A primer on procrastination

Zainab Bawa

@zainabbawa

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin word “pro” which means forward, and “crastinus” which means “of tomorrow”.

To understand the components of procrastination, this definition is useful: “Making a decision for no valid reason to delay, to complete a task or a goal you have committed to, and instead, doing something of lesser importance, despite there being negative consequences to not following through on the original task or goal.”

The key elements of procrastination are:

  1. “No valid reason” to postpone.
  2. “Do something of lesser importance” to get rid of the discomfort stemming from procrastination.
  3. Negative consequences of procrastination.

Becoming aware of these components and how they feed into a procrastination cycle will help you break the chain.

Procrastination versus laziness versus habitual delay.

Procrastination is discomfort driven while laziness is comfort-driven. You procrastinate to get short-term relief from not doing a task that you have come to dislike or for other reasons, as we will see below.
Laziness stems from the comfort of not doing a task.
Strategic delay is not habitual, as in something you do on a regular basis. It is a way to get better outcomes later.

Unhelpful rules and assumptions - components of procrastination.

Below are some of the rules we have developed in our minds to procrastinate on a regular basis:

  1. The need to be in charge - I can’t do tasks unless I am completely in charge.
  2. Pleasure seeking - things should be easier for me to get started.
  3. Fear of failure or disapproval - a big reason to procrastinate.
  4. Fear of uncertainty or catastrophe - building a mountain out of a molehill; assuming some catastrophe will take place if the work done isn’t perfect.
  5. Low self-confidence.
  6. Depleted energy - I will do the task when I feel fresh. I am tired now, I need to sleep before I can get started with the task.

Why do we make these excuses?

  1. Unhelpful beliefs lead to unhelpful self talk to postpone.
  2. There is some truth in the original statement. But we develop unhelpful truths as we get habituated to procrastination. For e.g., “I will start the task when I am inspired.” Or, “I have plenty of time to finish this task, so I will start later.”
    These conclusions allow us to reason with ourselves that we can do the task later.
  3. Procrastination gives relief from discomfort and short-term pleasure.

Negative consequences of procrastination:

  1. More discomfort.
  2. Negative rules are reinforced.
  3. Self criticism backfires.
  4. Low self-esteem develops.
  5. Things pile up.
  6. Punishment/loss.

This is the procrastination cycle, where approach to a task or goals triggers unhelpful rules and assumptions, followed by discomfort driven excuses, leading to procrastination activities (distractions, daydreaming, etc) and finally, consequences which tend to be mostly negative.

To stop procrastinating, you have to break this cycle, and start the “doing” cycle, which involves:

  1. Dismissing procrastination excuses by:
    * Converting unhelpful rules and assumptions into helpful self-talk: For e.g., “Can I get some parts of the task completed now even if the conditions are not ideal?”
    * Practice disputing your excuses. For e.g., “I am tired. But I can still make a small start now and take rest later.” “I have plenty of time, but I can start now to save on time later.”

  2. Implement practical techniques to stop procrastination - do behavioural experiments to overcome the discomfort caused by procrastination.
    * Start the task to let motivation follow.
    * Break the task into smaller bits and pieces; start with the easier parts first.
    * Encourage yourself rather than criticize yourself.

  3. Tolerate discomfort - be aware. Practice mindfulness - watch, observe without judgement. Let go.

One of the most crucial aspects of procrastination is time management. Habitual procrastinators believe that time is a stretchable commodity. You can manage your time by:
* Prioritizing important tasks.
* Chunk tasks into smaller parts.
* Get a better grip of estimating times.

Slides for Tarique Sani’s talk on procrastination are on https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1ryUjHeuqh92vQMB9dgOJbfZknvzQQKECG-mz1amPxlg/edit?usp=sharing

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