Why Procrastination Is a Friend Without Benefits

September 4, 2020

10 tips to make avoidance benefit you instead of hinder you.

Procrastination is a self-defeating pattern of behavior to survive under pressure. Chronic procrastination has productivity and career costs and it leads to negative effects on our mental and physical health. Call it a friend without benefits because it helps you avoid the inability to complete something but in the avoidance it sabotages your goals.

You have ambition and drive, yet you find yourself stalling or postponing action on a project due tomorrow morning. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Instead of planting yourself in front of the screen, you watch yourself organize your spice rack, re-arrange furniture, or engage in unnecessary cleaning.

You call yourself lazy because you can’t get motivated despite the looming deadline. But you’re not really a couch potato because you’re being productive. In the back of your mind, you know you’re not focused on your priorities, but you stall anyway. What’s going on with me? you ask. You recognize you’re procrastinating, and you’re getting antsy, catapulted into a swirl of adrenaline and cortisol stew. Why can’t I pull it together? you grumble.

A deadline passes, commitments pile up, and your inner critic beats you into smithereens. It attacks you with more ugly names and you feel lousy. Now you must reckon with the second layer of pressure that adds another burden of misery.

From a bird’s-eye view, procrastination serves a psychological purpose. Studies show it’s a form of short-term mood repair. At its core, procrastination is the brain’s emotional response to a distressing issue protecting us against fear of failure, judgment by others and self-condemnation.

You’re doing something against your “thinking brain’s” awareness, but you do it anyway because of the relief it provides. It’s not rational or logical because it takes effort and energy to procrastinate, but your efforts are going in the wrong direction.

Studies, such as the one by Fuschia Sirois at Bishop’s University in Canada, show that people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being because the brain keeps nagging them. Postponing tasks is an unconscious way the mind tries to take away the anxiety of Can I do it perfectly? or Will my boss like the outcome? Many people say, If I don’t try, I can’t fail, and postponing brings relief in the short term while undermining your happiness and success in the long run.

If you avoid the looming task you temporarily avoid the judgment and self-doubt. It’s much more fun to go watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” than to sit in front of a blank screen with your heart beating a mile a minute. It’s a paradox because the avoidance of pressure actually amplifies the pressure. The closer you get to the deadline, the more distressed and paralyzed you feel, and in the long run stalling erodes your productivity and adds to chronic stress.

10 Steps You Can Take

1. Break things down. Taking small measurable steps that are easy and doable reduces procrastination and motivates you. In a way, you trick your emotional brain. The adage, “one step at a time” can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

Studies show that if you take that first small step, you realize the task isn’t as challenging or difficult as your emotional brain told you during the time you were avoiding it. This change in perception allows you to break through postponement and move to completing your task.

2. Commit to short time chunks. I recommend five minutes of approaching the task because many people are overwhelmed by the thought of the entire project, think they can’t do it and never start.

But somewhere between sunrise and sunset anybody can med for five minutes. Once you commit to five minutes, you often keep going for longer periods of time. You can use this tool with any task. Taking the first step to a task can be the hardest yet most rewarding. Once you complete the first part (perhaps just sitting down and opening your computer), it can get you going.

3. Amp up self-compassion. There is a direct link between self-compassion and success.

Coming down hard on yourself when you procrastinate reduces your chance of rebounding. Instead of kicking yourself when you procrastinate, being kinder helps you bounce back quicker. Studies show that forgiving yourself for previous delays neutralizes procrastination, as does self-compassion, which provides shock absorbers against self-recrimination, reduces distress and boosts motivation. A survey of 119 students from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, found that students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on the first midterm exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one. When you talk yourself off the ledge, give yourself a pep talk, an atta-girl or atta-boy or a positive affirmation, you cultivate the confidence and courage to overcome stalling and the ability to face career challenges and obstacles.

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