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Procrastination: What to Do When It Isn’t a Laughing Matter

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By Joe Dubowski, MS Associate Marriage and Family Therapistjoe-dubowski

 “I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do – the day after.”– Oscar Wilde
There are plenty of jokes about procrastination, but the truth is that for many people it is no laughing matter.
The economic, social and productive opportunities lost to habitually putting things off are a cause of shame, misery and feeling of defeat for many people. It can produce tension and stress in intimate relationships with loved ones who depend on you or in situations where people simply cannot understand why you are not “living up to your potential.” It can also lead to guilt over “being lazy.”

Interestingly, everyone procrastinates to some degree. It is only when it becomes a problem that it gets our full attention and makes us want to change. That is when we find following advice such as “work harder,” “stop being lazy” and “stick to a schedule” are not enough. Strategies like these overlook one important aspect of procrastination: it is rewarding for those who do it.

It may not be immediately obvious, procrastination is a behavior that rewards the one who puts things off. Ironically, by the time we decide to quit procrastinating, we have forgotten why we put off our tasks in the first place.

Instead, our attention is so focused on the negative consequences of our behavior that we can no longer see anything rewarding about procrastination. Therefore, one of the first steps in overcoming it is figuring out specifically when and how we procrastinate. When we know the when and how, we can begin to deduce why we procrastinate and what the reward is.

What is rewarding about procrastinating?
Procrastination is a strategy for managing anxiety and stress and for helping us to feel in control of our circumstances.

Motivations for putting things off can be classified in three categories: fear of failure (perfectionism); fear of success (“If I am successful, I will have no time for play”); and a sense of victimhood (“I might have to do blank, but I will decide when I will begin the work”).

To illustrate how these three work in life, let us begin by looking at fear of failure. Many people tie their worth as human beings to what they do and how well they do it. When faced with a task that they believe will determine their value to themselves or to others, they can become frozen with fear of making a mistake. Putting the task off in favor of a less threatening task delays the threat imposed by their fear of the task that overwhelms them.

They might be further rewarded when the task is given to someone else to do or cancelled altogether. If they do end up completing the task, they do it at the last minute—in a hurry—and if it turns out to be less quality work, it is not their fault (“You can’t expect me to finish it overnight and for it to be any good!”).

The person who fears that success might (largely unconsciously) sabotage their own work and spend less time doing what they enjoy. They will put off doing important work to play games or do less important work in its place, thus giving them a sense of control of their time, and reducing their exposure to—yes—success.

In the third example, procrastination can serve as a passive way of expressing resentment towards authority over the person procrastinating, or of gaining power in a situation in which we feel powerless. Passive-aggressive behavior such as this can be especially difficult to overcome, because it requires that we recognize and acknowledge the negative feelings and attitudes our procrastination is designed to mask.

There is hope.
The good news is that your procrastination habit can be overcome. The thoughts and habits of productive people can be learned and developed. Here are some steps to recognize your procrastination habit and help overcome it:

  • Gaining insight into what we put off doing
  • Understanding when we put it off
  • Acknowledging the payoff, or temporary reward, that we obtain
  • Tying the behavior to the longer-term consequences
  • Identifying the self-talk that perpetuates the putting-it-off habit
  • Setting realistic expectations regarding the amount of time it takes to do things (disarming the ability of work to overwhelm us)
  • Applying the things that we say to ourselves when we are productive to the things we have been procrastinating on

If your attempts to overcome the procrastination habit have not been as successful as you want and you would like help in dealing wit this habit that is stealing your happiness, self-confidence and self-worth, then seeking help may be well worth your time. Don’t put it off; there is hope. We have therapists who can and would love to help you. Today.