Why we procrastinate

Chronic procrastination has a lot to do with laziness, low ambition and lack of willpower. Photo: iStockphoto

Chronic procrastination has a lot to do with laziness, low ambition and lack of willpower. Photo: iStockphoto

It’s an yearly phenomenon. You file your income-tax returns at the very last moment, kicking yourself for not doing it on time and promising yourself that you’ll be better prepared next year. But 365 days later, it’s the same old story.

A similar story unfolds when you’re asked to finish a report: You sit in front of the computer and, 5 minutes later, find yourself sharing Facebook posts, cleaning your desk, thinking about where to go for lunch or reading a Wikipedia entry on how “Elvis has left the building” became a phrase. Next thing you know, you have missed the deadline, with your boss demanding the report. You stare at the screen, cursing yourself for not completing the job on time.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines procrastination simply as an act of delaying or postponing action, but it is a little more complicated than that. It is actually a strong, mysterious force that makes people put off work, no matter how important (read less pleasurable), by doing something they believe is pleasurable. Its consequences, of course, can be hazardous, from poor school grades to below-average performance in office, even delay in saving for retirement. Excessive procrastination can result in anxiety, stress and guilt, say Deepak Dhayanithy, assistant professor (strategic management), and Manish Kumar, assistant professor (organizational behaviour and human resource management) at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kozhikode, in an interview. “The attendant loss of productivity could lead to social disapproval (for not having accomplished planned tasks),” they add.

Just laziness?

Is procrastination really just an innocuous habit that has a lot to do with poor time management? “No,” clarifies Joseph R. Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University, US, in an email. “We can’t manage time—time is constant. We manage ourselves. There are 168 hours per week—no more, no less. We adjust to fit within it,” says Prof. Ferrari, who has been studying procrastination for over two decades. The professor, who has authored several research papers and written the book Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide To Getting It Done, puts the figure of chronic procrastinators at 20% of the world population.

Choosing to delay voluntarily “in spite of our intention reflects a basic breakdown in our self-regulation”, says Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada. “This breakdown occurs most often when we are faced with a task that is viewed as aversive (that is, boring, frustrating, lacking meaning and/or structure), and therefore leads to unpleasant feelings or negative mood,” writes Prof. Pychyl in the research report,Procrastination And The Priority Of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences For Future Self, published in a 2013 edition of the journal Social And Personality Psychology Compass.

Chronic procrastination, say the IIM professors, has a lot to do with laziness, low ambition and lack of willpower.

Vijay Pathak, consultant (psychiatrist) at Max Hospital in Pitampura, New Delhi, says: “Work-related conditions like lack of interest, a deficient state of working knowledge of the task at hand, lack of motivation and disturbed emotional state may lead to procrastination in an individual who is otherwise a good performer.” In some people, procrastination may be a trait, he says, adding: “A few unidentified psychological and behavioural disorders, such as depression, anxiety, phobias, alcoholism and neurodegenerative disorders, may also lead to procrastination.”

Santhosh Babu, an executive coach and founder of consulting firm Organization Development Alternatives Consultants Pvt. Ltd, says: “We all have an impulsive brain, which means we quickly get attracted to anything that provides instant gratification, something that makes us feel good (think chocolate, biscuits, even a tweet). It’s a failure in self-regulation, like in the case of overeating or overspending.” Procrastination could also mean that you are avoiding something, or don’t want to confront the realities of life. “Like you want to ask a person out for a date, but avoid it for fear of being turned down. That avoiding is also a kind of procrastination,” says Babu, who confesses being a procrastinator himself.

Think of the future, now

There’s another school of thought that links procrastination to perceptions of time. In other words, a procrastinator may choose not to work on an assignment in the present moment because s/he may feel they are not in the right “action mode” and this could be done later, by their future self. The task is not their headache at the moment, it’s the responsibility of their future self.

This happens because of an emotional disconnect. “Our brains actually process information about the future self similar to how it processes information about a stranger,” says Prof. Pychyl. “With procrastination, the present self trumps the future self by choosing to feel good now. The immediate reward (from putting off a task) is relief from negative emotions, perhaps even positive emotions now that you can do something else. Of course, the future self will have to face the assignment. But the present self knows that’s a problem for the future self,” he says.

In fact, a US study, published in April 2015 in the journalPsychological Science, found that if people connected their current self with their future self by considering far-off events in terms of days instead of months or years, they could accomplish the task quickly.

Know when to procrastinate

Don’t write off procrastination just yet. It could be a good thing—in a mild form. In an April TED talk, “The Surprising Habits Of Original Thinkers”, Wharton Business School organizational psychologist Adam Grant argued that moderate procrastination is necessary for creative insight.

“Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in non-linear ways, to make unexpected leaps. It is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity,” he said in his TED lecture.

Procrastination always means delay, but not all delay is procrastination, say IIM’s Dhayanithy and Kumar. “While delay (in the hope that a great idea or solution is going to be arrived at) may be necessary for creative insight, procrastination may not be,” they add.

Babu says some people use procrastination effectively—they may seem to be lingering over a task but, at a subconscious level, they are thinking about it, finding ways to make it work. Such an approach, however, won’t work when decisions have to be taken on things as mundane as deciding where to go for lunch, or as important as finishing a report that has to be submitted the same day.

Dr Pathak adds: “Anyone who has a milder form of procrastination as a trait may have a perfectionist’s approach towards things. But for sure, a great delay may cost an individual a lot. Probably the next appraisal, or the job itself.”

Don’t wait for panic to set in

Delay can be useful for creative thinking, believes Prof. Pychyl, as it builds in time for the “incubation” of an idea. “But procrastination is a particular kind of delay where we know that we should act now but we don’t. This is not a time for creativity, it’s a time for action.”

The best way to avoid procrastination is to simply “avoid” it, suggests Dr Pathak. “Deal with the work as soon as it arrives,” he says. Or think of the possible losses that can arise from not doing the work on time—like having to pay more for hotel bookings, getting a bad report during the annual appraisal, or losing out on a lucrative offer. Or try getting rid of all the extra tabs on your computer screen and putting your phone on silent.

“Having a performance management system that enables periodic evaluation through continuous feedback and manager interaction can help fight procrastination among employees. The system should focus on individual development and continuous learning,” says Richard Lobo, senior-vice-president and head (human resources) at information technology company Infosys.

Or, “(companies can) build a culture of collaboration, educate associates on job effectiveness and create role change opportunities that employees are passionate about. Most importantly, promote a culture of learning from failures (as that) helps people to be less fearful of punitive consequences and more accountable as well,” suggests Sucharita Palepu, global head of people policies and practices at information technology services firm Tech Mahindra.

At an individual level, you can try to find something you feel passionate about. “A banker who doesn’t like his job, but loves running, will try to finish all his work on time so that he can run on weekends with a free mind. The passion gives the energy that’s otherwise lacking,” says Babu.

If none of this works, don’t worry, every procrastinator has a guardian angel called the “Panic Monster”, said Tim Urban, co-founder of US-based content website Wait But Why, in his March TED Talk, “Inside The Mind Of A Master Procrastinator”. “The Panic Monster is dormant most of the time, but he suddenly wakes up anytime a deadline gets too close or there’s danger of public embarrassment, a career disaster or some other scary consequence.”


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