Why Do We Procrastinate And How Can We Stop?
Illustration by Mr Calum Heath
Writer’s note: this piece was submitted more than a week late. Of course it was.
There are few things that hold me back as much as my tendency to procrastinate. I don’t procrastinate because I am easily distracted (although my hours logged on to Twitter might disagree) or because I am disorganised (I was once an assistant to one of the most demanding people on the planet; google it). If I’m truly honest with myself, I mostly procrastinate when the task in hand involves spending money. And I procrastinate because the idea of starting [insert task here] makes me anxious and so I would rather not think about it. Ever. Thank you very much. Goodbye.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things work, is it? We cannot avoid fillings by avoiding visits to the dentist. In the same way that the former US president Mr Donald Trump, for example, wanted there to be fewer cases of Covid-19, simply not counting them wouldn’t make it so. Putting off doing your tax return will not make the tax man go away. Trust me, I’ve tried.
The only thing avoidance does is amplify the consequences that you are, ahem, avoiding. The perfect example is booking flights. Don’t want to spend £800 to go to a cousin’s far-flung wedding? In a month’s time those flights will probably be £1,800. Now you have to go to that godawful wedding and you’re £1,000 worse off. And that’s sort of a best-case scenario. Other, more awful, examples might involve dire consequences for you, your health or your bank account.
“If you’re a perfectionist, you might keep putting something off out of the fear that it won’t be perfect”
Why do I do it? Why do you do it? I know, intellectually, that vacuuming my flat won’t get me any closer to finishing this essay and yet that’s exactly what I did in between typing the words “account” and “why”. Is it because, 59,486,059,638,458 features later, I’m worried that this is the one that will be so bad it’s unprintable? I think that’s it. Which is, of course (I hope), incorrect.
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London, suggests that procrastination is more than simply scrolling through social media too much or not wanting to do the laundry. “Sometimes it can point to an underlying psychological vulnerability,” she says. “For example, if you have feelings of inadequacy, you might find that you put things off because you’re afraid of failing if you put yourself out there. Or, if you’re a perfectionist, you might keep putting something off out of the fear that it won’t be perfect.”
The reasons why we procrastinate and the things we do to procrastinate are many. A colleague, who will remain nameless, puts off doing the things that aren’t “urgent” or “important”, which is subjective and one might argue that leaving something to the last minute because it isn’t urgent transforms it into just that. They also reminded me of another procrastination phenomenon: putting something off, then being embarrassed about putting it off, which leads to putting it off for even longer, which then amplifies the embarrassment… And on and on until the end of time.
Often, the advice when you’re overwhelmed with tasks is to make a list. I find this helpful and will often complete things I don’t want to do quickly once they’re on a list. A friend suggested that, for her, list-making equals procrastination. It’s just another thing to do to avoid doing the thing.
“The first step is to acknowledge that it’s happening. Whenever we want to change any unhelpful habit, we need to first acknowledge that it’s a problem”
An informal poll revealed that many of my peers put off “paperwork” and that “doing it badly” was the reason, which confirms Touroni’s hypothesis. Once again, simply saying that out loud (or typing it in Word) makes the whole thing seem ludicrous. Even if you were to do the paperwork badly, who cares? In most cases, you can fix it. The earlier you go through this process, the earlier the desired outcome is achieved.
If we want to stop all this nonsense, says Touroni, “The first step is to acknowledge that it’s happening. Whenever we want to change any kind of unhelpful habit, we need to first acknowledge that it’s a problem.” OK, I am officially acknowledging that I have a problem with procrastination. Now what?
“Get clear on your motivation for changing, set an intention and create a clear plan for how you’re going to enact those changes,” she says. I don’t want to spend $1m on a flight home for Thanksgiving. I will book it this week (winky face).
“Accept that not everything you do will be perfect,” says Touroni. Yes, duh. “But ultimately, not taking action will be significantly worse than taking the leap and committing to something.” She’s right. I know she’s right.
The worst part of procrastinating is that you have no one to blame but yourself, which compounds the guilt that comes with procrastination. “Stop procrastinating,” you might yell inside your head, but stopping involves owning up to what you’ve been doing and facing the emotional issues that are triggering the procrastination in the first place. If it were easy to do, I wouldn’t be writing this.
We must all start somewhere and I am starting with making lists and facing my fear of spending money (think of me as a Depression-era penny pincher, even though that’s not my reality at all). For you, it may begin with mindfulness. “Instead of allowing ourselves to be pulled away from something at the first hint of distraction, mindfulness gives us the space to pause and gently redirect ourselves towards behaving in a way that will serve us in the long term,” says Touroni. Switching off your phone, finding your breath and taking some time to be with yourself could help you avoid some of your avoidance.
For some people, it may involve a visit to a therapist or a chat with a trusted friend. Whatever it is, we’ll get through it together. And if all else fails, call me. I’ll come and clean your flat and you can come over and clean mine.