We know what typical procrastination looks and feels like: We’re on social media, checking emails for the tenth time in an hour, clipping our toenails, loading the dishwasher, revisiting the snack room, dragging our feet in other blatant ways—all instead of accomplishing the necessary and important task at hand.
Many view procrastination as a conscious if not deliberate process, an unconcealed self-control failure. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Melon University, describes procrastinators as “led astray by the ‘visceral’ rewards of the present.” Research confirms that, in the moment, procrastinators tend to prefer pleasure over progress.
But according to one estimate, only 18 percent of procrastination could be attributed to “task aversiveness,” i.e. just not wanting to do something. Thus, many of us aren’t putting off important work simply because we don’t feel like it—and yet procrastination plagues our workforce.
If we don’t mind doing [fill in the blank], why don’t we just do it?
My research leads me to believe that we fall prey to a more insidious form of procrastination: We think we’re being productive. Right now, we feel like we’re doing the best we can; looking back, we were preoccupied with the wrong thing or unnecessarily postponed the most important part.
If you feel like you’re constantly busy but getting nothing done, these three little-known, but well-established methods of procrastination could be the problem:
Several studies indicate that procrastination is significantly related to dependency on others. One way dependency manifests is blame: “XYZ can’t get done without my boss/coworker.” “I’ve done my job; I’m waiting on others to do theirs.” Procrastination is even associated with passive aggressiveness and impatience. Once we realize that no one’s career consists of a singular bottlenecked task, we see blaming others for what is: A form of procrastination.
Procrastination is also linked to self-blame and low self-esteem. Procrastinators have higher levels of self-deprecation and negative thoughts about themselves and others compared to non-procrastinators.
Counterintuitively, being hard on ourselves impedes both motivation and performance. In one study, students who reported high levels of self-forgiveness for procrastinating on studying for an exam later procrastinated less on a second exam. By contrast, exam procrastinators who agreed to statements such as, “I dislike myself for procrastinating,” and, “I criticize myself because of my tendency to procrastinate,” showed no better behavior before the next test. This may be because the guilt produced by self-blame triggers further procrastination, the researchers claim.
Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning recommends:
“Notice how you are thinking and talking to yourself. Talk to yourself in ways that remind you of your goals and replace old, counter-productive habits of self-talk. Instead of saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t…’ say, ‘I will…'”
Contrary to popular thought, perfectionism doesn’t make us perform better. Instead, perfectionism is associated with binge eating, interpersonal conflict, and task avoidance. Moreover, perfectionism and procrastination together are associated with worry and depression.
Multiple studies suggest that perfectionistic procrastination may be rooted in fear of making mistakes. Fear of failure is, indeed, “very well suited to serve as an explanation for procrastinatory behavior.” For instance, students who doubted their ability to succeed and viewed their mistakes as signs of failure were more likely to suffer from procrastination.
Though high standards and ambitious goals are healthy, perfectionism can cause detrimental deliberation. People who procrastinate on making decisions, for example, search out more information about alternatives and often use narrower, more rigid, less rational criteria for their choices. As Winston Churchill said, “The maxim, ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelled ‘paralysis.'”
Productive people are satisfied with good enough. Instead of berating yourself when you don’t reach challenging goals, the Institute of Education Sciences suggests, “Give yourself a break, learn how to be pleased with who you are, and learn how to enjoy the healthy pursuit of excellence.” Or, as one resource put simply, “Realize that progress is better than perfection.”
Sometimes we procrastinate on making decisions simply because we haven’t answered the question, “Why?” This fundamental oversight obscures our goals, confuses the tasks needed to make them happen, and stunts our progress.
Commitment, on the other hand, requires understanding. When people commit to marriage, it’s often because they feel they fully know what—and who—they’re “getting themselves into” and can properly anticipate both the risks and rewards. By the same token, we can reduce our cold feet in other aspects of our lives by understanding why we’re doing something. If we don’t know, we’ll likely never get it done—and probably shouldn’t do it anyway.
While half-heartedness is strongly correlated with procrastination, committed action is negatively correlated with it. One study defines committed action as the “flexible persistence in actions that are linked to chosen values and goals even in the occurrence of psychological obstacles, such as difficult feelings, thoughts and urges.” Committed action, in different words, requires consciously linking personal values to long- and short-term goals, and then following through despite discomfort. McGraw advises:
“… follow through no matter what. By doing so, you will slowly rebuild trust in yourself that you will really do what you say you will, which so many procrastinators have lost.”
Sadly, these subtle procrastination habits can slip by for years without our noticing. But there’s an upside: Once we recognize them for what they are—subconscious methods that derail our productivity—we’re freed to return to our real work. The goal is to train our awareness and energy toward the things we know matter.
And, by the way, this solution doesn’t just sound good: Research suggests that those who were “more in touch with their future selves” both two months and 10 years later reported fewer procrastination behaviors. When we define our values, commit to our goals, take responsibility for our work, and make peace with our product, we can shut down the sly ways we sabotage our potential.
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