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Dealing with Procrastination

This page uploaded 3 August 2012

By Robyn (ADAVIC Volunteer)


I have a confession to make: I am a serial procrastinator.  If there were awards for procrastination, my mantle piece would be overflowing with trophies. I can hear you saying, “don’t a lot of people procrastinate, though?!” to which I reply, “yes, they do!” In fact, studies have found that up to 70% of university students procrastinate on academic projects, and 20% of adults procrastinate on everyday tasks (Ellis & Knaus, 1977; Harriott & Ferrari, 1996). In my last year at university, I pulled more  all-nighters finishing assignments than I can count on my fingers. In fact, I must admit that this article took me a bit of time to start (and finish)!

Humour aside, procrastination can be a real, anxiety-inducing problem for a lot of people, including myself. There is a constant and vicious cycle between anxiety and avoidance; the longer you procrastinate, the more anxiety it can cause, which in turn can lead to inaction, which results in more anxiety… Sound familiar?

So, how do we break the cycle? Well, first we have to explore why we procrastinate in the first place. There are many different reasons why people procrastinate. These are only a few.

  • Complex projects can be highly anxiety-inducing, leaving a person feeling overwhelmed, especially when they don’t know where to begin. This can then lead to avoidance of the task at hand, which can begin the vicious procrastination cycle.
  • Perfectionists, who demand impossibly high levels of achievement from themselves, can often procrastinate from finishing a task, because the end product is not up to their standards. (For more on perfectionism, see Aly’s article in this quarter’s newsletter)
  • People can find themselves procrastinating for fear of failure, particularly on easier tasks where they are expected to excel. By procrastinating, they avoid and put off feelings of doubt, only to find this anxiety returns at a higher level, because they have less time to complete the task.
  • Conversely, people also procrastinate for fear of success, worried that they will set too high a standard for themselves and will not be able to live up to these expectations in the future.
  • Difficulty making decisions and dealing with uncertainty can also lead to procrastination. Uncertainty about the future and the pressure of having to make decisions can induce high levels of anxiety, which may then in turn lead to the avoidance of tasks.
  • Another reason why people may put off tasks is because they seek the thrill that comes with finishing them at the last minute. They put a lot of pressure on themselves, and find excitement in rushing to get things done down to the wire.


Now that we have some understanding into why we procrastinate, we can start to tackle breaking the cycle. Here are a few methods for dealing with procrastination habits.

  • When having to complete overwhelming projects, it is easier to see them as a series of smaller, manageable tasks rather than one big, scary one. By splitting projects up, you can also set smaller deadlines to keep yourself on track, which helps avoiding leaving things to the last minute.
  • Getting rid of, or limiting time with, distractions can help to stop your procrastination habit. Hours can easily slip away from you if you’re constantly checking your Facebook news feeds or your emails, and before you know it the day has passed. If you set aside dedicated time blocks where you can reply to emails or check Facebook, you can stop these distractions from invading all your time and concentrate on your tasks more effectively.
  • Changing the environment that you work in can help you work more effectively. Have all the tools that you’ll need with you (for example, making sure there’s ink in the printer) so these small things don’t stop you from starting your project. Try to work in a space that motivates and inspires you to get started and keep going.
  • Last, but not least, don’t forget the most important step of taking action and getting the task done. Spending too much time planning can be a way of procrastinating in itself. Try to explore why you procrastinate, and think about the effect it has on your anxiety levels. You can use this to motivate yourself!

Procrastination is often a deep rooted habit, but you can stop yourself over time. If you can manage your procrastination, you can manage your anxiety levels, and break the cycle!


References:

Ellis, A. & Knaus, W. (1977). Overcoming procrastination. New York: Institute for Rational Living.

Harriott, J. & Ferrari, J.R. (1996). Prevalence of procrastination among samples of adults. Psychological Reports, 78, 611-616.



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