Reflections on procrastination, and its paradox

Procrastination blackboard
Reflections on procrastination, and its paradox

In a near completion of my PhD, it is now a question whether I’d continue with writing on this blog, or take on a more serious approach to life and get a ‘job’. In the meantime, as there are still a couple of months left, I should at least try to populate the blog with more posts. In this particular one, I’ll start with a reflection on procrastination. What is at the core of putting things for a later stage, and a later one, and a later one?

To be sure, I’m not an expert in the field, though I often feel that the so called experts don’t really know much about the subject either. The experts fall into two categories, actual scientists who do experiments and come up with results; and ‘psychologists’ who base it all on popular beliefs and come up with solutions that work for nobody.

Example of group 1, and surprisingly a very rare one:

Understanding the Cognitive and Genetic Underpinnings of Procrastination: Evidence for Shared Genetic Influences With Goal Management and Executive Function Abilities.’ By Daniel E. Gustavson, Akira Miyake, John K. Hewitt, and Naomi P. Friedman.

The publication is quite interesting (though paywall), so hopefully your library has subscription. Studying twins, they wanted to identify whether procrastination is genetic or environmental – and not surprisingly they found that it is partly genetic (28%), but also that it is partly environmental (28%). It couldn’t be much clearer – we need more research.

And here is an example of group 2:

‘Stop procrastinating’, with James Manktelow and Amy Carlson. These guys even have a youtube video:

Unlike the previous, this one is not a scientific study as such, but more of a ‘self-help guru type thing’. They claim that it all comes down to time management (and self-management). Though I don’t want to sound arrogant, what they are discussing is not procrastination, but avoiding work – and although the two overlap, they are not quite the same. I use these two ‘gurus’ as an example, but there are many like them, see this link to Psychology Today, where you have numerous self-help guides, which ultimately mean nothing.

Running into a wall with what procrastination is, and how it differs from simply avoiding work, I decided to write about the topic myself; and to do so from my experience. So what follows is mostly my experience with it, and by that only an attempt at self-understanding, which I think many procrastinators like myself feel most of the time.

Let’s start with looking where the experts go wrong.

1. Not surprisingly, the first group of experts, being overly scientific as they are, have the following recommendation: “Training subjects on how to set good goals may improve their ability to manage these goals and avoid procrastination. Moreover, helping subjects retrieve their important long-term goals and use those goals to avoid getting side-tracked by short-term temptations might also be effective at reducing procrastination.” As I will show below, this is not really something that procrastinators don’t already know; and additionally, this is highly ineffective. It is not like there are no goals set out in front of us; something else is going on that leads to procrastination.

2. With the second group it all comes down to time management. Typical ‘self-help guru’ would recommend steps, and this is exactly what they do: Step 1 – Identify Procrastination (or perhaps admit to yourself that you are indeed procrastinating); Step 2 – Figure out WHY you are procrastinating (if only it were that easy); Step 3 – Adopt Anti-Procrastination Strategy (no shit, Sherlock!).

Instead, I propose a different view. Here is what I know about procrastination from my own observations.

1. Procrastination is something that affects all of us. Yes, all of us, every singly human being. Certainly, it affects some of us more than others (just as eyesight degradation affects all of us differently and to different extents). And as it is only with those who are unable to go about their day with poor eyesight that glasses become necessary; so with procrastination, it is only with most affected that something needs to be done. This is indeed to say that in some instances procrastination affects us to the extent that we cannot go about our day as we would have otherwise. And I do not mean this in some mundane sense that we do other things than we are supposed to do, but rather that procrastination affects our well-being just as much as poor eyesight does. I am not talking about climbing up the career ladder because non-procrastinator is able to work more, I am talking about simple daily tasks that we are unable to perform. To keep the analogy with poor eyesight, just as a person with poor eyesight has difficulties on the road (assuming he can drive, but can’t read the signs), so does the procrastinator have immense difficulties in life as he misses the metaphorical signs on the road.

2. This last point is quite important and is overlooked by ‘self-help gurus’ – you would often hear something along the lines of: ‘Just make a start, and you’ll see that you can do it’. Or, ‘Just shut off your internet, so you don’t watch YouTube all the time’. Or with Manktelow and Carlson above, this is one of their recommendations: “Shame yourself into getting going!”

What these comments miss in particular, is that it is not the distraction that leads to procrastination, but the very reverse is the case: procrastination leads to doing anything else but doing whatever it is that you are meant to do (and I mean ‘meant to do’ lightly, because more often than not, whatever it is that you are meant to do, is not meant by anyone else than yourself).

What we should remind ourselves of here, in other words, is that procrastination is not a form of laziness or a lack of focus, or some form of ADHD. It is a particular condition which makes us dread the task at hand. It is not a disease of some sort (though perhaps being partially genetic, we could qualify it as such), and I am pretty sure some drugs can help with procrastination by making you focus (as they would also for those who are not known for procrastinating).

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