What causes chronic procrastination and can there be an upside to it?

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Special thanks to guest author, Pascale Hansen

“Hard work often pays off after some time. Procrastination pays off immediately”.

There are several definitions of procrastination, however I’ll use the neutral definition of procrastination being, “the action of voluntarily delaying or postponing a task”.

If you’re putting off a task because you’ve had to re-prioritize your projects or briefly delaying an important task to accommodate a new, more urgent task, then you aren’t necessarily procrastinating.

However, if you start to put things off indefinitely, or switch focus because you want to avoid doing something, then you probably are.

Why chronic procrastination happens

According to Dr. Jospeh Ferrari, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University of Chicago, procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning.

Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time. “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up”, insists Dr. Ferrari.

Procrastinators are made not born. Procrastination is learned in the family home in response to an authoritarian parenting style. Having a harsh, controlling parent keeps children from developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them.

Dr. Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, has surveyed more than 24,000 people around the world, and says that 95 percent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. About 25 percent of those surveyed are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s. According to Dr. Steel, “We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse”.

The most significant predictor of procrastination is a task that’s considered unpleasant or boring and where the immediate gratification of doing something more stimulating in the present is offset by the delay of gratification for having completed an important task.

Procrastinators may postpone getting started because of a fear of failure. Evidence indicates that procrastination is associated with high levels of stress (Sirois, 2007) which in turn can weaken our immune system and lead to illness, insomnia and intestinal distress.

To relieve stress, procrastinators shift their focus away from the future toward more immediate rewards. Procrastination has a high cost to others as well because it can shift the burden of responsibilities onto others, who become resentful destroying teamwork at work and at home.

It’s not all bad

Although procrastinating leads to feelings of constant stress, anxiety and guilt and can cause us to be called lazy, careless or disorganized, it’s a hard habit to break.

The main obstacle to growing the motivation to stop procrastinating is that procrastination actually has a number of benefits. These upsides include:

  • An adrenaline rush

Typically, we have low energy for the tasks we keep putting off and the fear of a looming deadline motivates us to get on task. The resulting adrenaline rush will give us the energy to get our work done. Adrenaline is a natural painkiller, and feeling less pain makes doing difficult or less desirable tasks easier. The adrenaline rush is the strongest benefit of procrastination.

  • Laser focus

Putting yourself in a time crunch to complete a task will force you to stay focused until the task is done. The self-inflicted sense of urgency will mean you are less likely to be distracted and ringing phones, text and email notifications will be ignored.

  • Work done fast

Leaving tasks to the last minute means we have less time available and have to work faster. The task you’ve avoided will take less time because of your deliberate postponement.

  • The freedom of spontaneous fun

Allowing yourself to procrastinate gives you the freedom to pursue spontaneous enjoyable pursuits whose opportunities may not arise again. If procrastinating means you get to enjoy something today and you’re still able to meet a deadline, then you don’t have to regret having missed out on adding some unplanned novelty into your life like accepting a last-minute invitation to a concert.

  • Creativity boost

Procrastinating gives your ideas time to percolate so that by the time you decide to start your task your subconscious has had time to do some brainstorming which may create a better outcome.

There’s no denying that procrastination chips away at productivity and can affect the quality of your work. However, the research done by Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, showed that the ideas of procrastinators were rated as 28 percent more creative.

What drives you: endorphins or adrenaline?

Chronic procrastinators are only motivated by deadlines, which means they never get to the things that don’t have deadlines, like goals and life improvements. There are no immediate consequences for not pursuing your goals or making your life better. The energy to consistently pursue and execute on the actions needed to enhance your life come from desire not fear, from endorphins not adrenaline.

Both adrenaline and endorphins, give us the energy we need to do what we do. If we use them both wisely we can finish our tasks and produce the quality of work that leaves us with a sense of achievement.

Pascale is a part of Incrementa’s extended family and a seasoned finance professional. She’s passionate about helping business owners decrease their tax bill and increase their cash flow. Connect with her.

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