The Problem of Procrastination

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I've been thinking about procrastination a lot recently, both causes and potential solutions.

What are some of the causes of procrastination? In my exploration I've discovered more than a few, but there are two that stick out as major contributors to procrastination: perfectionism and impulsivity.

The ideas behind these two potential causes are straightforward enough.

With perfectionism, procrastination arises because the perfectionist is either not capable of starting or finishing a task because the outcome will never live up to the perfectionist's unrealistic standards. Makes sense.

For the impulsive person, procrastination is a result of inability to buckle down and really focus on any one thing at a time. It's the "shiny object" theory of procrastination. The impulsive procrastinator may have too many projects going on at once, or creates new ones on the fly to avoid doing the perhaps more unpleasant work.

So how well does "perfectionism" and "impulsivity" explain the phenomenon of procrastination?

Let's start with perfectionism. Does perfectionism cause procrastination? Certainly it does... to varying degrees. It affects some people more than others. That, of course, directly leads to the problem with this theory: Not everyone is a perfectionist. Yet everyone procrastinates to some degree or another.

That suggests perfectionism isn't the whole story.

How about procrastination being caused by impulsivity? This is just as reasonable, but I think it still doesn't explain all of procrastination. Consider procrastination that lasts months or years -- this can't easily be explained away by impulsivity. There's real dedication involved in this kind of procrastination. Paradoxically, you have to work hard at it!

No, impulsivity is also just a part of the story of procrastination.

The Heart of Procrastination

The more I look, the more it becomes clear that procrastination is similar to cancer: there are as many types and experiences of procrastination, but they all get grouped together under one umbrella term of "procrastination."

The source of procrastination is probably not rooted in any one psychological trait, like perfectionism or impulsivity. It would be nice to be able to pinpoint one specific cause, but it just isn't that easy.

No, procrastination isn't "caused" by something, per se -- it's part of who and what we are. It's an inherent trait of humanity.

Indeed, I think the heart of procrastination lies in our very evolution as a species; that would explain why procrastination affects everyone.

You see, human beings were not wired for long-term planning. The environment of our nomadic ancestors did not provide many reasons to make plans much beyond a few weeks to a few months in the future. Their plans tended to be short-term or based on some kind of threat, with immediate or near-immediate gratification as the payoff.

And while this lends some credence to the "impulsivity" theory behind procrastination, it's also clear that people are indeed capable of executing long-term strategy. It's just not our strong suit as a species.

My point is that looking for "causes" of procrastination is not time well spent. There are a never-ending supply of explanations for procrastination.

Better, I think, is to identify whether you suffer from one of two specific categories of procrastination on a given subject.

Simple Procrastination vs. Chronic Procrastination

I draw a distinction between two different "types" of procrastination: simple and chronic.

Simple procrastination is the kind where you're just sort of disinclined to do something because it's boring or inconvenient or unpleasant. It may adequately be explained by poor impulse control or perfectionism or inability to engage in long-term planning, for example.

Simple procrastination can be overcome in a variety of ways, some of which I'll describe below.

What about chronic procrastination -- such as procrastinating on filing taxes for years on end, or inability to complete a relatively unchallenging home improvement project for an entire summer?

This kind of procrastination kind eats away months or years of time, and can even ruin lives. It is pervasive, and a source of major stress. And it resists most attempts to overcome it.

I think the core of chronic procrastination is feeling "disturbed" or some kind of low-level dread. This feeling arises whether you are consciously aware of it or not -- and whether it even makes sense to feel that way.

In other words, the object of chronic procrastination, such as overdue taxes or an incomplete project, is seen as a major threat, and triggers a deep instinctual drive to avoid it.

Chronic procrastination may be the result of a perceived existential threat. That is, the mind has literally associated doing that thing, whatever it is, with potential death as a result.

Death & Taxes

Does the mind actually equate something generally unpleasant, like finally taking care of overdue taxes, with death?

For the chronic procrastinator, I think it does. What some view as inconvenient, others view as a disaster. For instance, some people would prefer being waterboarded over giving a speech in front of a live audience.

Something nearly as bad as death (as far as the brain is concerned) is being proved to be deeply incorrect about something. Not just mistaken, but profoundly wrong, or grossly incompetent.

Have you ever felt that way? That you would do anything to not suffer the ridicule of your peers? Chronic procrastination and outright avoidance, it seems to me, is a similar kind of dread.

Somehow the brain has linked the object of chronic procrastination--overdue taxes, in the above example--to a massive penalty. And indeed there is a massive penalty which could directly result from failure to pay taxes!

So why does the tax-avoider continue to make the situation worse by failing to deal with the problem at all?

In truth, I don't think a "rational" explanation exists for chronic procrastination, any more than there's a rational explanation for depression or anxiety. The sufferer may feel like they can't do anything; they've become powerless or helpless to make any meaningful progress.

It is pure motivational paralysis--a feeling of deep inner conflict and sometimes inability to even acknowledge the problem at all.

Curing Procrastination?

So what can we do about procrastination, both pedestrian and pervasive?

Well, if my above musings are correct, it seems that we can only hope to mitigate against procrastination. If procrastination does indeed arise because it is genetically hardwired into our species, there is no "cure," except possibly a few million years of more evolution. Maybe not even then.

One mitigation option many people turn to are technological: productivity apps, organizational systems like GTD, and other "hacks." This is a fine solution, and many of these systems are helpful. If it works for you, it works for you. On the other hand, it can only really help with short-term procrastination. Chronic procrastination is too big a problem for productivity hacks.

Another option is to use negative motivation (punishment). This is the brute-force method of overcoming procrastination, and it does work for a time. An example of using negative motivation against yourself would be to enact a plan to send money to your most hated political party if you fail to do a certain task. Unpalatable and bordering on self-abuse, but it can be effective.

What about positive motivation?

First, if you were already positively motivated, then procrastination wouldn't be an issue. So, is there a way to "manufacture" positive motivation, so to speak? Is it possible to become positively motivated to do something, even if you don't originally start out that way?

I think there is. Once you've started on a task, it's easier to maintain momentum, for example. In fact, it actually begins to feel good to continue working through a task or project, even if it's not a subject you particularly enjoy or even like. People are wired up in a way that makes it easier to continue working on a project once it's started, as shown in a study done by Kenneth McGraw.

Of course, "starting" on a task or project can itself be a problem--a subject I feel is worth covering more in the future.

Many of the above options do work, some quite well, for simple procrastination. Chronic procrastination is clearly a tougher nut to crack due to how pervasive and consuming it is.

For example, you can't use much negative motivation against a tax-avoider--they already face stiff fines or even jail time! How much more negative motivation can one really apply? And yet they procrastinate in spite of these potential punishments. Buying a productivity app for their iPhone would be of dubious benefit, to say the least.

Positive motivation isn't much of a factor either, if the procrastinator is chronically resistant to attempts to even approach the subject.

How to Make Progress on Procrastination

All is not hopeless. I think both simple procrastination and chronic procrastination can be "treated," as it were, by improving attention control and metacognition.

If you become more in tune with and can focus on the things that cause you to procrastinate--things you might not even be consciously aware of yet--you improve your chances at the very least. At best, you might overcome the challenges you once found insurmountable.

There are several ways to train the attention. The Pomodoro Technique is one that can be used to progressively strengthen your attention and develop good work habits.

Though I feel I'm at risk of exhibiting man-with-a-hammer syndrome, meditation is a great way to train both the attention and develop metacognition. It trains you to notice the chatterbox in your mind that distracts you, whispers in threats against you, and begs for instant gratification. It helps you to realize that you don't have to follow those commands, no matter how convincing or seductive.

Meditation also helps you to become more in tune with your emotions, and aware of the patterns and situations that can trigger them.

In practicing meditation, I've found I become less attached to certain thoughts and emotions, compelling though they may be. I find it easier to work towards something for weeks or months at a time, in spite of finding it uncomfortable or unpleasant.

More to the point, meditation has helped me overcome chronic procrastination on some subjects, which has been a great relief.

Others I continue to work on.

At any rate, I've made real progress. I think you can too.

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