No one procrastinates in all areas. Most of us procrastinate in some areas. Some of those areas are insignificant; others are disastrous. For example, putting off cleaning the garage may be rather insignificant, but delay in making a mortgage payment could have more far-reaching negative consequences.
An example for something that does not appear to be significant is making a promise to children or a spouse but delaying its delivery. Broken promises hurt people and undermine trust and erode respect. That is bad for relationships. Whether crucial or mundane, our particular area of procrastination reveals something about our basic values and beliefs. Everyone who procrastinates operates according to one or more of the following underlying beliefs:
1. I MUST DO WELL.
Perfection is the only acceptable standard. To be average is to fail, and to fail is to be a failure. This belief assumes that personal worth is measured by ability, and that ability is measured by performance. If my imperfect ability shows, my worthlessness becomes evident. If I procrastinate, I save face by not allowing my true ability to be recognized.
2. OTHER PEOPLE MUST TREAT ME AS A SIGNIFICANT PERSON OF IMPORTANCE.
I am loveable, attractive or worthwhile to the extent that other people treat me well. I am entitled to excellent treatment. Therefore, if I don’t get the regard I desperately need from others, I have a basis for being irate. Procrastination is a rebellious way of getting even with the other person who does not deserve my cooperation or accommodation.
3. THE WORLD MUST BE EASY
What is good and right in life should be measured by my comfort. If something is uncomfortable or too tough, I shouldn’t have to do it. This belief assumes that if anxiety exists, the problem is external, never within myself. Procrastination is a way of justifying my low frustration tolerance.
Here are a few common statements that make our needless delay tactics seem reasonable. Each one is then refuted and replaces with a better statement.
1. I WORK BETTER UNDER PRESSURE, SO I’LL WAIT UNTIL THE DEADLINE IS CLOSER.
Waiting until a deadline only seems to improve working conditions. The limited time frame eliminates options and therefore make choices easier, but does not necessarily make the job better. Better to say: “Since I work better under pressure, I will impose my own deadline far in advance. If I can discipline myself to meet that goal, I will be able to relax at the end or even polish up my job to make it even better.”
2. COOPERATION IS THE SAME AS CAPITULATION. I AM MORE MY OWN PERSON IF I DO WHAT I FEEL LIKE DOING WHEN I FEEL LIKE DOING IT.
Cooperation feels like capitulation for the person whose self-esteem is low. This person must be different to feel like an individual. Sameness threatens this person’s sense of autonomy. Better to say: “Some things in life are not fun to do. If this distasteful job needs to be done, I’ll do it and get it out of the way.” I am my own person whether my decision is different from what other people expect or whether my decision is in line with what others expect.
3. NEED TO BE INSPIRED, SO I’LL WAIT UNTIL I’M IN THE RIGHT MOOD.
Usually, you will wait endlessly for the right mood to come (magically) or the mood will come when it is too late. In addition, that kind of waiting will be anxious waiting. Better to say: “I will get this job done now and wait pleasantly. If I start into the task, then the mood will come later.”
4. IF I DID THIS NOW, I MIGHT DO IT POORLY AND MAKE A FOOL OUT OF MYSELF. I’D RATHER NOT LET OTHER PEOPLE SEE HOW WORTHLESS I AM.
This statement assumes that your worth equals your performance (low self-esteem) and shows a fear of failure. Better to say: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Even if I don’t do as well as I’d like, at least I can learn how to do it better next time. I am not my behavior.”
Overcoming procrastination involves . . .
. . . AWARENESS
1. Becoming aware of your own internal belief system; learn what kinds of statements you make to yourself to justify your behavior. This amounts to identifying what you think about yourself and your world and how those thoughts impair your functioning.
2. Become aware of how perfectionistic tendencies are exaggerated by polar thinking (totally hopeless, totally hopeful; totally worthwhile, totally worthless). Don’t put off some action just because it might not result in total success. Avoid thinking in polar terms. You need not freeze at the North Pole nor roast at the Equator.
3. Become aware of more effective beliefs. Learn to dispute, reevaluate, and revise your beliefs. Instead of adhering tenaciously to a system of musts, ought-to’s, and should’s, replace them with the ideas of PREFERENCE:
“I would prefer to do well.”
“I would like people to treat me as a significant person.”
“I would rather be comfortable, and have it easy.”
With this shift in thinking, the basis of procrastination loses its foothold.
. . . and ACTION
4. Arrange your environment to facilitate effective action (but don=t use perpetual arranging as an excuse for further procrastination).
5. Step out of character. Do something that is uncharacteristic of you but positively directed. Confront the essence of the problem head on. Give yourself permission to be mechanical and uncomfortable at first. The goal is not to feel better right away, but to get better eventually.
6. Agree to spend five minutes with the task. Then make another agreement for another bite-size piece.
What Some Say about Procrastination
“No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
Letters, Dec. 26, 1749
“Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow.”
William Brighty Rands
“A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest
And poverty will come on you like a bandit
And scarcity like an armed man.”
Procrastination is a needless, self-defeating strategy of delaying some action to avoid something uncomfortable or anxiety producing. It results in short-term gain but at the price of long-term loss.
Counseling can help overcome the addiction to your needless delay tactics that are self-defeating.