Procrastination: An Age Old Problem Affecting People of All Ages
I still haven’t done this…I meant to do that this week…I’m so lazy
These are common phrases I hear from patients. When a day turns into a week…a week turns into a month…months turn into a year and suddenly that work that had to get done yesterday has been left settling in the dust as other, more important, more exciting, more enjoyable matters take precedence. We’ve all done it…we all continue to do it…but why?
As a psychologist with an expanded opportunity to work with children, teenagers, parents, and adults, I have the unique experience of hearing the commonalities that trouble individuals no matter what their age. Procrastination is an everpresent, universal theme from patients and parents alike. “To postpone until tomorrow”, the literal translation in Latin (prōcrāstināre), has become satirical in our society thanks to Scarlet O’Hara from Gone with the Wind (1939).
I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.
In my office, teenagers (and adults) admit that social media and networking sites—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—are chief channels for their procrastination. But even before the golden age of social media, postponement of work and responsibility existed. I posed these questions to friends and family: What do you procrastinate doing & What do you think causes you to procrastinate? From their responses, procrastination could be narrowed down into categories of activities that were boring, disliked, caused dread, required too much effort/too difficult, involved too much emotional attachment, or created negative self-talk and self-critical thoughts. I heard extreme responses like “everything” to humorous ones, such as “I’ll tell you tomorrow”. On the whole, I learned that most were quite aware what they procrastinated doing: from homework, work, and household chores, to personal goals, to-do lists, and uncomfortable conversations. Many only stop procrastinating when they are under a time constraint and have the pressure of work being due. But what about those activities that do not have time pressure—vacuuming the floor, reading an interesting article, reading a book with your child.
Some even expanded to share what they did to procrastinate: watching television/movies, checking and rechecking emails, playing with phone apps, sleeping, eating, cooking, and playing with their children.
However, few responses included the second half of the inquiry: What do you think causes you to procrastinate? Perhaps they were so focused on the first part to consider the second, or perhaps it was too painful to consider the cause. The few responses I did receive spanned from disheartening (procrastination is inevitable) to existential (the uncertainty of ourselves, our lives and why we really need to do that specific activity). It is certainly possible that my small, biased sample of 10 was aware of why they procrastinate and perhaps did not want to share, but it is equally as likely that the second question was overlooked because they simply did not know why. I find the latter to be more common with patients.
In a recent article called Why Your Brain Loves Procrastination in Vox magazine, the author gives light to psychological research viewing procrastination as a coping mechanism to avoid unwanted emotions that the activity causes you to feel. From my experience working with individuals from infancy to the elderly, fear is one of the most intense, unwanted emotions that most humans and animals experience and would choose to avoid at almost all costs. Fear is associated with three elemental responses: Fight, Flight, and Freeze. Procrastination manifests itself as a combination of Freezing and Fleeing of responsibility that creates feelings of fear. There is likely more reason behind why your child is not doing his homework than he is simply lazy. Is he afraid to fail? Is she afraid to succeed? Is he afraid that if he does well this time, he is pressured to do well again the next? Does she fear doing well will alienate her from her friends and she will be alone?
Although Scarlet believed she would go crazy if she did think about what she needed to do, I believe in actuality that procrastinating makes us feel worse about ourselves. Despite procrastinating with, at best, an enjoyable activity, such as watching television or texting a friend, we are still left with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and regret for not completing the activity we know we need to do. Putting off our responsibilities in actuality creates conflictual, but nonetheless, negative feelings. We are forced to either experience fear or guilt. By acknowledging the unwanted emotion that the activity makes you feel, however, you gain more understanding into why you have that feeling and are better able to face rather than avoid the feeling.
Although it feels like we have so many things to do all at once (cook dinner, work, change the baby, do the laundry), we can all only truly do one activity at a time. The truth is, we are more likely to follow through on responsibilities when they feel less overwhelming and more manageable. When we take the to-do list and utilize it as an organizational tool rather than a single overwhelming task we can begin to check off the responsibilities. As this occurs we begin to feel better, more capable, less likely to procrastinate, and more likely to make progress and further our accomplishments.