What is Procrastination?
Why do we procrastinate?
When I was asked to write an article for this newsletter on ‘procrastination’ I had to chuckle, imagining the hours spent doing the washing and cleaning, anything so long as I wasn’t getting on with the required task. In the past, that was certainly my pattern when confronted with a job I perceived as difficult or unpleasant, although I like to think that I have improved a little over the years. I imagine that I am not alone in such delaying strategies, and that many of you will also have mastered the art of procrastination.
The poet Edward Young pointed out that ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’. It causes anxiety, unhappiness and sleepless nights. I envy those individuals who promptly address themselves to the task in hand and thereby forge ahead of their peers.
In contrast, for most of us the issue is only overcome when our anxiety at starting the work is superseded by an alternative, and greater, anxiety – the imagined humiliating consequences that would result from failure. It is illogical and perverse that we determinedly avoid doing something, knowing that doing so is likely to cause us stress and guilt and ensure that we fall behind. And yet it’s all too human a trait – one of the characteristics that distinguish us from automatons. But where does it come from? What causes it?
All of us have postponed an unpleasant task so that we can do something more enjoyable. Sigmund Freud identified this trait as human beings’ innate tendency to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. He called this the ‘Pleasure Principle’. This is one form of procrastination but there must be many other underlying motivations.
Many of us delay and dither due to fear. If I perceive a task (such as writing my CV) to be critical to my future happiness or security, I may postpone starting as tackling it would be risking failure. I would rather bury my head in the sand. So procrastination can be due to a person’s fear of failure, and reflects in some way feeling slightly insecure or unsafe in the world.
While everyone is different, and in therapy we explore the unique factors affecting every individual, a tendency to procrastinate is often linked to a lack of self-confidence. People delay when deep down they feel that they lack the skills or ability to complete a set task. This perception may be illogical – and is often despite the fact that they have achieved similar chores successfully in the past. Somehow each time they are faced with a similar challenge they feel inadequate or empty or lacking in the necessary resources. They delay and then feel lazy or incompetent, thereby further lowering their sense of self- worth.
For some people such delaying tactics can become chronic, severely disrupting their lives. They may be a symptom of depression or of a neurological disorder. Procrastination may be a person’s way of avoiding life or communicating his or her unhappiness. For such people psychotherapy or counselling can definitely help. In therapy we identify the factors originally affecting people’s self-esteem and the elements in their life that they want to change.
Hopefully in time, through reconstructing their sense of self-worth, they will realise that they are capable and accomplished people who can achieve whatever is required. Procrastination may never entirely disappear from their lives but then again for most of us occasional procrastination is simply part of being human.
By Jane Dawson