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Why Do We Procrastinate and How Do We Stop?

Photo by Magnet.me from Unsplash

By Hannah Smith, Legends Report Writer

“Procrastination is the thief of time

– Edward Young

It is safe to say that we are all guilty of procrastination. It interrupts productivity and turns our willpower completely stale… I think for a lot of us it is the ultimate enforcer of anxiety. How many times have we been faced with a task: completing an essay, studying for a test, applying for a job or perhaps beginning a creative project. We sit at our desk or study area, pen ready, laptop on… and then we proceed to scroll on our phones or open up a streaming service. I’ve even gone to the lengths of deciding to clean my house or bulk cook meals and I tell myself that I am still being productive. But, deep down, I know it isn’t really a sign of productivity. It's a front to distract myself from the more essential tasks that I should be doing, but a very effective excuse that I can use to ignore my guilt.

It is easy to know when we are procrastinating, however much we try to ignore it. But it is a whole different story being able to control our desires to procrastinate and prevent it from happening in the first place. Our instincts are to search out ways to stop doing it, and tips and tricks from people online. Maybe we will turn our phones off in an effort to take away things that distract us. But these are temporary measures. Even if you have read the online tips, it doesn’t mean you’ll follow them. Even if you have turned your phone off, it doesn’t stop you from imagining the things you could be scrolling through on it, thinking about turning it back on, just for a second, or an hour… or more.

To truly prevent ourselves from procrastinating it is not enough to simply seek out tricks and rely purely on willpower. It is not enough. To create a lasting positive effect on our productivity it is important to seek within ourselves to find out why we procrastinate in the first place. What makes us so unwilling to be the most productive versions of ourselves? It is surely a great contradiction that we will not do the things that we know we must do to have a better and happier life.

It is my belief that procrastination is not a show of laziness, or unwillingness to partake in tasks that are essential for us to lead proper lives. I believe that procrastination is a reflection of our deeper rooted insecurities, our anxieties about failure and our fear of the unknown future. When we are faced with a task that may be daunting or have a great influence on our futures, I think we procrastinate as a coping mechanism. For some people, distraction is the ultimate way to deal with stress and insecurity. We are scared to fail, so sometimes it is easier to not put our all into the task. If we try less to succeed, then it won’t hurt as much if we fail.

So, if we are to stop our habit of procrastination, we must first learn what it is we are distracting ourselves from and what the root of our insecurities are.

What Are We Doing?

So, what happens when we procrastinate? In the simplest terms, it is essentially the act of putting off doing something that probably needs to be completed fairly urgently. It is the literal act of putting something off until tomorrow that could be done today, normally at our own expense.

Yet, it is more complex than that in most cases. If we put off completing a task it is normally because we don’t want to do it. It isn’t enjoyable, or it is boring or it is difficult. But it is also a reflection of something deeper in our psychologies.

It is believed by psychologists that the limbic system in our brains is responsible for the overpowering urge to procrastinate. This is a part of the brain that is in charge of our instincts, such as retracting your hand away from something hot. It is in charge of getting us away from dangerous situations, or situations that we don’t want to be in, as explained by Amy Spencer and Maggie Seaver in their article:

"The moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your limbic system takes over, and you give in to what feels good"

– Amy Spencer and Maggie Seaver

So, there is a part of our brains that is wired to get us away from situations that we don’t want to be in. At times this is helpful, such as if we were in danger. But in terms of procrastination, it is our worst enemy. I think that a lot of us feel like we are in danger when we are about to procrastinate, the danger of having to face our stresses and our insecurities. Understandably, the way we cope with this is by ignoring it in favour of something that stimulates our brains in a more pleasurable way, like watching TV or flicking through your phone.

There is a misconception that we put things off due to laziness or because we can’t be bothered. Sometimes that is true, perhaps, but I think that most of us put off essential tasks because we are afraid. I know from personal experience that sometimes it is easier to act as though I cannot be bothered, because then at least if I fail I can view it as a personal choice rather than a lack of ability. Perhaps it makes us feel as if we have some semblance of control, though I suppose in the long-term it gives us less and less control of our lives when we choose to put things off.

So, I believe in most cases the cause of procrastination boils down to fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of disappointment or failure, and fear of not being perfect. It is essentially our brains choosing between the fight or flight, in this case, the flight is the retreatment from completing a task to the sanctuary of any sort of distraction. As human beings, we are wired to try and avoid situations of pain and stress. But in the case of procrastinating important tasks, it is important to embrace that stress and understand why we must go through it in order to achieve our goals.

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By: Peter Dazeley

Are the Tips and Tricks That Simple? How to Make a Lasting Difference

So we know that we are serial procrastinators, now what? Where do we go from here and how do we stop? For myself, like so many, the first stop was the internet (ironically, since it is the cause of much of my procrastination) where there is a lot of information about the way our brains are wired to work against us when we do a task we aren’t excited about. However, much of the internet consists of the ‘tips and tricks’ articles. You know the ones: ‘10 Ways to Stop Procrastinating Forever’ and so on.

I do not want to belittle the work of anybody who created these articles. If anything, the fact that they are publishing this content means that they are able to handle their own urges to procrastinate. A lot of the tips these articles include can be helpful, but they hang purely on the willpower of the person using them. And in reality, we are not always that strong. If procrastination is a way for us to cope with the negativity we attribute to a task, then to truly keep it at bay, it is important to interrogate deeper than the tips and tricks route.

In his article, Eric Jaffe explains that psychologists believe that we are less likely to procrastinate something if we find an emotional connection with it:

"the best way to eliminate the need for short-term mood fixes is to find something positive or worthwhile about the task itself."

– Eric Jaffe

I have found that trying to go into a task with this mindset can be effective in reducing procrastination. If I have been putting off a piece of writing or a job application, for example, I have begun to try and find something in the task that can inspire me to put more of my time into it. Like any effort to rewrite negative habits into positive ones, it normally begins with mindfulness. I try to ask myself questions whenever I don’t want to do something and feel the urge to put it off. Stuff like: ‘why don’t I want to do this?’ or ‘how will I feel about myself if I don’t do this’ can help me understand what I am feeling and why I am worried about beginning the task. By asking these questions, I am looking inward to try and understand what I am feeling and how I can turn those feelings into something more positive.

Another tip that crops up a lot is the idea of banishing anything that could be considered distracting when you intend to do an important task. Getting rid of distractions is effective for sure… if we can stick to it. I have found from personal experience that if my heart isn’t in to something that I am doing, whether I have distracting things around me or not, I will still find a way to divert my attention away from the task at hand. For example, when researching for my writing, or when I was at university, one minute I would be reading an article for information on my topic, and the next I am on a completely different article. I fall down some sort of research hole until I am reading something that has no relation to whatever it is I’m writing about. I am learning something, but it is not what I should be doing. If we do not want to do something then we will trick ourselves into not doing it, with or without the conventional forms of distraction.

So, it is not enough to follow the guidebook on how not to procrastinate. It may work for some, but for a lot of us, it is another humongous pressure that is so hard to stick to long term. If we remain in a negative mind frame when facing our tasks, it will not do much to follow some tips. We have to know why we are reliant on putting things off and have the confidence to rewrite the way we view unpleasurable tasks and ourselves.

"To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up."

– Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology

Forgive Yourself

Throughout my time at university, I more or less became a serial procrastinator. I barely planned my study time and left my essays until the day before the deadline. I told myself that I ‘work better under pressure’ and that it wasn’t a detriment to my grade or my wellbeing. Whilst it’s true that a little bit of pressure can do wonders to productivity, I knew deep down that I was leaving my work until the last minute because I didn’t want to do it, or more so, that I was afraid to do it and it would be terrible. On the eve of the deadline, I would do an all-nighter to complete the work, submit it a couple of minutes before the deadline and I would get a decent grade. Not an amazing grade, but decent enough for me to be able to continue the routine. Then I would forget about the whole stressful process until the next assignment, where I would repeat the whole cycle.

I left university with a decent grade, so I never really learnt my lesson about leaving work until the last minute. But the truth is that I settled for a decent grade, rather than pushing myself for the best grade and I did it so I wouldn’t be disappointed in myself if I aimed higher.

University was a tough and lonely time for me due to a mixture of a lack of confidence and other personal issues that required me to spend a lot of time travelling home. I met some great people, but no bond I had with anybody progressed into a lasting friendship. A lot of my time at university was finding various coping mechanisms so I didn’t have to confront the building self-hatred that was developing inside me. One of these mechanisms was procrastination. This was with my studies obviously, but it extended to many other parts of my life, such as seeking help for my mental health or getting myself out into the world to make some friends.

The worst part about this whole period of my life is that I knew that I was procrastinating, and I used it as a reason to perpetuate my self-hatred. Every time I decided to do something I deemed ‘unessential’ over the tasks I needed to complete, it would add a little more justification to my low self-esteem. It was a way for me to confirm to myself that I deserved to be unhappy.

Over the past couple of months, I have found a direct correlation between my tendency to procrastinate and my low self-esteem. Throughout university and the pandemic I decided that I was just unenthusiastic about everything, that I had hobbies and interests, but nothing that really drove me to create and put myself into the world. It was always easy to accept that I was my own worst enemy and the cause of my lack of productivity. It is harder to forgive myself for that and work to change it.

I think that one of the reasons procrastination is such a problem for so many is because we cannot get over the feeling of guilt that rises every time we allow ourselves to get distracted. We let our procrastination become the view that we have of ourselves, and lead our lives with feelings of guilt and self-hatred.

"Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it."

– M. Scott Peck.

So, for me, the most effective way to combat procrastination is to be kinder to myself. Accept that I am struggling with motivation and understand why that is, in order to move on and progress within myself, as well as on the page.

I am grateful that I decided to write about this subject, now that I have nearly finished this draft. It was a great practice in the mindfulness that I have tried to preach throughout. I have spent more prolonged periods of time working on this article without getting distracted than I have in anything I have done for the longest time, so that has given me a lot of hope. It shows that when we do focus on why we procrastinate and face those feelings of anxiety and guilt head-on, it does make a difference to our productivity. Perhaps procrastination isn’t so bad after all, as most importantly, it has helped me begin to learn how to forgive myself and accept those moments of distraction as parts of myself, that I have the power to move on from.

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By: Sarah Mason

I think another important thing to remember is that we shouldn’t have to work through our fears alone. It is hard to open up to others that we are struggling to complete something because it is admitting weakness. It is especially difficult nowadays, in this world where we are expected to push our productivity to the extreme, to accept to others that we are having issues with procrastination. But it is so important that we learn to use the support of other people to hold ourselves accountable. It is hard to admit to others that we are struggling, but once you share your weakness with another, in a way you are letting go of it.

Through The Legends Report, I have been able to have discourse with mentors, editors and other writers, which has helped me become more accountable for my writing. Releasing these articles to be read by my publishers has also helped a lot with my confidence in writing, and with every article, I allow to be sent into the world, I am learning to have more belief in my abilities. If you are struggling to overcome your tendency to procrastinate, reach out to your support network, and use their influence to work through your fear. The Legends Report provide access to workshops, mentor sessions and other forms of support to help you begin your journey to a healthier relationship with your productivity.

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