The Causes, Effects, and Meaning of Putting Things Off
Procrastination is, at the simplest, when we put something off that we should be doing. It is putting off the important things for the non-important, doing the allegedly ‘urgent’ things for things we see as not so urgent. Procrastination is one of the most common psychological problems today, and it’s one that seems to get worse as the years pass. Our modern society makes it easier than ever to procrastinate – there are essentially an infinite number of ways to procrastinate, and a finite number of ways to actually sit down and get our work done. These ways include surfing the Internet (especially on social networking sites like Facebook), watching TV, playing video games, chatting with friends, sleeping, or just laying around doing nothing – take your pick! The culture of at-your-convenience has made getting things done harder than they’ve ever been.
The irony, of course, is that modern technology and the convenience that should come with it were supposed to help us get more done. Instead, the means of productivity have in many ways become the objects of productivity. We have so much access to information and stimulation that we treat access as an end in itself, rather than a means towards accomplishing some goal. Even worse, many of these technologies give the illusion of actually getting something done. And it doesn’t even have to be technological – how many of us have procrastinated by doing the dishes or cleaning the house? We trade one unpleasant task for another, less unpleasant task, all under the guise of being ‘productive.’ Of course, we are getting something done, but not the right thing!
The “Definition” of Procrastination
If we wanted a ‘legitimate’ definition of the term “procrastination,” we could consult a dictionary. The definition of procrastination that you’ll find in a dictionary is something like, “To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness.” Synonyms for procrastination include dalliance, dawdling, delaying, idling, and frittering, among others. As you can see, this definition is fraught with some interesting assumptions, most notably that procrastination is something that is caused by negative qualities like carelessness and laziness. Is this true? If you are a procrastinator, is it because there’s something wrong with you? Or can there be other reasons at play here?
In fact, just because you define procrastinating doesn’t mean that you have the meaning of procrastination. This is an important distinction to make – we may understand what procrastination is on the surface while having not the foggiest clue of what’s going on where it matters – beneath the surface of our skull. It is in the meaning of procrastination – why we do it, the reasons and causes, and the underlying factors – that can help us eventually understand and conquer the problem. Thus, this article will set out to give a detailed examination of the meaning, causes, and effects of procrastination. Once we understand the problem fully, if we can pinpoint the exact opposite of procrastination (timeliness?), we can reform our behavior so that we move towards what we want rather than simply putting things off.
Procrastination is a Problem for Everyone
We should also be clear about some critical procrastination facts: Almost everyone reports issues with procrastination in at least one major life area area. Many people even procrastinate in more than one area at once, perhaps even dominating all the major facets of life (health, wealth, and relationships). Procrastinators come from every walk of life – everyone from the poor to rich, young to old, dull to smart, and everywhere in between. Thus, it’s one of the more common problems out there. This alone should give you comfort – we all have problems with this bad habit, even the best of us!
One particular area where people procrastinate a lot is in academic and school work. Students around the world are among the highest procrastinators out there – a great majority report themselves as such. Perhaps the reason academic procrastination is so common is twofold: first, there may be little feedback or support in the class or school to help procrastinators keep on task; second, there is just more opportunity in school for people to procrastinate due to the relatively rigid deadlines and repeated instances of evaluation, especially when compared to the lack thereof in the ‘real world.’ In other words, the procrastination habit latent in all of us has more opportunities to manifest in the more structured school environment. Of course, those in jobs with continual deadlines may also experience these issues as well, as well as anyone who simply wants to achieve some goal, whether large or small.
Of course, some people have control over their bad habits more than others. Not every procrastinator is created (or made) equal. Thus, it’s a problem that can be controlled and managed, though perhaps not entirely eliminated Understanding what these people do differently can help us change our own behavior for the better.
To conclude this section, the statistics of procrastination can be quite surprising. Almost everyone claims that procrastination touches some part of their lives – and those who do not are either not being truthful or are not thinking carefully enough! It is a problem especially prevalent with students – nearly 85 to 95% of students believe that they are procrastinators. And finally, 20% of people claim that they are chronic procrastinators – they procrastinate on almost everything in life to such an extent that it seriously impacts their lives. The excellent book on this topic, The Procrastination Equation, gives out many more interesting procrastination statistics that reinforces just how common the issue is, not just in the modern world but in centuries and civilizations past.
The Meaning of Procrastination
As we stated above, just because you have the definition of something doesn’t mean that you have its essence, or its meaning. A definition can be misleading, especially when its first task, as a dictionary definition, is clarity and brevity. Thus, we need to ask: When you procrastinate on a task, what is really going on underneath the behavior that’s on the surface? Of course, you’re avoiding a task that you should be doing, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a task that you hate doing. In fact, perhaps the most frustrating kind of procrastination is that associated with behaviors and activities that we actually want to do. It may sound crazy that this could exist, but sometimes we just can’t get ourselves moving on a project or activity that we know will provide value and benefit to our lives. Once we finally get started with the activity, we will be shocked to realized how much we actually enjoy doing it, and we are mystified that we ever put it off in the first place. Of course, we often fall back on old habits again the next time we are confronted with the task.
Thus, we are stuck with a conundrum: the causes of procrastination cannot be simply limited to negative qualities such as those found in the definition above: laziness and carelessness, among others. In fact, the causes and reasons for procrastinating may lie deeper. It’s a complex issue that has attracted much scientific and scholarly research of late, so it may pay to turn some attention to what the experts have found.
Psychologists Are Studying Procrastionation
Psychologists are one group of scientists that have done a bunch of work examining procrastination. Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson believe procrastination includes three different qualities: it must be counterproductive, needless, and delaying. In addition, another psychologist, Steel, believes that procrastination is “to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.” As you can see, both of these definitions reveal really how unreasonable this behavior is – we are acting against our consciously known best wishes, and we receive a questionable benefit in return.
Psychologists have also given some credit to the ‘negative qualities’ of laziness and carelessness that were highlighted in the definition above. Though psychologists don’t use the language specifically, sometimes we are just being plain old lazy or careless – psychologists connect this to the trait of impulsivity. If we are impulsive, we put off positive, capacity-building activities that will yield long-term benefits for short-term, pleasurable, but ultimately wasteful activities (exchanging high-priority with low-priority actions). Someone who is impulsive will want to live in the moment, and thus will not want to dedicate time to an activity that will yield some positive benefit many days, months, or years down the road.
Procrastination and Emotion
Key to the core of the procrastinator is an emotional reaction to the activity in question. Imagine the last time you procrastinated on something. (It may even be right now!) What did you feel? For many, they feel a combination or selection of the following emotions: fear, anxiety, dread, disgust, nervousness, stress, sadness, depression, hopelessness, and general negativity. Thus, the state of procrastinating isn’t really very pleasurable. And unfortunately, as many procrastinators have found out, procrastination doesn’t really cure these emotional problems either in the long run. In fact, procrastinating may actually make things worse, as it’s just about avoidance rather than actually treating the underlying issues. There’s a certain amount of magical thinking going on here – it’s as if we believe that if we close our eyes and imagine that the task isn’t there, it will somehow go away.
Ironically, many people will actually feel more comfort when they tackle the tasks they have on their plate rather than avoiding them! This sounds crazy, and in fact much of this bad habit is entirely illogical and seemingly unreasonable. But then we are dealing with emotion here, not with logic and reason. There is an ‘elephant’ problem, to borrow the term of the Heath brothers in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.
There is an important point here that shouldn’t be missed: procrastination is actually a normal response to stresses and external impositions, within certain limits. Despite their best efforts, even the best and most productive people will procrastinate occasionally. The key is to keep this activity to a minimum, and to nip in the bud when it begins to crop up. Otherwise, we may find that our productivity and true potential will not be fully realized.
The Negative Effects of Procrastination
Procrastinators, especially those who deal with chronic procrastination, deal with many negative effects on their lives. Physically, procrastinators are more likely to be unhealthy, perhaps because they procrastinate going to the doctor, exercising, eating right, starting a diet, etc.
They also suffer mentally, as the anguish of chronic procrastinating can just be overwhelming. Many procrastinators are plagued by negative self talk – the symptoms of which including putting themselves down and criticize themselves to no end, and this just makes everything even worse. Many people feel very guilty about this habit, but nonetheless can’t break through the seeming ‘crisis.’ It is often described as being stuck in a rut or being unable to bust through a wall or ceiling. Others describe procrastination as feeling a sense of paralysis. Many will feel low self-esteem because of all this, and others may even develop significant depression. This is ironic, considering we are usually procrastinating simply because we want to avoid pain, but we are nonetheless experiencing it through this action. In a case like this, usually what’s going on is a difficulty breaking the cycle of negativity and habit – once the cycle is broken and positive momentum in completing the task is set out, many find the problem largely solved.
Professional and Economic Effects
Procrastination can also have obvious professional and economic effects. Those who procrastinate may find it hard to get good grades in school simply because they don’t do their work or leave it to the absolute last minute. Procrastinators may also have a hard time getting a good job, and those who do get work may find it hard to be their most productive, those holding them back from the top opportunities. In addition, many people have social and relationship issues when it comes to procrastination. Thus, as you can see, procrastination can have horrible effects on most every part of life. Still, many people joke about procrastination, but in reality it’s no laughing matter.
Now, let’s discuss the main two types of procrastination…