In his 2016 TED Talk entitled Inside the mind of a master procrastinator, Tim Urban, a self-proclaimed procrastinator, sets the scene by relating how he had a year to work on a 90-page senior thesis (and had the best intentions of working on it throughout the year) but ended up starting and completing the paper in the 72 hours before it was due.
“One day I woke up with three days before the deadline still not having written a word and so I did the only thing I could. I wrote 90 pages over 72 hours, pulling not one but two all-nighters – humans are not supposed to pull two all-nighters – sprinted across campus … and got it in just at the deadline.”
(Spoiler alert: the paper didn’t get a good mark.)
Urban’s TED Talk has received more than 32 million views to date. That’s a lot and it’s probably because procrastination is widespread, ranging from the smallest acts of shrugging things off because they “can wait for tomorrow” to constantly being distracted.
We live in a time of boundless distraction – think of the countless social media platforms, must-watch television series and all that the internet has to offer (this writer had to concentrate on the story and not get lost in the research).
Procrastination, derived from the Latin verb procrastinare meaning “put off until tomorrow”, is not a new phenomenon. Ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle used the word akrasia to describe the procrastinated behaviour. Akrasia is a state of lacking command over oneself and acting against one’s better judgment.
A 2013 study, Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self, explains that choosing to voluntary delay in spite of our “better judgment” reflects a basic breakdown in our self-regulation and this breakdown “occurs most often when we are faced with a task that is viewed as aversive (i.e. boring, frustrating, lacking meaning and/or structure)”.
Short-term avoidance of the so-called “aversive task”, even though we understand the long-term benefits of completing the task now rather than later, is said to be directly related to a need for instant gratification over the fear of failure, self-doubt and suffering.
South African neuro-linguistic programming coach and founder of Integrative Coaching, Warren Munitz, explains that procrastination is the strategy of avoiding something we unconsciously perceive as uncomfortable.
“The human instinct to avoid pain is the strongest instinct we have because it is [subconsciously] connected to death. We avoid things because, unconsciously, we feel as though it is connected to pain and suffering and we would rather seek pleasure,” says Munitz.
It is the pleasure-seeking side of humans, combined with our inherent fear of failure and self-doubt, that drives procrastination; it also tricks our rational mind in thinking that delaying a small amount of short-term pain, whether saving money, eating healthily or seeing a doctor when a pain arises, won’t lead to severe long-term consequences. But often it does.
Urban describes instant gratification as a manifestation that lives entirely in the present moment – it has no memory of the past and no consideration for the future. Our desire for instant gratification only takes two aspects into consideration: Is it easy and is it fun?
When we engage with activities that are easy and fun, we get a kick, a “feel good” thrill. Yet, when this happens instead of attending to tasks that might be harder but that, rationally, we know need to be addressed for the sake of our future, the result is emotions like guilt, dread, anxiety and self-hatred.
So, why do we still procrastinate?
Kirsty Melmed, a life coach based in Cape Town, explains that we need to look at how the brain works to understand the battle between rational and emotional decision-making.
When we procrastinate, the limbic system – the oldest and most primal part of our brain wired to fulfil immediate desires – goes into conflict with the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain in charge of executive functions such as planning and goal setting; often, it is the limbic system that wins.
“Let’s say you have an idea to sign up for a dance class. Your prefrontal cortex will start researching gyms and studios in your area, find the one which is most affordable and has a timetable that suits you best.
“But then what happens? You put off actually going to the first class. At this point your limbic system has taken control. Going somewhere new is scary. There could be unknown threats. So, your limbic system stops you from going ahead. Anything that is new and unknown imposes a threat. The limbic system does not like threat. It is designed to keep you safe,” explains Melmed.
The prefrontal cortex develops as the brain develops and, as such, there is a difference between a child who does not want to do something and an adolescent who is delaying doing something. Melmed says procrastination can only start once we begin to access our prefrontal cortex in early adolescence.
“The small child is operating from a primal instinct to only do what feels good. The teenager has the ability to see the bigger picture and determine that studying is a good idea, but because it might not be interesting in the moment (or they might be scared of failing), they give in to the urge to delay doing it.”
The consequences and effects of procrastination vary depending on the subject that is being avoided and span from missed deadlines at work, which could lead to increased anxiety, self-doubt and lack of self-worth, to staying in a harmful relationship, which could lead to unhappiness and long-term damage to self-esteem and depression.
Clinical psychologist and registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as well as the Board of Healthcare Funders of Southern Africa (BHF), Carly Abramowitz, explains that even though a certain amount of pressure can aid productivity, procrastination can easily cause the balance of pressure to tip, resulting in stress and anxiety and manifesting in feelings of shame and unworthiness.
“Avoidance is a superficial way of keeping ‘safe’ from unwanted emotional distress, however it is not a sustainable way to live one’s life”, she adds.
In his practice, David Lorge, a cognitive behavioural coach and founder of The Cognitive Coach in Johannesburg, says one of the main reasons for procrastination could be a lack of self-belief, which, in turn, leads to anxiety and avoidance, which he has observed “particularly in my clients who have an obsessive or perfectionistic personality type”.
According to Lorge, the more people procrastinate, the less they get done, ultimately leading to lower self-esteem and increased anxiety; then, “everything tends to seem overwhelming and sometimes we see people spiral out of control where they end up with depression due to the lack of action on any task”.
It is in these cases that regular procrastination can turn to dysfunctional procrastination, where the avoidance of certain tasks due to fear of failure or short-term suffering starts to interfere with our daily functioning and negatively impact our lives.
“Dysfunctional procrastination is the extreme side of procrastination,” explains Melmed, “when the pressure to do something feels so great that it completely immobilises you. When non-action leads to consequences which impact the quality of your life whether at work, in your relationships or your health.”
Yet, procrastinating does not always have negative side-effects or harmful consequences. Integral life coach and a registered psychometrist with the HPCSA Jurie Wessels has observed, through psychological assessments, that certain individuals are not inclined to start tasks far in advance.
“Some people do need the last-minute pressures for them to perform at their best,” explains Wessels.
“When people present this personality characteristic, I encourage them to develop skills to ensure that they are organised in order to effectively do things at the last minute, and also to change their thought constructs as to what they consider to be last-minute.”
He adds that while, for example, at school, people could use the pressure of a deadline to complete tasks, management and awareness of time needs to be reconsidered as the workload increases, at either tertiary levels of study or in the workplace.
According to Abramowitz, this pressure can sometimes help stimulate creativity. She advises that, if this is the case, the best thing to do is to consciously choose not to attend to the task and to rather spend time engaging meaningfully in another task, then come back to the original task and try to complete it.
“The shame comes in when you set an expectation to complete the task and then end up doing other things that are not productive that make you feel bad about yourself. That’s just self-destructive,” explains Abramowitz.
Self-regulation and self-awareness are integral in taking the first steps towards preventing the effects of short- and long-term procrastination. Abramowitz suggests that understanding the reasons behind the procrastination can be the first step to taking action against it.
“If you know that studying is boring because you find looking at a boring page of black ink on paper under-stimulating, then you can make changes such as using colourful pens and creative ways of making notes that feels more exciting and enjoyable to you.
“Or, if you know you are afraid of writing your CV because you’re scared of applying for jobs and maybe having to face feelings of failure then you can use affirmations to encourage yourself to take that leap and find the courage to confront your fears,” observes Abramowitz.
In most instances, procrastination is underlined by negative emotions including fear, failure, self-doubt, suffering and boredom. By identifying the source of the fear, we can start to take action while the discomfort is still manageable and, in doing so, start to establish new patterns.
“This is where cognitive restructuring takes place, where we challenge our thoughts and behaviour in order for new neural connections to be formed,” Wessels explains.
If we consistently follow the new thought-pattern of confronting and understanding the discomfort (that causes us to procrastinate) at an earlier stage, the old pattern will eventually deteriorate. It is then that the new thought pattern will replace the old, maladaptive thought pattern, that does not appropriately adjust to the situation at hand.
Munitz, who describes procrastination as the superficial manifestation of dealing with our inner discomforts and suffering, suggests that, for us to become aware of the reasons behind our procrastination, no matter how big or small, is to simply stop doing.
Through finding a place of stillness we may come to a better understanding of why we are finding unnecessary ways to distract ourselves from what we rationally know to be important and, ultimately, inevitable.
“Sometimes we need some kind of crutch to help us stop doing. This is a crutch that will allow you to slowly step back … Those crutches or steps are things like having a meditation practice or mantra, something that will keep getting your mind to come back to one thing so that, just for a moment, you are focusing on one thing, which will allow you to let go of all the other distractions.”
Once your mind is still, the opportunity for interruptions becomes limited. This may assist in understanding the driving force behind your procrastination more clearly, thus allowing the potential to effectively tackle less-desirable tasks sooner and let our rational decision maker lead the way. ML
Mooning is considered a form of free speech in the United States.