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Why We Procrastinate

Last minute taskers rejoice: psychological research proves that procrastinators are not necessarily lazy. Often, they are people who fear failure and rejection but don’t know the right strategies to reveal and conquer that fear.

Oh. Well that’s not much better than “lazy,” but at least we have a legitimate excuse.

One of the more obvious reasons why people procrastinate is to avoid doing something unpleasant. However, this is actually not as simple as it may sound. While some tasks are the embodiment of boredom, others may lead to procrastination because they scare you, on a subconscious level. Psychologists call this contributing factor to procrastination “fear of failure” and outline a few important dimensions. As a result, we can see that procrastination is not necessarily the product of laziness or lack of motivation. Deciphering the fear that lurks at the back of your mind is what really counts.

According to one of the most popular therapeutic approaches, called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), we all have certain basic assumptions about ourselves, either positive or negative, known as core beliefs. Core beliefs are a part of the subconscious and start to form at a very young age, as soon as you are able to perceive yourself and the world. As you grow, your experiences and interactions with others, and how you internalize them all contribute to building and solidifying core beliefs. According to CBT, our thoughts, emotions and actions are the effect of these self-perceptions. Nonetheless, since they are buried deep in the subconscious mind, often we don’t realize what our core beliefs are unless we work toward understanding them.

Even when we know that fear of failure causes procrastination, that’s too broad of a concept. Apprehension may be brought about by a variety of core beliefs and so, in order to clean up the sticky mess that is procrastination, we need to look into some research-based triggers, behind that fear.

We Seek What We Believe

According to self-verification theory we behave in a way and connect to people who verify our own beliefs about ourselves. If those self-perceptions are positive, then we engage in productive behaviors and seek people who evaluate us positively. If, however, one’s self-beliefs are negative, then this becomes a steppingstone to procrastination. In short, we self-sabotage rather than engaging in productive work. That is why procrastinators tend to occupy themselves with meaningless tasks. Have you noticed how some people remember to clean out the fridge, binge-read all of their bookmarked articles and go on endless YouTube loops, just when they’ve got some less appealing chore to do? According to professor Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., who has been studying procrastination for years, this self-handicap is the direct result of fear. Procrastinators swap out important tasks for futile activities because when you don’t engage in that something scary, there is no chance to fail at it. Thus, self-handicapping is a way to verify our own negative self-perceptions—we deprive ourselves of opportunities because of a deeply rooted belief that it is impossible to succeed.

Are You Good Enough?

How you perceive your own competence and ability to deal with a task on your own is also a contributing factor to fear of failure. Self-determination theory, which deals with people’s motivation, explains the importance of intrinsic incentives. When a person is keen to engage with a task because of internal stimuli, such as beliefs and needs, they become intensely invested. In contrast, motivation that comes from external sources is short-lived and inefficient. Feeling competent and autonomous builds intrinsic motivation and people are, therefore, less likely to procrastinate. On the other hand, when you doubt your own abilities and fear that you can’t handle the task on your own, you are more likely to put it off.

What Will Others Think?

Doubts about one’s self-worth may lead to an intensified need for the approval of others. If your core beliefs include a suspicion that you are not good enough and that you should continuously prove yourself to others, in order to feel deserving, this may contribute to fear of failure and therefore, procrastination. Fearing shame can lead to putting off a task, or even avoiding efforts to improve your skills. Often, the subconscious belief here is that the longer you dodge a task, the longer you’ll protect yourself from negative evaluations by others, as well as shame. On the other hand, procrastinators who fear shame, often strive for perfection, so that others view them as worthy and competent. In that way, if they feel they can achieve anything short of perfection, they put off a task for as long as possible.

What Can You Do About It?

As you can see, procrastination is not a simple behavioral problem. In fact, it can be viewed as a symptom of deeply rooted fear and self-doubt. Using CBT techniques on your own, or working with a therapist, can help you reveal your negative core beliefs and therefore understand what it is that you fear. Furthermore, you can benefit from the principles of self-regulation theory. Monitor your thoughts, emotions and behavior, see how they impact your tendency to procrastinate and experiment with different behavioral strategies to see what works best for your personal case.

Liya Panayotova is a clinical and counseling psychologist, 
with interests in the cognitive-behavioral sciences. 
Her experience includes working with anxiety, depression, difficult relationships, 
addiction, motivation, children, grief and many more.

 

By Liya Panayotova   March 24, 2017  
 


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Why You Shouldn’t Procrastinate Reading This Post

Don’t procrastinate reading this post … it’s bad for your health.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers had participants (some healthy and some with cardiovascular disease and hypertension) fill out questionnaires about their health and personalities, including their tendency to procrastinate. The results found that higher procrastination scores were associated with cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

The study didn’t explore the reason for the link, but previous research has found that students who procrastinated not only earned lower grades, but also reported higher stress and more illness. And it turns out a lot of us may be susceptible to the negative effects of the bad habit. A previous survey of over 24,000 people found that as many as 25 percent were chronic procrastinators, and that we spend a quarter of our days at work procrastinating.

So how do you overcome it … now, not later?

Think small. Researchers have found that when a deadline is too far into the future, we don’t see it as a “present” task. Instead of telling yourself you want to get in shape by summer, create goals for each week, like losing two pounds or taking three classes at the gym.

procrastinate

Schedule mini-goals. Take it a step further — instead of thinking “I need to finish this work project by Monday,” break it down into the steps you’ll take each day to stay on schedule.

Visualize your goal the right way. Sure, it sounds more fun to just dream about having a new amazing job rather than to dream about editing your resume, emailing your contacts, and polishing your cover letter, but research has found that the latter approach works.  Don’t just fantasize about the end-result — visualize the steps you’ll take to get there.

Raise the stakes. Put your money where your mouth is with a website like stikk.com, which has you place money on the line for your goal—fail to meet it and it’ll go to a friend, a charity of your choice, or an “anti-charity,” a cause that you’re against (those who choose the “anti-charity” option have higher rates of success).

Be nice to yourself. Slip up? Forgive yourself when you procrastinate — it’ll reduce the chance you’ll procrastinate on that same task in the future.

Diana Vilibert     April 1, 2015


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When Procrastination Is a Problem, and How to Fix It

By Paula Spencer Scott     WebMD Feature     Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Procrastination is a long word for this quick idea: later.  It’s telling yourself you’ll do things “tomorrow” or “when I feel more like it.”

When is putting things off a problem?

Everyone delays or puts things off sometimes, and that’s fine, says Timothy Pychyl, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. You might postpone a meeting because of a schedule conflict, or to give yourself time to prepare.
Procrastinating becomes a problem only when it hinders your relationships or getting your work done.
For about one in five adults, procrastination is a real, long-lasting problem.

Why we delay

The things people put off tend to be boring, hard,
time-consuming, or maybe they lack meaning to us. Or we worry that the results won’t be perfect. When you avoid doing what seems less than pleasant, you get a little mood boost. But this bump doesn’t last. The avoided thing still hangs over you, causing guilt and stress.
The real reasons we procrastinate lie deep within human behavior. We tend to view things in the future as less real or concrete. The later risks of not doing something (or the rewards of getting it done) seem less real, too.
Putting things off is a habit. We’re wired to do what’s easy – in this case, delaying doing something we don’t find
pleasant. And habits are hard to break.

How to get a move on

  • Be concrete. Don’t say, “I’ll start the report in the morning.” Say, “I’ll outline just the three main points of the report while I drink my morning coffee, before I look at mail.”
  • Be realistic about your time. We tend to be optimists about the future and think we’ll get more done than we do. Try jotting down all the things you have to do into your datebook. Include tasks like shopping for food, doing laundry, working out. That way when you make a plan to do something, you can get a true sense of what time you’ll have.
  • “Pre-empt that which tempts,” Pychyl says. Shut off all the things that are a click away from distracting you. Social media and texting require little effort, give you a lot of mood reward, and suck time. Make them a reward after you finish.
  • Know and accept that when the time comes to do the task, you won’t want to – and get past that.
    Just starting, even in the smallest way, creates progress. Then a sense of progress fuels well-being. “It’s an upward spiral,” Pychyl says.
  • Start with the hardest tasks. Willpower is a muscle. You’ll better resist things that distract when you first get started.
  • “Time travel” in your mind’s eye to when the task at hand is done. Think about how good you’ll feel.
  • Pace yourself. Set aside time to make a little progress every day. College students who had to complete small amounts of work before they could go to the next level did better on tests than those who were given all the study material at once, a 2011 University of Kansas study found.
  • Be kind to yourself.  Praise yourself for taking the first steps. Assure yourself that a “good enough” effort is great, and better than putting things off.