Every day at 9 am, the alarm goes off on my watch reminding me to clean the kitchen. I pause the alarm, telling myself that I will do it later. Later never comes. In fact, I turn off most of my alarms during the day that remind me to put in a load of laundry or run to the pharmacy.
I am a master procrastinator who waits for the last minute to accomplish most daily tasks. This is a major source of stress in my life. I am the mom who washes her children’s laundry at 12 am on Sunday night so that they have clean clothes for school. I run to the grocery store when the refrigerator is empty and there are no snacks in the cupboards. Although I have good intentions and plan my days out carefully, I fail on following through. Procrastination is an obstacle that interferes with my ability to live my life to the fullest potential.
What is procrastination?
Loosely defined, procrastination is the putting off of tasks until the last minute, or past their deadline. People who procrastinate may be committed to meeting their responsibilities, but often find themselves wasting time watching television, playing on social media, or engaged in other non-goal oriented tasks. Most people procrastinate at one time or another, and so this isn’t necessarily a serious problem. For 20% of individuals though, procrastination becomes a chronic condition that can affect family relationships, career, finances, and mental and physical health. Research shows that procrastination can result in cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as causing headaches, digestive issues, infections, and insomnia.
Why do people procrastinate?
If procrastinating makes us feel so bad and can interfere with the core functioning of our lives, why do we do it? Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield says that people engage in chronic procrastination due to an inability to manage negative mood states around a given task. In other words, we procrastinate to deal with feelings of boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment and more. These feelings stem from our desire to avoid an unpleasant task, or from self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity. This view of procrastination assumes an emotionally focused internal locus of control and implies that finding new ways to manage negative emotions will lead to less procrastination.
Although psychological factors also play a role in procrastination, research in biology puts procrastination in a new light. It has been suggested that the root of procrastination lies with a battle between the limbic (emotional) system of the brain and the prefrontal cortex (the planning center). When the limbic system is active and is protecting us from negative emotions, procrastination is more likely. Chronic procrastinators have enlarged areas in their limbic systems, suggesting individual brain differences between those who do and do not procrastinate.
Some preliminary studies now attempt to draw an association between genetics and the trait of procrastination. Dr. Erhan Genc and his colleagues discovered a gene that is associated with greater procrastination in women. This gene regulates the expression of dopamine, which is involved in attention, memory, and motivation. Women with an alteration in this gene that causes increases in dopamine levels tend to procrastinate more.
How do we stop procrastinating?
Procrastination is a multi-faceted problem that involves both psychological and biological processes. Getting control of procrastination is not as simple as downloading a time management application or making a to-do list. In order to make progress and develop better habits, it is import to recognize the role that avoidance of negative emotions and rewards play in the maintenance of this habit.
Self-forgiveness and self-compassion have been found to play key roles in reducing procrastination by providing a buffer to negative emotions. Offering yourself a reward after completing a task is one way to encourage positive feelings and may act as a motivator. Some people find it helpful to check-in with a friend or family member upon the completion of a task. This serves as an external motivator and can help limit procrastination.
One of the reasons that I find myself procrastinating so much is boredom. I am at home alone all day, and it is easy to put things off for later because there is no pressing need to get them done by a certain time. Who wouldn’t want to put off cleaning toilets or vacuuming the stairs? I come up with ways to stop procrastinating, and often these things become new tools of procrastination. For me, self-forgiveness helps ease the transition from playing on Facebook to loading the dishwasher. Every day is a new beginning, and I allow myself the grace to start over and try again.