Have you ever sat down to complete an important task — and then suddenly discovered you were up loading the dishwasher or engrossed in the Wikipedia entry about Chernobyl? Or perhaps you suddenly realise that the dog needs to be fed, emails need to be answered, your ceiling fan needs dusting — or maybe you should go ahead and have lunch, even though it’s only 11 a.m.?
Next thing you know, it’s the end of the day and your important task remains unfinished.
For many people, procrastination is a strong and mysterious force that keeps them from completing the most urgent and important tasks in their lives with the same strength as when you try to bring like poles of a magnet together. It’s also a potentially dangerous force, causing victims to fail out of school, perform poorly at work, put off medical treatment or delay saving for retirement. A Case Western University study from 1997 found that college-age procrastinators ended up with higher stress, more illness and lower grades by the end of the semester.
But the reasons people procrastinate are not understood that well. Some researchers have viewed procrastination largely as a failure of self-regulation — like other bad behaviours that have to do with a lack of self-control, such as overeating, a gambling problem or overspending. Others say it’s not a matter of being lazy or poor time management, as many smart overachievers who procrastinate often can attest. They say it may actually be linked to how our brain works and to deeper perceptions of time and the self.
How exactly does procrastination work, and how do you stop it? Psychological research, comics and “The Simpsons” will explain.
The real origins of procrastination
Most psychologists see procrastination as a kind of avoidance behaviour, a coping mechanism gone awry in which people “give in to feel good,” says Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University, in Ottawa.
It usually happens when people fear or dread, or have anxiety about, the important task awaiting them. To get rid of this negative feeling, people procrastinate — they open up a video game or Pinterest instead. That makes them feel better temporarily, but unfortunately, reality comes back to bite them in the end.
Once the reality of a deadline sets in again, procrastinators feel more extreme shame and guilt. But for an extreme procrastinator, those negative feelings can be just another reason to put the task off, with the behaviour turning into a vicious, self-defeating cycle.
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– Ana Swanson