Have you ever had an important project or paper to do and found that you suddenly had an urgent need to reorganize your pictures on Facebook, browse “how to” videos on YouTube, or clean out your closet? Procrastination is a thief of time and a guaranteed way to avoid success and we all struggle with it at one time or another.
According to Dr. Joseph Ferrari, the leading international researcher in the study of procrastination, 20 percent of U.S. men and women could even be labeled as chronic procrastinators. It is an issue that I encounter every day in conversations with parents and students in my work as a study skills tutor. I hear things like:
“Johnny always seems to be working. I see him on the computer. What is he doing on there? He is not doing well on tests, projects or papers.”
“Sara never starts on her projects and papers until the night before. Then she gets really stressed out and stays up all night to try to get it all done.”
“I never see Chris doing homework. Sometimes he will start on a project and it will be great. Then I don’t know what happens but he never gets it finished and turns it in.”
Procrastination: It’s Not Just a Time-Management Issue
I think the reason we struggle so much with procrastination is that we often approach it the wrong way, thinking that procrastination is a sign of laziness or a time-management issue. Procrastination is not just a time-management issue. Both my experience with students and research by the experts reveal that it is an emotional issue that has more to do with feelings and less to do with the inability to manage time.
Why do We Procrastinate?
People procrastinate for different reasons, but they all have something in common. There are three main types of procrastinators: thrill-seekers who enjoy the last minute rush, avoiders who are trying to fend off fear of failure or success, and decisional procrastinators who just can not decide. Most of the students that I meet who procrastinate want to get the work done just as much as students who do not procrastinate. Usually, they understand very well how to write down assignments, schedule them out on a calendar, and plan their time. Then they do not get it done or they wait until the last minute to start so that the resulting product is sub par. This may sound familiar to you too, but why does this happen?
The answer is: emotional avoidance or giving in to feeling good, and it goes like this:
- We get an assignment, project, or task to do and have tons of super creative ideas about how to complete it.
- We have the desire (just like our non-procrastinating peers) to do well. We might even have bigger and more creative plans.
- The enormity or “big picture” of the task makes us panic. We get overwhelmed and experience anxiety or we may also just not feel like doing it.
- So, we distract ourselves instead of working on the project at hand. Some people distract themselves with “productive behaviors” like organizing or cleaning. Others distract themselves with things like video games or Instagram. These comforting behaviors make us feel better until……
- The deadline approaches or the project, paper, or assignment is due. Then we PANIC! This panic either causes us to get the work done (and produce a last-minute shoddy version of what we intended) or it sets into motion another avoidance cycle explained above in step #4.
What is the Difference Between People Who Procrastinate and Those Who Do Not?
According to the experts, procrastinators focus on how they feel about a task. Conversely, non-procrastinators focus on behavior and what they can actually do. Even though they may feel the same anxiety or reluctance to begin, non-procrastinators turn their focus to the task-at-hand, using the feelings to motivate themselves to begin the first small step towards completion of the larger task.
How Can You Use Your Anxiety to Motivate Instead of Distract?
Acknowledge Your Negative Feelings and Get Started Anyway
If you feel overwhelmed at the beginning of a project, acknowledge this feeling and then get started. Remind yourself that to start, you don’t have to be in a positive mood or even feel like working on it.
Use Time-Management Strategies to Reduce Anxiety
Once you have started, this is where time-management comes in. Break the project into small manageable tasks and write these down on a calendar so that you will know when to complete each task. These time management strategies will help to avoid the onset of anxiety as you begin working.
Focus on What You are Doing Instead of How You are Feeling
For procrastinators, focusing on feelings can result in anxiety and avoidance. Time-management strategies cause you to focus your attention on what you are doing instead of how you are feeling, making you more productive. If you break the project into small tasks, you will be able to complete the task, check it off of your list and feel good about making progress.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As the well-known quote by Lao Tzu states, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” As procrastinators, we need to learn to take that step instead of obsessing about the thousand miles, experiencing anxiety, and opening up Pinterest.
So, the next time you see procrastination on the horizon, instead of sinking into negative feelings with avoidance think, “It’s okay to feel a little overwhelmed in the beginning; what is the first step?”. Then take it. You will feel happier, less anxious, and healthier in the long-run, and your future self will thank you.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC