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Is procrastination always bad?

By Laura Gallo, Applied Neuroscience PG Dip and Specialist Email Marketing – CIMA Europe, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

Is your mantra ‘first things first’? Then you are likely to be within the lucky 10% of the population.

If you instead find yourself delaying certain tasks regularly, you might be part of the 80% of the population who sits within the average procrastinator category.

Most people are inclined to believe that procrastination is just a character flaw, but is it?

Are we genetically predisposed to procrastinate? 

You might be surprised to hear that genetics studies show that procrastination is predominantly heritable, with goal-management ability influenced by genetic variation (Gustavson et al. 2014). 

Furthermore, this genetic predisposition to procrastinate might have well been an evolutionary survival advantage passed on to the following generations. 

Just imagine: Who will be more likely to survive (and reproduce)? The impulsive cavemen who fought predators or the ones who stayed behind sharpening their weapons until they felt were ready to fight?

Obviously, times have changed and we are not exposed to life-threatening predators. Nevertheless, we still face challenges that can make us feel vulnerable. So, do you reckon your spear is sharpened enough for your next battle? Or will you take your time until you feel ‘ready’?

What triggers procrastination?

People tend to procrastinate on work-related tasks, studying, exercising or confronting people.

In all these situations, the effort required to achieve a goal can feel overwhelming, increasing the motivation to avoid compared to the motivation to act (Zhang & Feng, 2019).

Therefore, unless your future expected rewards are perceived stronger than the aversion you have toward starting a certain task, you will keep putting it off.

Have you ever thought of trying a new diet or exercise regime, but you are still struggling to find the motivation to start? It could well be that your perception of the pain required feels heavier than the rewards from doing it.

Are all procrastinators equal?

There are two types of procrastinators: passive and active (Chun Chu & Choi, 2005). 

Passive procrastinators often postpone tasks because they can’t make decisions and act on them quickly, which probably fits with the traditional idea that we have of procrastinators. Instead, active procrastinators manage to complete their tasks at the last minute.

Active procrastinators will deliberately suspend their actions because it is only when they feel under pressure that they become more motivated to act. 

If you identify yourself as an active procrastinator, the good news is that you could benefit from experiencing less stress than non-procrastinators and have better physical health when deadlines are far off.

Furthermore, active procrastination could be even necessary for roles within highly demanding, unpredictable and fast-changing environments. Since active procrastinators keep constantly engaging in a process of reprioritising each of their tasks, they will be able to meet more effectively the changing situational demands.

Can procrastinators change? 

Even if procrastination might be written in your DNA, you still can make changes if you feel that it is weighing you down. 

After all, our environment and behaviours have been proven to alter our gene expression — you are more malleable than you think.

Therefore, if you are constantly engaging in highly rewarding tasks (such as watching TV, goofing off on social media, checking emails or surfing the web) instead of tackling your ‘to-do list’, there’s still hope for you.

You need first to understand that our brains are strongly wired to seek rewards, as they are crucial for essential life support processes such as drinking, eating and reproducing (but don’t end there).

In essence, the reward system will drive all your behaviours toward pleasurable goals and, as recently found, it will also help you avoid negative events (Wenzel et al., 2018). 

Consequently, when you procrastinate, you are trying to relief temporarily the stress of a task that you consider painful or threatening. Every time you say to yourself: ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, you will instantly feel relieved and good about yourself ... but only until tomorrow comes and you have to face (again) another guilt trip. By doing this repeatedly, you are training yourself to procrastinate.

And what happens when you actually get something done? Do you reward yourself for completing a task on time? Procrastinators are extremely self-critical, and it is indeed this trait that can be perpetuating this condition.

Just think what would happen if you are raising a child and never reward them for getting work done and only reward for avoiding work — have you been doing this to yourself?

So basically, you need to retrain yourself in two simple ways:

  1. Be kinder to yourself — self-criticism will only increase your anxiety and sense of overwhelm toward certain tasks. You can also learn ways of self-compassion when you practice mindfulness.
  2. Start rewarding yourself every time you overcome the impulse to procrastinate — it can be something as simple as giving yourself an internal appraise, to keeping a list of your small wins, or to treat you to something special once you have completed a task.

By starting to do this, you will rewire your brain and become more productive.If you are curious about where you sit on the Irrational Procrastination Scale, download this excel document to answer nine simple questions and find it out now … or maybe you can leave it for later.