New Ways to Think about Procrastination - Part 1

New Ways to Think about Procrastination - Part 1

by Christy Rotman, College Life Skills Coach at the University of Virginia

“Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” – Dr. Joseph Ferrari, psychologist

According to Dr. Ferrari, author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, only 20% of adult men and women are procrastinators – people who procrastinate in every area of their life: work, school, relationships, bills, etc… The other 80% of people still procrastinate in different areas of life (ex. school work, paying bills, doing laundry, calling a friend, etc…), but not in ALL the things.

We tend to treat procrastination as a personal quality or an identity, but usually it is a behavior or action. Making this differentiation can help us begin to see ourselves differently. We can let go of our identity as a procrastinator and adopt a new identity, perhaps someone who tries to start things earlier, for example.

Believing new things about yourself is one strategy for making change. In other words, instead of continually reinforcing who you are now (ex. a procrastinator), start thinking about who you wish to become (ex. someone who gets things done early!). Then start making choices, building habits, and establishing patterns as though you were that person. This is easier said than done, of course, but helpful to consider.

Exploring the effects

By definition, to procrastinate means to “delay, or defer action.” We tend to make this negative, even associating procrastination with things like laziness, lack of motivation or poor time management skills. But procrastinating isn’t always problematic. Perhaps someone is so busy that they are constantly making choices of what to delay, but they aren’t bothered by it. Or you might delay a decision because you want to think things over or see how things pan out. On the other hand, sometimes our procrastinating behaviors do cause problems. In their book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It, Drs. Burka and Yuen talk about a continuum of distress – from mild to more severe. They point out that procrastination may cause both external consequences (ex. library fines or losing a job or relationship) and internal consequences (irritation, regret, self-condemnation, and despair).

Make this your own:  Reflect on your own tendencies to procrastinate – the where, when, and how. Are you experiencing distress because of it? Are you noticing external or internal consequences or both? If you could make change that would feel satisfying what would it be?

Two Selves

Procrastination is often a battle between two selves: one self operates in the present by responding to impulse and immediate desires. The other self thinks about long term goals and can delay gratification. Both of these selves are inside of us and we switch between them. As Prof. Kelly McGonigal gives an example in her book The Willpower Instinct, “sometimes we identify with the person who wants to lose weight, and sometimes we identify with the person who just wants the cookie.” And both selves are okay!

Make this your own:  Think of a task you are procrastinating on. Describe the two selves inside of you. What does your impulsive self want? What does your long-term self want? You might try naming the impulsive self (ex. the cookie monster) so you can begin to recognize when it is taking over. Bringing awareness to these two selves will increase your ability to choose which self you give power 1.

Prefrontal what?

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that regulates cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning. It is like your own personal CEO and it isn’t fully developed until well into your twenties! Since the prefrontal cortex is also the part of your brain responsible for rational decision-making, when it is not fully developed, it is easy to think only in the present and difficult to remember the benefits or cost of something in the long term.

Make this your own:  Each time you hit a decision point on how to spend your time or what to do next, pause. Think of the last decision that you made that was similar. Try to remember the benefits and the cost of the choice you made. For example, if you are deciding whether to study for that upcoming exam or watch more Netflix – ask yourself how did I feel the last time I was making this decision? Was I happy that I chose to study? Or was I happy that I chose Netflix? You might also ask yourself what you really need in this moment. Am I really needing rest? If so, perhaps taking a power nap will give me more rest than a Netflix show.

Click here to read part 2 of this 2-part series. 

1 Adapted from Dr. McGonigal’s willpower exercise titled “Under the Microscope: Meet your two minds,” on page 18 of The Willpower Instinct.