It’s rare that I hear procrastination referred to in a positive light. Perhaps at high school, when some of my esteemed classmates would exhibit their extreme cool by saying they were procrastinating studying for exams. They didn’t actually mean they were putting off studying, they were implying that they had no intention of studying. More than that - they were implying that only dickheads cared about school. Of course, only us dickheads could appreciate the irony of misusing the term procrastinate in a sentence intended to demonstrate the insignificance of a good education.
Like most people who know the correct use of the word, I have generally considered procrastination to be a bad thing. When I catch myself doing it, I feel the special inkling of shame reserved for moments when I am not fulfilling my potential. In the absence of clues about what a fulfilled potential actually looks like, the only way to reduce the inklings is to avoid thinking about what I’m not doing, which itself can only be achieved by avoiding the task at hand, which then leads to less fulfilled potential, more intense inklings, further avoidance, more shame, continued avoidance, and suddenly it’s six weeks between blog posts.
In my CBT practice, I ask my clients to consider the original function of their behaviour before trying to change it. By understanding where the behaviour came from, and why you keep doing it, you can weigh that up against the potential benefits of trying something different, and you’ll feel better prepared for the hurdles you might face along the way.
In the past when I’ve tried to evaluate my procrastination, I have discovered that it’s very hard to find time to identify the benefits of your behaviour when your brain is busy telling you how useless you are. “Emotional Reasoning” is when you make sense of something based on how you’re feeling. My Rational Brain knows this type of logic is often misguided. My Rational Brain also likes to take naps whenever I am feeling bad about myself.
I needed an experiment that would help me understand the point of all this procrastinating. I came up with two possible theories.
Theory A: Procrastination is inherently evil. It is like a tumour, benign at best, and in most cases it is malignant and must be exorcised.
Theory B: Procrastination serves a purpose. It is like a tonsil, functional at times, but susceptible to severe infection.
I started with Theory A because, frankly, I didn’t come up with Theory B until after I had tried Theory A. When I started working on this super original idea to write a blog about procrastinating about writing a blog about procrastination (if you only ever read one blog post in your life, chances are it will be about procrastination), I genuinely believed that I would use my anti-crastination techniques, write a fabulous blog, and that would be the end of it. So Theory A comes first.
Experiment A: Procrastination is a tumour
The techniques I tried were standard strategies for overcoming procrastination that are covered at length everywhere else. I discovered that what I have been preaching for years actually works:
- Instead of waiting for motivation to do my work, I could start doing my work and motivation would follow.
- I could write and do admin without first having tidied the flat, done the shopping, or replaced the batteries in the smoke detector.
- I could get a lot of admin done in small gaps of time.
- I could get a lot of sentences written if I faced my fear of writing bad sentences, and it was true that no one would read them until I published them, and I didn’t have to publish them until I had re-written them, and I could always re-write them later. Hear that people? You don’t have to publish your first draft. (Not yours though, yours is great.)
I got quite a lot of admin done thanks to these strategies. So that’s good. I also got a lot of bad sentences written. Really bad. Terrible. Irretrievably terrible. NaNoWriMo terrible. I tried and failed to make them better, somewhat thwarted by not really agreeing with what I had written. My ego was deflating, and those inklings of shame soon followed. My initial urge was to publish it anyway, then self-preservation kicked in and I procrastinated instead.
And thus Theory B was born.
If everybody looked ashamed, we’d get tired of looking at each other Shame feels awful because it’s meant to stop us from doing the sorts of awful things that would make it impossible to connect with other people. It’s the emotion that warns you that you might not be good enough. This would be helpful were it not continually attached to outdated ideas of what constitutes “good enough”.
Say, for example, you have a strong memory of being told off as a 7-year-old for leaving your bee project until the last minute. Your mum was probably trying to reinforce the importance of learning to plan early for assignments, so that you can cement the habit in the so-called elementary years, then ride that wave through high school and into the big pond that is university, where you will then manage to avoid drowning for eight years so that you can get a respectable job you love and a credit card with “Doctor” on it that you almost love more. That’s what she means. But what you hear is, “I won’t love you anymore if you leave things to the last minute.” The experience gets logged in your unconscious as it was felt, not as it was intended.
Shame is not meant to stop you from procrastinating over writing a blog post that has no deadline, no target audience, and no discernible purpose.
Shame is meant to stop you from shitting in the street.
Experiment B: Procrastination is a tonsil. Therefore – oh yes – it’s not a tumour. Say it in the Arnie voice. Go on, you know you want to.
Remember when everyone was getting their tonsils out? They used to be removed at the first sign of infection, and then they discovered that for a lot of kids, the surgical removal of tonsils may be equally as effective as the slightly less invasive procedure, the passing of time. The general consensus nowadays seems to be that the tonsils are probably a useful part of our immune system, and should only be removed in the case of chronic obstruction to breathing or frequent infection that interferes with going about daily life. Does procrastination have enough of a purpose to justify not surgically removing it at the first sign of infection?
I decided to deliberately procrastinate on three very different tasks, and monitor whether I found any value in putting it off. They were all things I was already putting off, and so at the very least I was looking forward to being temporarily able to attribute the procrastination to something that wasn’t me.
For the purposes of the experiment, I need a clear, scientific definition for procrastination. I came up with this gem: “putting off a task until I really feel like doing it.”
Task 1: Completing my monthly accounts admin for my private practice
Deadline: 15th Sept Predicted time to complete: 45 mins Predicted emotion: tedium, 80%
Completed: 17th Sept Actual time taken to complete: 25 mins Actual emotion: tedium 30%, pride 20%
Why did I feel like doing it eventually? Simply put, I wouldn’t get paid until I finished the task. There comes a point where the desire to get paid heavily outweighs the desire to avoid tedium.
Benefits of procrastination I couldn’t find any. I had completely overestimated how bad the task would be and there was no reason to put it off.
Costs of procrastination I potentially let others down by not sending things when promised, I delayed my own pay day, and I ended up doing it late at night when I had to be up early for work the next day.
Diagnosis: Infected Tonsils It’s more uncomfortable to address it than to leave it, but avoiding treatment for this type of procrastination is likely to make things worse.
Task 2: Watching a documentary on women’s safety in India
Deadline: none Predicted emotion: sadness 90%, anger 50%, hopelessness 70% Completed: not yet. I still haven’t felt like it.
Benefits of procrastination Obviously I have saved myself from an onslaught of intolerable emotions, total breakdown and inability to continue practicing as a psychologist. By giving myself permission to procrastinate, I also stopped feeling guilty that I’d not watched it yet.
Costs of procrastination Until my Rational Brain took charge again, it felt like I was letting down womankind and taking my own freedom and security for granted by not facing up to the oppression and suffering in the world.
Diagnosis: Tender Tonsils This type of procrastination doesn’t make things worse unless I believe that not doing it makes me a bad person. Which I do. But only when I think about it.
Task 3: Writing my blog post on procrastination
Deadline: none Predicted time to complete: 4-8 hours Predicted emotions: frustration 75%; uselessness 30%; satisfaction 20%
Actual time taken to complete: 12 hours Actual emotion: anxiety 15%,
Why did I feel like doing it eventually? I just did. After about two weeks of deliberate procrastination, the memory from high school popped into my head and I went from there. For the following few days, whenever I had a chunk of time, I was drawn to sit down and keep working on it.
Benefits of procrastination I’d not been deliberately thinking about the topic, but I suspect that the ideas had been circling in my unconscious over the two weeks. The words came to me as fully formed and functional sentences, flowing on from each other. It still needed re-writing, but this time I had something substantial to work from.
I was also much less stressed when writing it. There was no pressure to get it written “in time”, and I stopped caring if people judged me for it. Someone having preference for speed over quality isn’t going to change the reality of how I write it, so why spend energy worrying about how to win them over? (This is Rational Brain talking. Emotional Brain still thinks if I just work hard enough I can make you like me.)
Costs of procrastination I don’t know. How much did you miss me?
Diagnosis: Functional Tonsils. Just because I can’t see it working, doesn’t mean nothing is happening.
A final note
Believing that procrastination is a fundamentally shameful behaviour is like believing that the tonsils are a shameful collection of tissues, just because sometimes they can swell up and make your life miserable. And then not treating an infection, because you can’t face the shame of having tonsils in the first place.
If your procrastination is making the situation worse the longer you leave it, take action. If it’s not, why not try just letting it be? At the very least, you’ll give yourself a break from feeling bad about it. When you get back from your break, you may just find that your unconscious has been busy solving the problem for you.
© Cognitive Behave Yourself, 2013, except for the line I borrowed from Groove Armada. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full credit is given to Jane Gregory with a link to the original material. For CBT in North-West London please visit www.hampsteadcbt.com.