Bored woman procrastinating by balancing a pencil on her lip

Pondering procrastination

In this blog our guest writer and mindfulness, yoga and stress management consultant, Bev Alderson, shares her top tips for dealing with procrastination.

We have probably all experienced times, when faced with an important event or activity, where we have found ourselves frittering away time on something more trivial. In a world ripe with delicious distractions, there is plenty to turn our heads too – rather than focus on the task at hand.

The call of digital white noise can see many hours lost to the likes of social media or the latest box set. Or we may simply find ourselves list writing, paper shuffling, or doing a few chores – anything or everything other than what is required.

The truth is we are all prone to a bit of procrastination, no matter how organised and/or efficient we may consider ourselves to be. Procrastination may be an occasional, albeit frustrating, interlude in our otherwise organised lives. Or it may be an extremely unhelpful habit that is constantly hindering our ability to get stuff done or to achieve our goals.

And it is not just about output. Constantly being on the back foot can also impact our mental health and wellbeing, and the quality of our day-to-day lives.

So why do we put off until tomorrow what we really should be doing today, when it is not in our interests to do so? It’s a really good question – let’s ponder procrastination.

What is Procrastination?

Like with most things, there are plenty of differing definitions, not to mention views, on what procrastination is all about.

Here’s a line from Wikipedia – “the action of unnecessarily and voluntarily delaying or postponing something, despite knowing that there will be negative consequences to doing so”.

Cast your mind back to when you were at school or a student.  Can you recall a time, or many a time, when you knew you had an exam fast approaching, or homework due, yet you chose to watch something on TV instead? There are some schools of thought that believe there are a couple of reasons for your insubordination – two different types of procrastination:

Type 1:  Passive Procrastination

This is how most of us would define procrastination and is considered to be the negative of the two. We know we need to get something done and are aware of the potential risks and consequences to not doing it, but we delay or postpone anyway.

The delay itself is not planned or intentional. We could have used the time to do our homework or study, but we allowed something else to distract us. Drivers for this type of procrastination are believed to include boredom, avoidance, indecision, fear, or a lack of confidence.

It is worth pointing out here that passive procrastination has nothing to do with being lazy, lacking motivation or drive – just in case you were wondering or giving yourself, or your kids, a hard time!

Type 2: Active Procrastination

Considered to be the more positive of the two is active procrastination. Again, we know we need to get something done, and we are aware of the potential risks and consequences to not doing it.

The key difference is that we consciously choose to delay, or postpone. The delay is deliberate and the driver generally a desire to increase focus and challenge – believing we do our best work under pressure.

We could have used the time to do our homework or study but we chose to delay and to do something else. However, I will let you decide for yourself, if you believe that active procrastination is indeed a positive? Or if a considered or planned delay is actually a form of procrastination at all?

Why do we Procrastinate?

The simple answer is, ‘because we are human!’ I don’t mean to be flippant, but I think it is worth pointing out that procrastination is one of the traits of being human.  A trait that we are all gifted, like it or not, by the celestial design committee and for a good reason.

Our ancestors, focussed on survival, would have been wired to seek out the immediate reward of food and avoid those proverbial sabre tooth tigers. Perhaps they did make longer term plans but these would have been parked, if they found themselves in the path of food or danger.

Today there are no sabre tooth tigers, but it seems we are still wired the same way as our ancestors – to seek immediate reward and avoid the undesirable.

Procrastination and Neuroscience

I came across this short YouTube clip ‘the neurobiology of procrastination’, by Piers Steel, a researcher and speaker on the science of motivation and procrastination, which provides a theory on why our brain’s architecture is indeed wired for procrastination.

To summarise we have two systems at play:

  • System 1: the limbic system which craves immediate pleasure and pain avoidance, but lacks a horizon view.
  • System 2: the prefrontal cortex which is associated with making longer term plans, but lacks the speed and stamina of system 1.

The theory is that these two systems can conflict, making procrastination inevitable.

We plan to study or do our homework (system 2) but something interesting on TV or social media turns our heads (system 1).

We make plans to diet with our prefrontal cortex and our limbic system over-rides these plans when we eye the chocolate cookie. Darn that limbic system!

Procrastination and Stress

An article in Psychological Science ‘The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control’ details a 2018 study, on the linkage between design related action and amygdala volume, in a control group of 264 adults.

If you are not familiar with the amygdala, it is often referred to as the alarm system for stress.  When a stressor is detected, the amygdala alerts the body and mind to go into a state of preparation, in order to deal with it.  Aka the good old fight and flight response.

You can also think of the amygdala rather like a muscle. The more you work it (the more stress anticipated or experienced) the larger the amygdala gets.

What the study found was that those with a larger volume of amygdala were more prone to procrastination. Another good design from the celestial design committee.

The more stressful our world, real or perceived, the bigger the alarm system and the greater focus on what is right in front of us.  We don’t need to be focussed on making plans when our survival is hanging in the balance.

Although a good question to ask ourselves here is what comes first, the procrastination or the stress?

Procrastination and our genetics

A somewhat controversial 2014 study ‘Genetic Relations Among Procrastination …’ , published in Psychological Science, aimed to determine if we might be genetically disposed to procrastination. They asked sets of twins (181 identical and 166 fraternal) to complete surveys that looked at the propensity to act impulsively, procrastinate and the ability to set and maintain goals.

If you are wondering why they used twins, it is because identical twins share 100% and fraternal 50% DNA.

They compared the survey answers and determined that the propensity to procrastinate is indeed inherited. They also determined that procrastination, genetically speaking, is a by-product of impulsivity and one that is more of an issue today than it was for our ancestors.

Incidentally, one of the reasons this study was considered controversial is that twins generally grow up together. This bodes the question of how much of the findings were due to nature and how much to nurture.

Procrastination and Nurture

Like most traits, procrastination is likely to be a combination of what we have been given and what we have learnt along the way.

Dr Linda Sapadin is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, a clinical psychologist specialising in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns, and an author of a number of books including ‘How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age’.

Sapadin has created six styles of procrastination, to help us understand the underlying behaviours behind why we may procrastinate.

Perfectionist: Reluctant to start or finish a task because they don’t want their output, or themselves, to be perceived as anything less than perfect.

Dreamer: Great at the theory and the ideas but struggles to implement them because they are not good at the detail.

Worrier: An excessive need for security, causing them to be risk adverse, avoid change and put off any activity that takes them away from the safety of the known. Their mantra is ‘what if’.

Crisis-maker: Puts off tasks because they like the adrenaline rush of a last-minute deadline. They will often say that they need to work under pressure in order to perform at their best.

Defier:  Doesn’t believe someone should dictate their time schedule and may be quietly, or openly, defiant towards anyone who tries.

Overdoer: Takes on too much, particularly for others, and then struggles to get everything, particularly their own stuff, done.

The theory is that when we understand why we procrastinate, we have a better chance of putting in place strategies to overcome or minimise our procrastination tendencies.

You will find a six styles personality quiz, on Dr Sapadin’s website, that you might like to use to determine which styles are a major or minor influence for you.

The book also includes self-assessment. Along with a lot of ideas aimed at shifting how you think, speak, and act to overcome your procrastination style, or combination of styles.

Overcoming Procrastination

Regardless of how we got here, we are where we are. In overcoming procrastination, and for the purposes of this blog, I am going to take a generic approach in how we might go about tackling it. Here are 10 thoughts and/or ways to avoid, or limit, procrastination:

  1. Self-care

Whilst procrastination has little, if anything, to do with self-care, an absence of it is likely to set the stage.

A lack of exercise, quality sleep, good nutrition and hydration will inevitably have anyone not feeling or performing at their best and see any procrastination habits amplified.

For those of you looking for the self-care how, you might like to check out a previous blog ‘the road to wellbeing’

  1. When do you procrastinate

The task at hand is likely to influence, if not trigger, a procrastination style. Think of the perfectionist being tasked with delivering a company-wide presentation. The worrier being tasked with organising a large event. Or the crisis-maker being given a long-drawn-out project to oversee.

We all have responsibilities and activities, as part of our jobs or daily lives, that we would rather not do or struggle to get done. There may also be times during the day, the week, or the year when we may be more prone to put things off. These are likely to be when procrastination will show up for the most for us.

Understanding the when can help us to put in place strategies to meet our procrastination head on. Or to catch it and overcome it in the moment.

  1. How do you procrastinate

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

I came across an article, via the Piers Steel website, called ‘creative procrastination’ – a light hearted and a bit of a tongue in cheek look at ways to procrastinate! Of course, my aim in sharing this is not to teach you new ways to procrastinate, rather to help identify ways you might be doing it!

Knowing what we do, when we deviate off course, again enables us to catch ourselves procrastinating and get back on track faster.

  1. Write a list

Some people love a list. Not just so that they know what they have to do but so that they get to tick things off the list.

List writing can however be a form of procrastination in itself – for example, if we are constantly writing and rewriting lists. However, in saying that, they can have their anti-procrastination uses. Getting a couple of easy and quick wins under your belt, ticked off the list, can create momentum.

However, if a task is too big or too vague, this is probably going to see the best of us heading for the procrastination hills. Which leads on nicely to my next point…

  1. Break it down

Cast your mind back to when you were attempting, or thinking about attempting, to study or do your homework. One of the reasons you may have been stifled to act was because the task seemed too big, too overwhelming.

Breaking a larger activity down into bite size pieces can make it more palatable and achievable, less prone to procrastination.

  1. Remove your distractions

Some tasks, writing for example, take a lot of focus and can be a long-drawn-out process. As such it, and similar activities, can be a breeding ground for procrastination. As I write I have my phone on silent, my email turned off and internet closed down.

Whilst I appreciate we don’t always have this luxury, doing what we can to limit distractions will help stop us getting carried away…if something literally pops up.

  1. Use Productivity Cycles

Another strategy I advocate and personally adopt is to work in productivity cycles.

This is one of the best techniques, I have come across, for supporting focus, output, and wellbeing. Win, win, win.

The simplest way to do this is to set a timer for 90-120 minutes and put your 100% focus into the task, or a chunk of the task, at hand. Then take a break preferably for 20 minutes.

A more structured technique you might like to try is called the pomodoro technique which was devised by Francisco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. It goes something like this:

  1. Choose a task to work on
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work intensively until timer sounds
  4. Take a 5-minute break
  5. Continue with steps 2 – 4 until you have completed 3-4 cycles
  6. Then take a well-earned 20-minute break (or more)

For both techniques, it is worth accessing how well it went so, if required, you can make any improvements in terms of managing your focus, minimising distractions etc for next time.

  1. Have a plan

Let’s assume you have identified a situation or event where you are likely to procrastinate or have caught yourself procrastinating. What do you do?

An anti-procrastination plan can help in getting started, maintaining momentum and in achieving a desired outcome. Below is an example of a procrastination plan for someone wanting to cook more.

 

Situation involving procrastination:
Would like to cook more instead of having ready-made meals
Thoughts impeding action:

·       I can buy for the same price if not cheaper.

·       It’s easier and quicker.

·       I have more time to do other things.

·       I work away a few times a week so food often gets wasted.

·       My housemates don’t cook either so I find it easy to follow suit.

 

 

Thoughts promoting action:

·       I enjoy cooking once I get into the routine of it.

·       I enjoy cooking for and sharing food with others.

·       It is healthier to cook from fresh produce.

·       Cooking and freezing means I have healthy meals available when I work late.

·       I will get more variety in my diet.

·       Buying fresh and local produce supports farmers and the community.

Getting started – first steps:

1.     Start cooking once a week.

2.     Select a meal to cook where extra portions can be frozen and used for another meal.

3.     Add a freshly prepared side dish to a ready meal.

4.     Buy produce in bulk or at markets to reduce costs.

5.     Source new recipes to try.

Keeping going – preventing slipping back:

1.     Pick a specific evening to cook and add this to my calendar.

2.     Invite friends around for dinner once a month.

3.     Make food to share at work.

4.     See if housemates would also like to participate.

List the benefits of breaking the procrastination habit:

 

1.     Increase my health.

2.     Enhance the variety of my diet.

3.     Self-satisfaction.

4.     Enjoyment in cooking and sharing food with others.

5.     Support for local farmers and local community.

 

  1. Use an App

For those of you that like to use apps, there are a few on the market that claim to help with managing procrastination. Whilst I can’t speak to these personally, you might like to check out a blog by Lifehack ’10 most effective apps to help you beat procrastination’ and explore some of these for yourself.

  1. Reward

And last but not least, rewards can be powerful motivators for some. Consider having a list of rewards that you will give yourself when you accomplish a task or part of a task. If you are not sure how to give yourself a pat on the back, check out ‘100 ways to reward yourself without derailing your health goals’ for some ideas.

Summary

We all procrastinate from time to time, but constantly putting stuff off is going to impact our effectiveness and our ability to achieve our goals. Worrying about constantly putting stuff off is going to impact our wellbeing and quality of life. Suffice to say there are plenty good reasons to overcome, or at least minimise, our procrastination habit. The aim of this blog is to enhance your understanding of what procrastination is all about, why we do it and share some strategies that may be useful in helping you to stop wasting your time.


Bev Alderson

Bev Alderson is a Mindfulness, Yoga and Stress Management Consultant who works with individuals, groups and workplaces.

Having spent 18+ years in management in the IT industry, in both the UK and Australia, Bev learnt first-hand the impacts of a high-pressure environment and lifestyle and how, left unchecked, this can negatively impact performance and health.

Today, through her business Practically Balanced, Bev brings authenticity to the work she does, drawing upon her personal experiences, management capabilities and expertise in mindfulness, stress resilience, yoga and more.

Bev completed a Diploma in Yoga with the highly respected Qi Yoga School in Sydney in 2012 and with Sivananda in India in 2015. She also completed a Certificate in Stress Management with the London Centre for Coaching and Counselling in 2014, an ILM with the Stress Management Society in 2014 and a Diploma in Meditation with the British School of Meditation in 2016.


With many thanks to Bev for this blog. If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via e-mail or phone:

nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk
01684 310099

Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team



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6 thoughts on “Pondering procrastination

  1. My main cause of procrastination is quite simple: dread/fear!

    By that I mean with regard to having to/needing to do something difficult or stressful, whether that be in a physical/mental/ emotional capacity.

    I would say this is the caser at least 80% of the time, the only other influence being mental or physical tiredness/exhaustion.

    1. Fear and dread of looming stressful situations can definitely fall under the category of passive procrastination. You only have to think of something like a scheduled presentation, or the likes! Hope the styles of putting things off and our natural tendencies were food for thought and the ideas on how to tackle procrastination helpful? Procrastination in itself can be exhausting, can’t it. I am such a big fan of self care – when we look after ourselves we tend to feel better, get more done and enjoy life more. Thanks, Bev

  2. Interesting Bev that you didn’t go into mindset. I find that if I see a situation as positive that I’m less likely to avoid it. Good blog though, as always. PH

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