“Procrastination always gives you something to look forward to.”
As America goes into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic a lot of folks are wondering what happened to all that free time we thought we were going to have. Some people made big plans about how they were going to constructively use this extra time for self-improvement or catching up on those jobs they had been putting off. Psychologist Timothy Pychyl, from Carleton University in Ottawa, says, “When we all of a sudden have more time, we sort of wrongly assume that it will solve the problem of fulfilling our desires. But it really isn’t an issue of time at all.” Pychyl says that obviously we were never totally committed to things like fixing up the basement or losing weight. If these had been our real intentions, we would have already started doing them.
Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an important job despite the knowledge that we’ll suffer as a result. It has been called the thief of time. We know that procrastination is essentially irrational since it doesn’t make sense to cause ourselves problems by avoiding doing something. Procrastination is a perfect example of the ingrained human tendency to prefer short-term gratification over long-term gratification.
The lockdown, quarantines, working remotely, and online education all seem to have intensified people’s natural tendency to procrastinate. Psychologist Joseph Ferrari, from DePaul University, has reported that about 20% of the population were already habitual procrastinators, even before COVID-19’s influence.
Stress is an important factor in COVID-19-era procrastination. According to New York University psychiatrist Charles Marma, “… the [current] inability to follow through on plans, or even carve out time for them in the first place, stems in part from off-the-charts levels of anxiety.”
October is when many people engaged in tasks relating to seasonal changes. My wife Diane and I are doing a little better preparing for winter this year. We’ve already gotten our flu shots, which seem especially important this year. My doctor decided that it also was time for me to get a tetanus shot as well. I might go out and step on a rusty nail just for the fun of it. People often associate procrastination with laziness. Paradoxically, however, it usually results in just making more work in the long run.
When I was a kid, this was the time of the year in Illinois when my father would put up the storm sashes. These were windows he mounted over the regular ones to protect the house from winter storms and to provide extra insulation. These sashes were quite heavy and unwieldy. There was the ever-present danger of falling off a precarious ladder. My father hated this job and usually put it off as long as possible, to my mother’s exasperation. It always took a lot of beer to get this job completed.
Diane and I have not taken our potted plants inside yet. We will have to do this before it freezes. It’s our policy to watch the weather and bring them inside the day before the first hard freeze. Never a day sooner.
In our old house we had an oil furnace. At this time of the year we had to make sure there was an adequate supply of fuel for the coming cold weather. We also had to get the furnace serviced each fall so it worked efficiently and didn’t blow up the house. Our furnace man was very threatening about the consequences of procrastinating on this task.
People often put off jobs because the task is inconvenient or difficult to schedule. There is also the issue of potential embarrassment when the professional finally arrives and asks, “Who tried to fix this?” or “How did this duct tape get here?” Many procrastinators are also perfectionists. They would rather never tackle a job than do one poorly. They would prefer having people think that they are lacking in effort than in ability.
Some folks rationalize that they work better under pressure. They may even experience a sense of gratification every time they squeak by some deadline and brag that they never waste energy working on something ahead of time.
Procrastination has been found to result in poorer school performance in youth and lower-quality of work in adults. It is associated with relationship problems, mood disorders and stress-related physical issues. Chronic procrastinators do not seem to learn from their experiences. They focus on how to make themselves feel better, instead of gaining insight into the behaviors that made them feel bad in the first place.
Some research suggests that procrastinators view their future selves as if they are totally different people. So when they procrastinate, it feels like they are dumping their problems onto someone else.
Psychologists see procrastination as more than just a lack of time management skills. People who procrastinate tend to be deficient in regulating emotions. Pychyl says, “I think the basic notion of procrastination as self-regulation failure is pretty clear. You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.” He also says, “…to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task.” This may be why procrastination has become so common during the pandemic.
Some strategies that can help people reduce procrastination include: (1) Make a written list of goals and set realistic but generous timelines for task completion. (2) Make a personal challenge out of tasks. (3) Break large jobs into achievable chunks. (4) Find something positive about the task itself. (5) Don’t enable procrastinators. Allow them to face the natural consequences of their behavior. (6) Limit self-blame, which only exacerbates the problem of poor emotional regulation. (7) This one is a Diane favorite- — Break the ice by taking a small first step. (8) Make your temptations more inconvenient, like deleting social media apps or giving yourself a long complicated password. (8) Make working on tasks easier by removing any obvious barriers. And finally (9) Reward yourself for successful completion.
Personally, I’m a selective procrastinator. There are some tasks I do immediately, while many others just languish. My philosophy is generally, “Start out slow and then ease up.”