I’ve had an action at the top of my to-do list for four days and haven’t started it yet. It’s not urgent, but has a deadline and it is important to me. The negative consequences of not doing it, or not doing it well are significant. So why on earth have I spent the morning shredding my confidential waste?
When I have observed this behaviour in others, it is clearly irrational. Why would they spend time and energy on low-value tasks when there is something more important, demanding but failing to get, their attention? Are they lazy? Disorganised? Deluded?
When I finish my shredding, I get a flush of satisfaction at seeing my waste box empty. I congratulate myself for a job well done and think about starting on that important task. But hey, it’s nearly lunchtime. No sense in starting and stopping again. I’ll leave it until after lunch.
Why am I procrastinating?
A definition of procrastination is “The act of delaying doing something for no good reason and despite it having negative consequences for ourselves”. Clearly irrational, but it is nothing to do with laziness or time management.
Laziness is characterised by apathy and low energy; a very passive behaviour. Procrastination, in contrast, is usually active and full of busy-energy. It is the avoidance of doing what is of value or importance, by getting busy doing something we feel less anxiety about. The relief from the anxiety is our reward and this further fuels the procrastination.
To understand our procrastination, we must first understand the inner-struggle going on in our brain. The logical voice of the pre-frontal cortex is telling us to “just get on and do it”. It is looking at the longer term, the bigger picture, the outcome to be delivered and rewards that follow.
But the logical brain is drowned out by the emotional brain, specifically the amygdala. Our emotional brain lives in the moment and likes instant gratification. It seeks an easy life and avoids any threats and sources of fear or anxiety. Unfortunately, it is also faster, louder and more insistent that our rational brain.
For some reason, my brain is perceiving the task I am avoiding as holding a threat. The amygdala is responding as it would to any threat; with the flight/ fight response. In this case my avoidance activity is a kind of “flight”; moving away from the threat and occupying myself with something else.
Our brains were originally wired to prioritise keeping us alive and safe from existential threats. Nowadays, the threats inherent in our work and lives can be harder to pinpoint. Some examples of threats that trigger procrastination could be;
Fear of failure – high profile and important tasks result in anxiety about the possibility of not delivering.
Loss of face - when we are aware that others have expectations of us that we are unsure we can meet.
Fear of the unknown – encountering a task that requires a skill or approach that is unfamiliar or untried.
Lack of, or low ownership – tasks that are wholly or mostly prescribed by someone else.
Inherent distaste – activity that carries a sense of unfairness, unpleasantness or even disgust.
Whether you are dealing with your own procrastination-demons, or supporting someone else to get back on track, there are some clear steps you can take;
Finally, make a little time to learn from your experiences. Reflect and be curious about the processes your brain takes you through. Perhaps write your thoughts and experiences down in a journal. Learn about yourself so that you have an easier time next time (and there will be one!).