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The psychological mechanisms of procrastination

It may be hard to believe but the intention of putting things off is to increase the productivity in completing a task that is not pleasurable (getting things that are associated with a state of tension, done in a short period of time).

Therefore it is implied here that when we are challenged with a task we make a very quick appraisal of its deadline (whether there is a clear or an ambiguous deadline, whether there is an external or internal pressure to complete it) and its associated state of pleasure or tension.

Procrastination is a behaviour that we all engage with, and we procrastinate with different tasks and in different domains of our life. Some of us are more likely to procrastinate than others and this is down to our previous experiences of completing a task with or without a deadline and the actual pleasurable or un-pleasurable experiences before, during and after completion.

Procrastination tends to occurs when there isn’t a defined deadline, when the deadline is rather obscure or ambiguous. It makes sense that in a world of competing needs and demands, we are going to have to prioritise. A rational mind will prioritise based on urgency and importance, normally attending to an urgent task. But we are not rational beings; we are emotional beings, subjected to emotional states at every single moment of our life, whether there is an intense emotion that we experience or a more neutral one.

The literature indicates that with a distant deadline, procrastinators report less stress than the non procrastinators of the same task, but yet when the deadline approaches procrastinators report more stress and anxiety symptoms. Overall procrastinators experience more stress as a result.

When defining ‘overuse’, ‘proper use’ and ‘underuse’ of an emotion, procrastination will sit with an overuse of anxiety, where anxiety symptoms will increase to high levels that will drive the individual to ‘getting things done’. ‘Getting things done’ will engage the limbic system where emotions are processed, when it could really engage the upper part of the frontal lobe responsible for planning and rationality.

Intuitively we can advance the idea that the antidote for procrastination is good planning. Having said that, people who procrastinate do not lack planning and organisational skills; it is just that they are not put to use as if an emotions almost shadows and contaminates ‘the planning’.

We can argue that procrastination is not a rational response, but an automatic emotional response accompanying a task that has a certain meaning for us.

Therefore there is no wonder that in the absence of urgency (deadline), the importance of tasks will influence the decision making whether to get on with the task or to postpone it. The importance will vary with each individual, depending on the meaning that it is attributed to the task. And the meaning of the task is where we fall short as its dimensions are idiosyncratic, specific to the individual, to what is important to us and in line with our values. This is how we explain that procrastination is present or absent in different environments (home vs work for example), as if modulated by the actual and already experienced consequences and perceived ones.

These notes propose to explore the relationship we have with certain tasks that bring in us an automatic unique response: procrastination. It follows from here that there is a relationship between us and the task that is to be performed in different contexts. Therefore within this dynamic there is something that we bring to the task and something that the task brings within ourselves.

What we bring is what the evolution has equipped us with:

  • Focus on threat/danger - attentional bias towards stimuli that are threatening to the detriment of the ones that are neutral.
  • Memory bias (a wondering mind).
  • An automatic response - physiological, emotional, cognitive and behavioural.

1) With regards to the focus on threat, we invite our readers to start paying attention to the noises around them at this very moment: the ticking of the clock, the noises of the cars or birds outside. The invitation that follows is to question whether these noises were noticed before paying attention to them. Normally not, as they are not threatening. However if there was to be a loud noise, it will have captured our attention and interest for safety reasons.

What if this happens with psychologically dangerous tasks? What if there is an attentional bias towards them? We primarily process stimuli that are threatening. Therefore if our attention is captured by certain stimuli, it is safe to assume that they represent a certain danger to us. That means as long as we respond in a certain way, by avoiding performing a task that will bring us closer to a place of discomfort, it implies that the task is rather dangerous to us - it carries a degree of danger that we want to avoid. This could be failing the task, or revealing ourselves in a certain way that is not desirable, or putting ourselves in a place of vulnerability. In this way we procrastinate by talking to our manager, writing up an essay or a letter, doing cleaning, we put off making a phone call, having an important discussion with our significant ones.

2) The other powerful element that we bring in a relationship with a task is the fact that our mind has the capacity to wonder and revisit past experiences very quickly - particularly if these experiences are one of a kind, extreme, unique, different. In order to demonstrate its power, we invite our readers to think of a lemon and consider cutting the lemon and giving it a good lick. Are there any responses in your mouth as you are thinking of tasting the lemon?

People do report feeling a bitter taste, a dry mouth or to the contrary more saliva. How is this possible in the absence of a real lemon? What happens if the same invitation is with an apple? Any responses? If not, why? The answer really stays within its unique experiences associated with eating/tasting a lemon. As eating a lemon produces a strong response (very bitter taste), no wonder that we had been sensitised to developing an amplified response to a lemon.

This happens automatically. Our body and brain take over in an attempt to rescue us from experiencing yet another unique response. But the key message here is that in the absence of a real lemon, our body and brain will produce a physiological response to prepare us in advance. Thinking has an impact on our body physiologically and emotionally. So what happens when we think about a task that does not have a defined deadline and we assess it an un-pleasurable? Procrastination may be the amplified response we would have been sensitised to in the past. When we come across a task that has an obscure deadline and is associated with a tension at completion, there is a high likelihood of avoidance or procrastination. This response is modulated by the consequences of putting the task off. If the consequence is that we can perform well under pressure and the result of completing the task is positive, procrastination will be reinforced.

In the presence of negative reinforcements (being told off, failing the task, having to support consequences) we are less likely to procrastinate provided that these experiences are not persistent, severe and excessive. If they are, procrastination is likely to occur again as a way of rebelling (amplified response). A strong modulator of procrastination would be the consequences associated with the immediate or later completion of the task.

Procrastination can be linked to an authoritarian style of parenting in which children are being deprived intentions and acting on them. And in the absence of an available parent, children are likely to turn to others who may be more indulgent, but thus reinforcing procrastination. It is also suggested that procrastinators are actively seeking distraction to bypass a fear of failure.

3) Our brain and body respond automatically to a variety of stimuli - from external ones (an event) to internal ones (a thought or a modification in our body). The impact will be felt/experienced physiologically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviourally. We can not fight automaticity. Whoever tries to control blushing (as a physiological response in social situations) will blush more. Trying to control our own thoughts or putting them to the back of our mind has the same effect. Emotions are also automatic and controlling them is experienced like ‘sinking sand’ - the more we struggle to get to the surface, the deeper we get.

If we can not control an automatic response (procrastination in this instance), does it mean that we just continue to procrastinate? Here are a few suggestions that could help overcome procrastination:

Increased awareness of the task we procrastinate with and its meaning will help develop a different relationship with the task. The problem is not the task, but the relationship we have with it. With increased awareness will come increased options to respond differently:

  • Doing the task now.
  • Negotiating the task.
  • Sharing responsibility for the task.
  • Postponing the task to a certain date.
  • Planning in advance.
  • Considering the steps to getting closer to completing the tasks.

In order to ‘shake’ automaticity we need to ‘play’ with different responses. In the busy cycle of life, automaticity is more likely to occur hidden from awareness. It is good practice to take some time to question what we do/don’t do. However asking the question ‘why’ will bypass the real answer.

Instead we can ask ourselves ‘what would be bad if we did the task now?’ If the answer is ‘nothing’, it looks like there is a barrier - an obstacle that stays in the way of you connecting with an emotional response. Persist with the question and if you do not know, have a good guess. The answer will bring you closer to the meaning of the task for you and its associated beliefs:

  • Beliefs of working well under pressure.
  • Beliefs of the task being more difficult than the available resources.
  • Beliefs of doing things in own time, when ready.
  • Beliefs of minimum effort necessary.

We can recognise procrastination in its early stages as an automatic thought: 'I have got to do this. There is no way I can do it. I want to do it, but…’. Questioning our thoughts is another good exit. 'Do I have to do it or it is my choice to do it?'

Another good exit is to do a functional analysis of procrastination. What function does procrastination serve? What purpose? Take account of the person you are and your values, what is important for you. How does procrastination bring you closer to where you want to be in life?

Planning is an important part of tackling ‘putting things off’. We argue that generally planning is good for our healthy living, as our mind works better in an environment that is predictable. We are also likely to get motivated, to mobilise resources that we need and look forward to the rewards systems in place. Having a commitment to the task increases the likelihood of completing the task. Having a diary or a ‘to do’ list will be a sensible thing to do. Some time spent in preparation is vital; however excessive planning could interfere with task completion. Planning in great detail might jeopardise flexibility.

Breaking the task down in manageable components seems a recipe for success in managing complex tasks. You should also aim to be vigilant to giving up, and be aware of barriers or difficulties that may stay in the way. Gently encourage yourself to persist with the task.

Try to be vigilant to distraction, particularly the ones that do not take a lot of commitment: reading something else, starting with a less important task, prioritising other matters, talking to others.

Being doubtful, struggling to make a decision as unsure which one is the right decision can also increase the likelihood of procrastination. It is counter productive to judge a decision based on the benefit of the insight that we get later on (having known the outcome of the decision) as the decision was made based on the information available at that time.

Watch for a self-critical voice, such as ‘what an idiot, I am so stupid’ and consider a more nurturing approach starting with ‘no wonder that I do this considering that in the past…’. 

Mnemonic techniques such as ICANDO are useful in problem solving: Identify the problem, Clarify the problem, generate Alternatives, Narrow it down, Do it, review Outcomes.

And remember, if we deny ourselves experiencing discomfort, how are we going to learn how to cope with it? Putting ourselves into doing uncomfortable task will enable us to learn subtleties of coping.

To conclude, let’s look at and remind ourselves about the costs of procrastination:

  • Risks to health, compromised immune system, with colds and flue symptoms and gastrointestinal problems being reported.
  • High costs to relationships as procrastination can lead to conflicts at work and in private life. Our procrastination shifts the burden of responsibility onto others.
  • Costs to our own relationship with ourselves as we might dislike and criticise what we do, might be harsh with ourselves, feel guilty or bad.

The moral/key message of these notes is that procrastination does not happen randomly. There are reasons that make us procrastinate with certain tasks. Procrastination is an amplified response we have been sensitised to in the past as a result of experiencing a unique ‘one of a kind’, powerful experience or layers of experiences. The automaticity of procrastination can be broken with increased awareness and experimenting with different responses. Responding differently will weaken the beliefs we hold and as a result we’ll get the benefit of procrastinating less.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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