by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.
You’re doing it again. You’ve starting to write the report the night before it’s due. Three weeks ago you thought about doing it, but you felt tense and decided to relax instead. Always looking for the right time, it’s never the right time–unless it’s imminent. Now you’re downright panicked.
After finishing in the middle of the night, you’re exhausted but don’t have the luxury of refining it. With self-recriminating thoughts of “if only…” and “I should have…” you have a few hours of sleep before getting up. If the report is criticized, you feel found out and ashamed. If it’s praised, you feel like a fraud, as though you’ve tricked someone. You make a promise to change this dynamic, but the next time it’s the same. The process is demoralizing.
The Reasons for Procrastinating
Does any of this sound familiar? The reasons people procrastinate has some surprising similarities, yet there are individual differences. It is too simple to say that the behavior is rooted in mere laziness or lack of interest in the subject. Often, it is much more complicated.
Perfectionism. As a group, procrastinators tend to be perfectionistic, all-or-nothing thinkers. They don’t expect to write a good report but rather an amazing, incredible one. Then they become paralyzed with overblown expectations. Often they feel that the process should come easy, and when it takes work, discouragement sets in.
Procrastination is a way of protecting yourself from criticism and failure. Procrastinators can suffer from doubt and lack of confidence, as well as a strong tendency to feel worthy only if they perform well. Procrastinating is a way of avoiding real criticism of their true abilities: Since they have not put true effort into the work, any criticism can be discounted. I worked with a college student who struggled with procrastinating. She commented on her brother who was studying for the Bar: “He’d better be careful. He’s studying so hard, he’s not going to have any excuse if he doesn’t pass.”
The contribution of childlike thinking. Some of the resistance to tackling a project is grounded in childlike thinking. Unfortunately, childlike thinking is not limited to childhood, and the patterns formed early tend to stay with us unless they are “worked through.” One of the most common beliefs is “this will be easier later.” In truth, it doesn’t get easier later, and in the meantime, opportunities that come and go are missed. Others are getting the jobs, asking the person out on a date, or working on a project, even if they aren’t feeling on top of the world.
Another childlike belief is to avoid doing what someone else requests so that you can prove their “independence.” In order to feel as though they are not controlled, they must avoid the work. However, they fail to realize that they are being controlled if they insist on doing the opposite of what another person has requested.
Changing the Procrastination Process
Pay attention to your purposes for procrastination. Change always occurs with awareness first. Reflect on what motivates your delaying behavior. Whatever the purposes are, they usually function “quietly.” Often we don’t fully pay attention to what we are saying to ourselves. When you do, however, you can respond to the thoughts and feelings in more appropriate ways. For example, saying “I hate studying something new. It makes me feel stupid, but if I stick with it, I start to get it. And then I feel strong and proud of myself for staying with it,” is a healthier reply than avoiding the studying.
Change is hard work. It is important to remember that as you seek to alter the pattern, change is difficult. Focus on one skill at a time, and attempt to acquire both a kind but strict attitude with yourself. You are not looking to be perfect – just better. Progress is uneven.
Do a little every day. One skill the procrastinator needs to develop is to learn how to do a little bit every day. The all-or-nothing style needs to be replaced with practice in cutting a task into small pieces. Making a comprehensive list of the step-by-step process begins to make the project more manageable. Throughout writing my doctoral dissertation I said to myself, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Understand how much time things really take. People who procrastinate are often times bad at time management. They have spent large slots of time filled with meaningless activity and then small chunks of time filled with frantic activity. If you are working on getting to work on time, make note of how much time it takes to get ready in the morning.
Just do it. I’ve long thought that the Nike company has the best motto: Just do it. Don’t feel confident? Do it anyway. Don’t feel on top of your game? So what. Waiting to feel terrific? Do it in the meantime. Those people who accomplish a great deal don’t always feel like working but they do it anyway. The daily consistency is important.
Additional Help. If you are a college student, the Learning Resource Center or the counseling center on campus can help. Many offer seminars, one-on-one counseling or even online services for dealing with procrastination.
If you aren’t in college, there are books available. Some people work with a “buddy” who struggles with the same issue. Some benefit from short-term psychotherapy. You don’t have to live with the black cloud of procrastination hanging over your head. It takes a lot of energy to avoid and it’s much more fulfilling using that energy for getting the job done.
Dr. Susan Harper Slate is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Slate can be reached at (310) 582-0010 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2019 by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D