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Now that working from home is the norm and we draw closer to exam season, you may find the usual surge in articles such as ‘Procrastination Tips’ and ‘How to Avoid Procrastination’ appearing in your feeds. However, before jumping into some new strategies it is first worth developing a little bit of awareness about what procrastination means to you and whether it serves a valid purpose in your life.
WHAT IS PROCRASTINATION?
Procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off a behaviour, often a ‘work’ related task. There are also lots of illustrative phrases that try to capture the meaning of procrastination such as ‘procrastination is the killer of time’ and ‘procrastination is the gap between intention and action.’
In short procrastination happens when an individual has acknowledged that a task should / needs to be done (note these are negative motivation words) but actually getting started on the task feels difficult because avoidance behaviours take priority.
DEFINING PROCRASTINATION FURTHER
In his book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, Piers Steel goes further to define the separate parts of procrastination:
Motivation = (expectancy x value) / (impulsiveness x delay)
- Motivation – the opposite of procrastination, the willingness to do a task.
- Expectancy – how much we think that we will be successful at completing the given task. This may reflect the task difficulty and our own skills and confidence.
- Value – how much we enjoy that particular task and the reward for completing the task.
- Impulsiveness – our tendency to get distracted by others things.
- Delay – the length of time between completing the task and actually experiencing the desired reward.
By defining procrastination in this way it allows you to look at the different aspects of procrastination that affect you – as different people procrastinate for different reasons.
There are a wealth of articles out there criticising and shaming procrastination without recognising that it does have some benefits – some of the time. Being aware of these benefits is important because it may be the case that your brand of procrastination is actually serving a valid purpose in your work flow:
- Idea Generation – in that space between intending to do a task and actually doing it, your brain may be consciously or subconsciously pondering the what, why and how. Although no tangible work on the task is being done there may be a subtle process of playing with ideas, generating themes, organising thoughts and even task planning that can make it easier to achieve the task later. Recording these ideas through journaling or brainstorming can be beneficial – making sure that this pre-work is not lost.
- Clearing Space – It’s often made out the procrastination takes the form of leisure or time wasting activities such as watching cat videos or chatting to colleagues. But functioning procrastinators will tell you that often their activities help to prepare them for the work later. Cleaning their desk, organising files, doing the shopping and other such side tasks may not be directly relevant to the main task, but may ensure a sense of clarity allowing them to give their full attention to the task when the time comes.
- Getting in the Zone – Both of the above points combined with a looming deadline may support some people to get in the right state of mind to work. People who enjoy pressure and deadlines often like to utilise their previous thinking time and clear environment to jump straight into a state of un-interrupted flow.
- Stress Relief – In her keynote speech, Mel Robbins suggests that one of the reasons for procrastination is to alleviate stress. If you are carrying around concerns and pressures then avoiding other tasks which will add to that stress is a form of coping mechanism. Rather than blindly procrastinating, a self-aware person can notice their procrastination and see it as a cue to engage in meaningful self-care activities before coming back to the task.
Destructive may seem like an intense word to use for putting things off – but the knock on effects can be quite damaging when procrastination is a regular habit:
- Poor Performance – Leaving a task until the last moments means that there is often reduced time for skill / knowledge practice, checking / editing, and making meaningful connections to other parts of life. This means that although you can tick the task off, it most likely won’t be your best work… which could affect your reputation with colleagues and peers.
- Poor Self Care – in the final run up to a deadline it is not unknown for people to stay up late, eat quick junk food (or perhaps not eat), dose up on caffeine and forego all leisure activities in order to sink time into their task. If this becomes a regular occurrence it can lead to burnout, poor nutrition and a lack of meaningful relaxation time to refresh.
- Elevated Stress – regular procrastinators may be in a continual state chasing imminent deadlines. This means that the are likely to be experiencing the stress response in the body – the hormones adrenaline and cortisol prepare us for a fight or flight response which can be useful for short term action. However, if the stress response is experienced regularly this can increase heart problems, reduce focus and have other negative impacts on the mind and body.
- Missed Opportunities – functional procrastinators tick off every deadline eventually… but a challenge here is that any item without a deadline never has the associated pressure to warrant attention. This means that many people will look back on their lives and lament that they never learned a language, decorated the spare room or picked up a hobby. People who are regular procrastinators forget to make time for the things they WANT to do and so these missed opportunities can be a source of great guilt and even identity crisis.
Having seen the pros and cons of procrastination it is worth noting that procrastination can sometimes serve a very valid purpose in your life and work flow. So the real question to ask yourself is:
What impact is procrastination having on my life?
Learning to develop this self awareness is essential for either accepting and owning the patterns that work for you or recognising the changes you want to make to a healthier and more productive you.
If you notice that elements of your procrastination are not working for you then the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to start tackling procrastination:
- Learnt to set more compelling goals
- Use self motivation tools to get energised for tasks
- Recognise your procrastination triggers
- Explore why some tasks evoke fear / avoidance / dislike
- Create a positive and distraction free work environment
- Use time management tools to organise your day
- Build your willpower muscle through habits
If you want to understand your work patterns better and get more out of your day, The Self Leadership Initiative provides bespoke training and workshops to individuals and teams. Get in touch today to find out how self motivation, time management, goal setting and workspace planning can help you to achieve your goals.