Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop? Experts have answers.

Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop? Experts have answers.

If you’re reading this article instead of tackling one of the many projects you meant to do during the pandemic, or before starting the report due tomorrow at work, or as an alternative to changing your car’s year-old oil, feel no shame: This is a safe space, procrastinators, and you’re among friends.

Joseph Ferrari , a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of “ Still Procrastinating?: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done ,” has found that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. “That’s higher than depression, higher than phobia, higher than panic attacks and alcoholism. And yet all of those are considered legitimate,” he said. “We try to trivialize this tendency, but it’s not a funny topic.”

Ferrari was speaking while on a road trip with his wife, who chimed in to say that she’s a procrastinator. Her tendencies helped spur her husband’s research interests. He doesn’t procrastinate — he has a 107-page résumé, he said, because he gets things done — but he’s built a career around understanding those who do.

Among his findings: Chronic procrastination doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race or age; we’re all susceptible. As he put it: “Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” And contrary to popular belief, procrastinating has little to do with laziness. It’s far more complicated, he said, than simply being a matter of time management.

To understand what causes procrastination (outside of conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, where executive functioning issues might interfere with task completion), it’s important to be clear about what it is — and isn’t. Procrastination is different from delaying a task because you need to talk to someone who isn’t available, or not getting around to reading a literary classic such as “Moby Dick.” Fuschia Sirois , a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, defines procrastination this way: “The voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so.”

On its surface, procrastination is an irrational behavior, Sirois said: “Why would somebody put something off to the last minute, and then they’re stressed out of their mind, and they end up doing a poor job or less than optimal job on it? And then they feel bad about it afterward, and it may even have implications for other people.”

The reason, she said, has to do with emotional self-regulation — and, in particular, an inability to manage negative moods around a certain task. We usually don’t procrastinate on fun things, she said. We procrastinate on tasks we find “difficult, unpleasant, aversive or just plain boring or stressful.” If a task feels especially overwhelming or provokes significant anxiety, it’s often easiest to avoid it.

Another reason people procrastinate, Sirois said, is because of low self-esteem. One might think: “I’m never going to do this right,” or, “What will my boss think if I screw up?”

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