distant future, you may discount the consequences and get at least two possible specious rewards: (1) You decide to delay. You feel relieved that something will get done some day. This verbal vagary may continue to feed a procrastination process. (2) You feel relief--perhaps exhilaration--if you finish just in time, or if you successfully talk your way into an extension. When you successfully escape procrastination penalties, this can reinforce the procrastination behaviors that preceded the rewards.

You're a member of an intelligent and inventive species who can concoct anxieties and fears about non-dangerous situations. For example, you believe that imperfection is dreadful. You avoid situations that expose your imperfections. Fortunately, you have the ability to recognize phony beliefs. You know you can live through necessary forms of discomfort. Exercising this knowledge can go a long way in reducing your tendency to procrastinate.

Psychologically you may add a secondary hassle to low-tension-tolerance by telling yourself you can't stand tension. This belief can lead to discomfort dodging activities. Delays in this way can lead to more discomfort. Answers to questions like, "why can't I stand what I don't like," can clarify what is happening when you procrastinate. You can build a platform for solid actions out of this awareness.

You go through a long socialization process. You learn to live with routines, schedules, and other activities. Time and the clock influence the course of your life. Your natural impulses will sometimes clash with clocked social responsibilities. Your socially developed doubts and fears about what others think of what you do, can evoke inhibitions, hesitations, and procrastination. Without a social dimension, would procrastination exist?

A Tripartite Cognitive Emotive, Behavioral System for Change

Cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods apply to curbing procrastination. Procrastination thinking can trigger delays. You tell yourself later is better. You delay until later. Refuse to capitulate to this form of delay, and you are onto a productive track.

Uncomfortable emotions or sensations can trigger impulses to avoid tension. This bio-emotive factor is a swivel condition for procrastination. Recognize and teach yourself to tolerate procrastination-evoking feelings and you load the dice in favor of you getting yourself out of a procrastination rut and onto a productive path.

Behavioral methods are useful, such as giving yourself rewards for the action you take where you substitute productive actions for procrastination diversions. You can break a task into manageable bites. You can agree with yourself to start for five minutes, and then decide at the end of that time if you'll continue. These techniques help break negative inertia patterns.

A Radical Shift in Perspective

Think of yourself as a "scientist" who is studying procrastination solutions. The approaches you take are always tentative. If one anti-procrastination measure has no effect, try another. This everyday scientist approach has added benefits. You are testing solutions, not your "self." The results give you feedback. You'll learn what works and what doesn't. This change process is more productive than pinning a regressive "procrastinator" label on you.

Apply cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods to shift from a self-absorbing procrastination process to a productive self-observant one. In a self-absorbing state, you draw too much into yourself. Inner distractions propel procrastination. With self-observant outlook, you track what you're doing. You examine the validity of procrastination thinking. You play out scenarios for both delays and follow through actions. You teach yourself to accept--not necessarily like--tensions that go with doing priority activities. Sometimes you just do what you don't like because it is necessary.

Click on A Procrastination Test to Uncover Procrastination Patterns to find your procrastination hotspots. The test has links to solutions

Click on End Procrastination Now for solutions for staying on a productive path.

(C) Dr. Bill Knaus

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