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  • Writer's picturealexanderpsmith197

Procrastination | The Illusion of Activity

Procrastination is deceptive because it feels active and an ally in ultimately getting things done.

Procrastination can feel Productive

Helping clients understand and address the reasons why they Procrastinate is often a key focus of coaching and is critical in helping them to get unstuck and to generate and sustain forward momentum in the pursuit of the professional and personal goals which are important to them.

However often the key element is that Procrastination "feels active" and gives a sense of productivity and busyness which often belies the reality, that it ultimately results in passivity, delay, wasted time and energy, and inactivity.

Waiting to feel ready to Act. "Once I Have....Then I Will.."

Procrastination feels active in the sense that the brain is reassured that it is actively engaged in finding solutions to the problems that it has identified or the decisions that it needs to make.

In this context feels Procrastination feels anything but self-sabotaging. The script that runs is often "once I have..." "then I will be ready to"

  • Once I have a better time management system in place then I will be ready to start my blog.

  • Once I have all the knowledge that I need then I will be ready to make a decision.

  • Once I have revised everything then I will be ready to book the exam.

The problem is that there is no objective measure of "readiness to act" and waiting to feel perfectly ready to make a start on something often results in us not making a start at all. In fact this encapsulates the dictionary definition of procrastination

Procrastination: The action of postponing or delaying something.

By definition it is passive, an action which results in inaction or a deferment of action to an unspecified future date.

The Limits of Time Management Strategies

Similarly, traditional time management strategies often have frustratingly limited impact in addressing the tendency to procrastinate.

They can be very useful in increasing awareness of where and how we waste time, and indeed shedding light on just how pervasive our procrastination habit has become. They can also create much greater discipline, accountability and rigour around how we use our time.

However, unless we are able to activate to get the things we need to get done at the time we have allocated to do them, even the most brilliant time management strategy can fall by the wayside.

It is no coincidence that the self-help section of most book shops is groaning with books promising ever more revolutionary and revelatory strategies to manage your time.

Procrastination and the emotional "rewards"

Often what is missing is an understanding of the emotional "rewards" of procrastination, which are often linked to the fact that the brain is hard-wired to protect us from harm. Procrastination can be seductive because it feels like it is keeping us safe.

In their classic work on procrastination University of California psychologists Jane B. Burka and Lonora M Yuen conclude:

Many people who procrastinate are apprehensive about being judged by others or by the critic that dwells within.

They emphasise that procrastination invariably emanates from "inner feelings, fears, hopes, memories, dreams, doubts and pressures" where at an emotional level the rewards of procrastinating feel greater than the rewards of committing to a particular course of action.

Alternatively framed the perceived threat of the consequences of "taking action" is greater than the frustration and short-term consequences of not taking action.

Procrastination as a form of Protection

This often becomes increasingly evident when exploring with clients the situations in which they are most aware of their tendency to procrastinate. Usually this involves one, or a combination, of three broad scenarios:

  1. Situations where their ideas, efforts and knowledge are being "handed over to" or subjected to the evaluation/ scrutiny of others, as anyone who has spent days putting off sending an email which has taken minutes to draft will testify.

  2. Situations where making one decision involves actively ruling out a competing alternative. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a modern manifestation of this, the risk of committing to something rules out a potentially better alternative.

  3. Situations where the ultimate Goal seems overwhelming or the rewards too distant for the commitment to seem worthwhile. At some level the fear of failure exceeds the expectation of likely success.

In all of the above example it is easy to convince ourselves that Procrastination is protecting us and thus serving our best interests.

  1. In scenario 1 typical fears revolve around being "judged negatively", "being challenged or criticised" or of what we have produced "not being good enough.

  2. In scenario 2 fears often converge around "getting it wrong" or future dissatisfaction that a better choice could have been made. Menu envy is a simple example where we immediately regret the choice we have made in comparison to our friends when the food arrives at the table,

  3. In scenario 3 the protective element of Procrastination often revolves around "avoiding disappointment. "It's safer to do nothing than risk failure". "If I can't guarantee success then it is better not to waste the time and energy trying."

Procrastination and Relative Urgency | Avoiding Negative Consequences

Often the tipping point from moving from "procrastination" to "action" is that the imminent and inescapable negative consequence of continuing to procrastinate suddenly becomes far greater than the "emotional rewards" and "protective benefits" of doing so.

An example of this is where there is a hard deadline and a clear consequence of not meeting that deadline - receiving a fine for late submission of a Tax Return, not-attending an exam, a closing date for a job application after which CVs will not be considered.

Sometimes simply acknowledging this can be a strategy in itself, namely accepting that there are certain tasks that we will only be able to effectively tackle when there is sufficient urgency to get them done.

However, often this approach increases stress, particularly if it is our default or only strategy. We lurch from one crisis to another or are consistently "fighting fires". It is also unrewarding as we constantly seeking to avoid negative outcomes.

Coaching around Procrastination | Increasing the Rewards

When working with clients on the subject of Procrastination often you are looking to do two things:

  1. Increase awareness of the "positive rewards" of reducing Procrastination (or the cumulative cost of procrastination) so that they exceed the "rewards" of continuing to procrastinate.

  2. Gain greater specificity about the relative value to them of tasks/ decisions from the outset. How much time or energy is this task worth?

The Cost of Mounting "incompletions"

Often the main benefit of reducing procrastination is that you have more time to do other things, and greater resources of energy to do those things well.

The mind has a finite capacity to make decisions and "incomplete" tasks and decisions have a cumulative cost in reducing productivity, much like too many open files on a computer slow it down.

There is a reward for getting things "off our plate", or to extend the computer analogy "closing files", even where they feel 90% complete or we have the sense that if we procrastinate a little longer we might come up with something a little better, that often far exceeds the cost of mounting "incompletions".

Invariably there is an additional benefit in that in "handing things over to the scrutiny of others" we get incremental feedback as to what is and isn't required of us, or validation as to whether what we have done thus far is sufficient or insufficient, and if the latter, greater specificity around where we need to direct our attention.

Establishing Relative Value | How much Procrastination is this task/decision Actually worth?

Similarly, establishing the relative value of tasks from the outset, can make us more conscious of the diminished value of procrastinating:

  • "What is a proportionate level of procrastination for the task or decision at hand?"

  • "Where is the point of diminishing returns?"

There is always more knowledge that can be gathered, more revision that can be done, another person whose opinion could be canvassed, an additional article or review that can be read.

For most tasks there is no unequivocal external measure of the "completion" that we crave - which probably goes some way to explaining the enduring popularity of Lego Sets and Rubik's Cubes which offer precisely that guarantee!

However, there is always a tipping point where the time, effort and energy required to reflect more/ accumulate more information/ finesse more is no longer commensurate to the relative importance of the task/ decision at hand.

Postponing or Procrastinating over a big decision like buying a house can be a prudent course of action - particularly if we are actively gathering information to support us in making a more informed decision. There is an obvious and significant "cost" of getting it wrong that could be difficult to remedy so the concept of procrastination "protecting us from harm" has some validity.

The same is not true of relatively smaller decisions where often our need for things to feel "complete", "perfect" or "right" far exceeds the requirements of the task/ decision at hand.

Often clients are quite efficient at getting things 95% done and then are paralysed by the final 5%; writing the report takes less time than deciding whether to sign off the accompanying email "Best Wishes", "Kind Regards" or "Have a good weekend".

Similarly with purchases there is a marked tendency to disproportionately Procrastinate on the "small stuff" - people invest as much time, energy and indecisiveness in selecting which bike light to buy, or curtains, or Time Management App as they do in choosing their next car or place to live.

The same "apprehension of being judged by others", "inner critic", "perfectionism", "fear of getting things wrong" come into play regardless of the relative importance of the task.

Summary | Coaching around Procrastination

  • Often clients present Procrastination as a predominantly functional challenge whereas invariably it has a strong emotional component.

  • Procrastination is attractive because it feels "active" and that we are finding solutions to problems. It also has a strong protective component. The mind believes that in Procrastinating it is protecting us from harm (or negative consequences).

  • Our default strategies for moving from Procrastination to Action are often wholly reliant on avoiding the impending negative consequences of continuing to procrastinate.

  • Coaching can help clients to better understand the cumulative cost of Procrastination and to establish clearer positive rewards for overcoming Procrastination.

  • Strategies often centre around establishing the relative value of tasks/ decisions from the outset, and greater specificity around the amount of time and energy tasks are worth.

  • Invariably there are additional benefits from "handing things over" when we don't feel ready to do so and "diminishing returns" in continue to Procrastinate when things are 95% done. Not only do we free up time and energy for other things, but we get invaluable feedback and encouragement from others around what still remains to be done.


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