In the Blog
Illustration by Andrea Manica
No matter how old you are or whether or not you feel that you’ve kicked the habit, chances are you have experienced the feeling of procrastination. Procrastination refers to the behaviour of avoiding doing something that needs to be done because, in the current moment, it feels better not to confront the task.
Commonly reported examples of procrastination are school-related, work-related and interpersonal-related. For students, it could be that assignment, essay, thesis or dissertation that you’ve been putting off. It could also be that mid-term or final exam that you decided not to study for until the 11th hour.
Other times, it can be a work-related issue, like that time you were supposed to get a report ready for an important meeting weeks ago but decided to leave it until the very last minute. Although it is not usually seen as a type of procrastination, we often put off doing emotional and caring work. Confronting complicated emotional aspects of ourselves or our relationships is postponed because the psychological logic of procrastination holds true—you’ll get it done some other time.
Some may not see procrastination as a real problem, because they reap the benefits of procrastinating, like the relief that you get when you avoid something you don’t want to do. The relief feels like a short burst of adrenaline.
While there are many sources who frame procrastination as a joke, the fact of the matter is that procrastination can be a real problem. It’s a problem not because it makes people unproductive, but rather because it reproduces a problematic thought pattern based on an illusion. That illusion is the belief that there are actual benefits to procrastinating.
Some commonly perceived benefits to procrastination include the sense of urgency that appears to boost productivity, the short-term relief of not dealing with an important task and the feeling that tight deadlines are arbitrary since, though you were procrastinating, you got the job done anyway – even if it meant painfully pushing yourself to get there. These benefits serve to mask the negative effects of procrastination. Some of these effects include anxiety, panic, anguish, distorted beliefs, debilitating fear and, sometimes, the reduced quality of the final product of a project fueled by procrastination.
Psychology and behavioural scientists have both taken a crack at explaining why procrastination happens. Some psychologists think that procrastination is the result of lack of desire and a buildup of fear over time. With this kind of explanation, psychologists can pinpoint a number of internal issues that drive a lack of desire or fear, some of these issues can include fear about the intensity of a workload or a feeling of emptiness or lack of motivation to complete a task. Behavioural scientists add that a lack of discipline, poor time management skills and laziness are to blame for the actions of serial procrastinators.
Depending on who the procrastinator in question is, psychologists and behavioral scientists are probably right. However one position that isn’t always considered as a likely explanation for why procrastinators procrastinate is that it could actually be the human brain’s logical response to taking on more complex tasks in their everyday life! Because of so many productivity and technological advancements over the past 10 years, students and workers have taken on more tasks throughout their day than was ever imagined possible 20 years ago.
On Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram, people are producing an output of hundreds of emotions and feelings, legions ahead of what standard postal mail or even email could have accomplished. Today, high school students are spending 6 hours outside of school just finishing their homework, leaving very little time for personal development, self-care or activities that nourish the soul.
Many workers are working more than a 40-hour workweek because living in the city is simply too expensive. Recently, the Toronto Star revealed that a two-parent household requires an income of $18.21/hour just to be able to afford living in Toronto. The fact is, people are busier than ever because the current expression of capitalism demands it. Either people participate in the culture of busyness or they are left out from it, and being left out could mean becoming obsolete. The fear of being left out if you slow down is an important aspect of modern procrastination that isn’t always emphasized. Perhaps then, people procrastinate because our brains are occupied with so much overwhelming stimuli that we haven’t yet adjusted to.
As a former teaching assistant, I saw undergraduate students go through various stages of procrastination and each student had a radically different experience from the last. In my opinion it is harder to be an educator who encourages assignment-completion-by-deadline because there are so many things going on in student’s lives that we might not be aware of. Some educators have attempted to find out exactly what it is their students are going through outside of the classroom. Recently, a third-grade Colorado teacher, Kyle Schwartz started a twitter campaign called, #IWishMyTeacherKnew to display some of the responses from her students, many of whom were from marginalized families.
Given this alternative explanation, it can be followed that procrastination is something to be harnessed, leveraged and even overcome! The first step is to practice some self-reflection on potential causes for your procrastination – if you’re finding that to be more difficult than expected, it also helps to discuss with a positive and supportive friend. If you often take time to self-reflect and have a high level of self-awareness, this exercise will be relatively easy. Chances are, the answers will affirm what you already know about yourself. If self-reflection doesn’t come as easily to you, don’t give up. Just because you don’t reach an ‘aha!’ on the first try doesn’t mean you’re not going to get the answer! The next step is to create an action plan that tackles the root of the issue - awareness of the issue is usually enough to trigger one into action. Coming to a deeper understanding of why you procrastinate isn’t something to be put off!