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A Guide to Preventing and Overcoming Procrastination: Part 1

So, it’s the night before the morning of your deadline, and you’re only 100 words into your assignment, which you’ve had a couple of weeks to complete.

How did we get here? Didn’t we say last time would be the last time we put things off like this? And how do we make sure we don’t fall into the same procrastination trap again in the future?

As 2018 is coming to a close and we’re approaching the new year, it’s a good time to reflect on the past year and think about the habits you’d like to leave behind and also create a plan for those that you want to start implementing.

‘Stop procrastinating’ is a goal that many people set at the start of the new year but it also tends to be the one that makes it onto the list every year. In light of this, I am dedicating two posts on The Curiosity Concept for a mini-series tackling procrastination.

My aim in writing these posts in December is to uncover what procrastination actually is and what its causes are and then discuss methods of stopping so that when January comes, “new year, new me” will finally be more than a cliche – change will already be underway.

I’m certainly not the first person to talk about how to stop procrastinating, and I don’t think I’ll be the last. Many posts, articles and videos on this topic jump straight in with a ‘7 simple steps’ approach to telling you how to stop procrastinating forever. But even after having read these posts, I often found myself falling back into the same old pattern of procrastination until I learned how to tackle the underlying issues that were causing me to procrastinate. This mini-series will overcome this problem by encouraging you to think about these underlying issues so that you can be better placed to overcome them.

What is procrastination?

Generally, procrastination is just putting things off – It’s avoiding doing tasks and resisting making decisions. Procrastination isn’t only passive, but it can also be characterised by actively making yourself ‘busy’ with lots of minor activities in order to avoid tackling more important and difficult tasks. 

From a psychological perspective, a study by Piers Steel, ‘The Nature of Procrastination’ (2007), found that procrastinators tend to be more impulsive, easily distracted and lacking in self-control. This can be summed up as a failure in self-regulation. Further aspects of this self-regulatory failure include:  

  • Low expectancy – you might not expect that you can succeed in the task so you avoid doing it.
  • Task aversiveness – the task might be something you really don’t want to do. This may be because it has little value to you, you don’t know how to go about actually doing the task or you may be attempting the task with low energy levels. This can all feed task aversiveness. (Been there, done that).

This self-regulatory failure and impulsiveness can also be initiated by distracting temptations in your environment. Also, if you have to make a whole bunch of choices and individual decisions before you can get started on the task, the lack of self-control can kick in and lead to avoidance once again because you face a lot of resistance before even really starting to work on the task.

Steel sums up procrastination in a neat equation:

Steel’s Procrastination Equation (2007), builds on Temporal Motivational Theory
(Steel and König, 2006)

Utility indicates how valuable the task is to you; the greater the Utility, the less prone you are to procrastinate on the task. Expectancy is how confident you are of your competence in the skills the task requires. Personally, Expectancy tends to be low for me when I fall into perfectionist thinking and ‘analysis paralysis‘ causes me to overthink and freeze. Value encompasses aspects such as finding the task pleasant/enjoyable and whether you feel a need for achievement in relation to the task. Increased Expectancy and Value means the Utility of the task is also increased. 

Impulsiveness and Delay are the units that represent rewards and time – if the reward for completing the task will only be realised at some time in the distant future – delayed gratification – you may be more sensitive to activities that provide immediate gratification. 

Consider the example at the beginning: you may have had 2 months to complete your assignment, but if your Expectancy and Value were low, and if it seemed like there was quite a significant Delay, you may have been more impulsive, spending more time doing other things that provide more instant Utility (socialising, Netflix-ing, etc). You might have only started working on it a couple of days before the deadline because that’s when the reward of completing the work became more immediate and the Utility of those other activities decreased.

The link between procastination and akrasia

In his study, Steel states:

“…voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite the expectation of being worse off for the delay is inherently risky or negative behavior.”

This touches on the interesting concept of akrasia. The writer James Clear has written an article on this and there are also informative entries from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on akrasia.

Akrasia can be thought of as making a choice between option A and option B, coming to the conclusion that A is definitely better than B, but still choosing B anyway.

It’s like if you have a nut allergy, option A is water and option B is an almond, but you choose the almond regardless of you knowing that water is the better choice and the almond will definitely make you worse off. Bringing things closer to home, akrasia is choosing to watch yet another TED Talk about procrastination when it would be better to just start working on your tasks.

The link between akrasia and procrastination can be seen in the example:  despite knowing that it would have been objectively better to start the assignment early, regardless of your considered judgment, you didn’t start it until a few days or hours before the deadline. And as the quote from Steel said, this is inherently risky or negative behaviour. For example, think about what this does to your stress levels. 

Clearly, our irrational nature as human beings can sometimes get in the way of what we’re supposed to be doing, stopping us from being able to achieve what we know we can.

When procrastination becomes a habit

Linking back to Steel’s procrastination equation, Utility could be taken as an indication of your motivation to complete a particular task. But more than this, when procrastination becomes a patterned behaviour, it goes from being an issue of motivation to being a concrete habit.

Put simply, behaviour becomes a habit when it is triggered by a cue, manifested in a routine and then reinforced by a reward. For example, low Expectancy and frustration or stress that comes with a task that is particularly challenging can be cues that trigger the routine of scrolling through your Instagram feed or trawling YouTube watching one Vine compilation after another, to get the rewards of easy entertainment, instant gratification and temporary relief from the cognitive strain of work.

As explained by many cognitive psychologists, and explored by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, habits are ingrained behaviours, they are the brain’s clever way of creating automatic processes in order to reduce the cognitive effort needed to function. The trouble with this is that it can be a challenge to change or eliminate habits. But, change is possible.

This is why I started this mini-series on procrastination by discussing the background issues because when you identify as a habitual procrastinator, a list of steps to ‘stop procrastinating forever’ won’t really help unless you understand how best you can use the advice to tackle the things you personally struggle with. As I said in my The Power of Habit book review, if you understand how something works, you have the power to use it to its full potential or transform it for the better.

Part 2 of this Guide for Preventing and Overcoming Procrastination, discussing methods to prevent and overcome procrastination, will be published next week, Thursday 20 December.

More on understanding procrastination:

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