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November 07, 2019 Thursday 12:03:18 PM IST

Say ‘No’ to Procrastination


Procrastination means trouble that one experiences in persuading oneself to do the things he or she should do or would like to do. Procrastination is a self-inflicted wound - we feel good now at the expense of long-term goals. “It is a voluntary delay of an intended act despite the knowledge that this delay may harm us," (Tim Pychyl). That is, procrastination is by definition, an irrational behaviour because it runs counter to our own idea of what will make us happy. And the contemporary environment abets procrastination by supplying an array of distractions, electronic and otherwise. Everyone puts things off sometimes, but procrastinators chronically avoid difficult tasks and may deliberately look for distractions. Procrastination mostly reflects struggles with self-control as well as the general human inability to accurately predict how we will feel while attempting the task at hand.  

 It has nothing to do with being lazy or having a personality problem; nor is it a time management problem; it is, instead, an emotion management problem. Recent researches about procrastination and its causes have shown that negative emotions promote procrastination. What scientists call the ‘amygdala highjack’, deserves special attention. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala - the ‘threat detector’ part of the brain - perceives that task as a genuine threat. And since our brains are wired to be more concerned with removing the threat in the present, such a task will be avoided.  People avoid doing things when they are sad or upset, and the pleasantness of any distraction helps regulate our feelings. This explains the endless escapades we make through e-games, social media, etc. Research illuminates much about why people procrastinate - and most people do at one point or another, even if not habitually. It’s estimated, for example, among college students, 80-95% dilly dally and put off, with about 50% indulging ‘consistently and problematically’, according to a meta-analytic review conducted by researcher Piers Steel. (2010).

Why fight procrastination?

Procrastination is one of the main barriers blocking you from getting up, making the right decisions and living the dream life you've thought of. When you procrastinate, you waste time that you could be investing in something meaningful. If you can overcome this fierce enemy, you will be able to accomplish more and in doing so, better utilize the potential that life has to offer. In the long run, chronic procrastination has resulted in productivity costs, and measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress, general psychological distress and low levels of contentment, symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor health behaviours, chronic illness, and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Tips to beat procrastination

  • Focus on your ‘why’. Procrastinators focus more on short-term gains. Instead, try focusing on why you are doing this task: what are the benefits of completing it?
  • Structure your time and sleep. By scheduling your daily activities, you provide a motivation to be present and diligent for your responsibilities. You need to schedule when you are going to work on a project and block out that time, just as you would do to attend an important meeting. Plus, this will discourage the huge, unhealthy blocks of surf time that arise when you don’t plan your time out ahead. Structuring your sleep schedule is also important.
  • Chunk it. When a task seems overbearing, procrastination often follows. So how can you break that task into smaller, more manageable parts? For example, if you want to write a book, you may choose to make an outline, identify each chapter, figure out the sections in the chapters, and then commit to writing one segment at a time. Chunking it down like this will help you feel less threatened.
  • Optimize your environment. Environment can help or hinder yourproductivity. Beware especially of technology, such as your email or messenger that keeps pinging to let you know someone has reached out. Social media, internet ‘research’ that leads you far off track, and phone calls, can lead to procrastination. Keeping them at bay is essential for ensuring a serious work atmosphere.
  • Reward good behaviour. Establish a reward if - and only if - you do what you set out to do. Do not let yourself binge that new Netflix show, check your social media, or get lunch until you complete what you've scheduled. So, instead of using these tasks and distractions, you make use of them as incentives.       
  • Forgive yourself. Stop beating yourself up over the past happenings. Thoughts such as ‘I should have started earlier’ or ‘I always procrastinate; I am such a loser’, will only make matters worse.
  • Drop perfectionism. Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mentality: something is either perfect or it is a failure. People with perfectionist tendencies tend to wait until things are perfect in order to proceed - so, if it's not perfect, you cannot start. Excessive perfectionism and fear of failure make a perfect combination for procrastination.
  • Systematic training of emotional regulation (ER) - to tolerate and modify aversive emotions - helps reduce procrastination. Developing key ER skills includes:
  • Becoming aware of your emotions;
  • Identifying and taming your emotions;
  • Understanding what triggers those feelings;
  • Acknowledging negative emotions and turning them into positive ones;
  • Supporting yourself.

Increase your self-awareness; practise mindfulness throughout the day, journaling daily gratitude, breathing exercises, or meditation. Pause and reflect which emotions are getting in your way?

We now know that the world today is conducive to procrastinating. Learning how to overcome it, is therefore, staggering. Modern society idolizes individual liberty in the belief that the freer people are, the happier they will be. But, why aren't people today significantly happier than in the past? Because with more freedom to make our own decisions and to perform our actions, we have become easily confused about what is a priority, what is essential and what is not, and with what is right and wrong; therefore, we have become demotivated to do anything at all. We need to set straight our values and personal visions and cultivate our positive habits. This is the essential thing that can help us overcome not only procrastination but also all the other obstacles that life brings.     

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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