Another Theory of Procrastination
In the executive function field, we think of organizing, planning, and prioritizing as the solutions to procrastination. However, in “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control),” Charlotte Lieberman (New York Times, 3/25/19) suggests that there are deeper reasons for these habits. She describes procrastination as the seemingly irrational choice that people make to think of the present, rather than the future, in order to avoid tasks that might expose our insecurities, provoke anxiety, or simply bore or frustrate us.
Basically, when we procrastinate, our inner six-year-old takes over. Some of this 'now-oriented' behavior is hard-wired; humans are programmed to think of their present needs and tend to see their future self as an abstraction. After all, we are often told 'to live in the present.' When viewed in this light, the choice to procrastinate makes a lot of sense.
The flaw in this logic is that it robs us of the joy of a job well done. The satisfaction of having completed a task lives in the future, but without this feeling of accomplishment, work becomes associated with negative feelings of self-blame, stress, and low self-esteem. Any short-term positive feelings we get from procrastinating are outweighed by these toxic emotions, which may cause us to procrastinate more to escape them, contributing to a cycle of chronic procrastination.
Lieberman offers several suggestions to overcome the desire to procrastinate:
Don’t be too hard on yourself! Accepting where you are instead of berating yourself helps break the negative loop.
Think of the first step, not the entire task, and take that action. Sometimes planning out each step can make a task appear overwhelming, so considering only the next thing to do may make it seem more possible.
Hide your temptations (or make them less convenient). Turn off or delete distracting apps, or give yourself a difficult password. Go someplace that's free of distractions. Put a “Do Not Disturb” note on your door.
Open up the path for what you want to get done. Set out needed materials, open the document, and clear a workspace ahead of time.
Overall, don’t blame yourself for being lazy. Executive function strategies, including time management and prioritizing, won't help if you become trapped in a cycle of feeling bad about your procrastination.
We all procrastinate, that's not going to change, so accept it, pick your motivational strategy, and get going! Who knows, maybe you were doing something useful while you were procrastinating. So enjoy that clean refrigerator, and take the first step to starting the task you meant to complete. Your future self will thank you!
Nancy Trautman, M.A.T., Learning and Educational Specialist