A Tap on the Glass - Vol. 36 - The Psychology of Procrastination

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I am looking at 8 different projects on my desk. All of them asking for my undivided attention. I’m not sure how I let this happen, but there they are; staring at me….one is glaring rather ominously.

Why do we put things off? Most people naturally tend to put off the difficult or unpleasant tasks. However the systematic and habitual putting off of important tasks usually has some deeper root causes. The cause might have one major psychological origin or it might be a combination of things, but the effect is the same: failure to accomplish something we’ve set out to do.

So, I did a little reading on the subject and what I found was very interesting (at least to me). It was prompted from some comment about the last column on “Fear of Success”.

This failure often fulfills a subconscious need in the procrastinator. This “need to fail” is typically based on the avoidance of a situation which may arouse a fear of some kind.

The first of these fears is the fear of failure. Obvious, right? But more specifically it’s the fear of failing to meet one’s own, possibly unrealistic, high standards. (Eyebrows just went up!) By putting off something till the last minute, one’s best efforts (which may not “measure up”) are never really tested. What actually IS tested is the skill at throwing something together at the last possible minute. Thus, the procrastinator is avoiding some kind of test of his or her true ability.

I found two more reasons, one rather obvious and the other that made me sit up and notice:

#2 reason why people put things off is the fear of success! Let’s be honest here; Success can be a double-edged sword. While it certainly has rewards, it can also have its dangers. Family and friends can be left behind in the “pursuit” and the repercussions can be undesirable. Many people “fail” at tasks they superficially set out to accomplish while they succeed at maintaining an unconscious status quo in their lives.

Number 3 was fascinating to me. People put things off because they have a fear of surrendering control. (oh ho!)

Every deadline missed is a battle won in the war to maintain absolute control over one’s own life (so the procrastinator thinks). Constantly arriving late or having one’s late contribution hold up a project’s completion or not responding to emails when asked, are all subtle ways of saying “see, I’m really in control…..”

As a group, procrastinators are more likely to believe that their self-worth is tied to some imagined ability to get things done but not necessarily to their demonstrated ability to get things done. A common childhood belief is “ they loved me for what I did, not for who I was.” By not really doing their best they rationalize that even though they didn’t do well on a particular project they could have done well if they’d given themselves enough time to do it right. So, they’re protecting what they mistakenly believe to be a sound basis for a healthy self-image. They’re saying, “I could be the best if I really gave myself a chance, but inside, I know I’m the best so I’m really still OK.”

The studies say the origins of these fears of disapproval vary. For instance, the Fear of Failure may be tied to a real or perceived unrealistic high standard set for them by a parent or teacher. “Johnny can be the best at anything he sets his mind to!” can be a pretty frightening message to a kid, even a bright one. Rather than deal with loss of a parents approval or affirmation, Johnny goes out of his way to avoid circumstances which might “prove” that he’s not the best. He puts off that assignment to the last minute and then reassures himself that he could have gotten a better grade if he’d only given himself more time.

Fear of Success on the other hand is often rooted in a fear of rejection. Sarah, the youngest sister in a large family was doing very well in school. In fact, she was going to the all-state spelling bee, if she won the 6th grade contest at her school. The older sisters aren’t supportive. “what make YOU so smart?” “You probably won’t even talk to us anymore!” Sarah puts off studying for the school spelling contest till the last possible moment…and comes in third.

The third one is especially interesting. Fear of losing control. Joe is in high school. Joe has a domineering Father who dictated everything he did. Doing chores was psychological warfare with his Dad. Joe found that if he put off things and worked on them very slowly, when he finally “got around to it” that there was really very little that his Dad could do about it. For once, he was in control. Hmmm.

I think these examples are pretty extreme and perhaps a little oversimplified, but do illustrate the point. What’s important is that a lot of us “succeed at failure” and we achieve that “success” by putting things off. We all do that and I don’t think it implies you need to run right out to a counselor. But if you find that procrastination is a constant and consistent roadblock to any level of success you’re striving for, you might want to examine some of the reasons you put things off.

I know from experience that tackling procrastination is like tackling any other ingrained habit. It’s persistent. In fact, there is a cruel irony about putting off trying to do something about your procrastination problem!

The setting and evaluation of your goals is an ongoing process of self-evaluation and exploration. NOBODY is perfect, but progress is a worthy pursuit and a measurable goal. With a little determination, insight, proper time management tools, and hard work you can make regular, healthy progress towards reaching your goals and doing it on time.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Thanks for reading.