We’ve all been there before, stuck, as task after endless task is stacked on top of our seemingly never-ending plate of responsibilities. We know that in order to put a dent into the work at hand and accomplish our goals, we need to roll up our sleeves and jump right in.
But for some reason, we don’t. For some reason, we can’t.
Procrastination, notable psychologists say, is a coping mechanism some of us employ in order to feel good during the present moment while prolonging stressful and trying tasks and knowing we’ll regret it later.
It makes sense: Who wants to write the painful 20-page report when you can relax and catch the second half of the game instead?
Tim Pychyl, a professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who has studied procrastination for nearly two decades, says that at our very core—whether we like to admit it—many of us have 6-year-old versions of ourselves running the show. Suddenly, the infantile but I don’t want to! takes hold of procrastinators on a conscious or subconscious level, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Procrastination: Your Roadblock to Success
While a little procrastination here or there won’t hurt you—after all, it’s natural—a lifetime of it could prohibit you from living up to your full potential. Just think about the smoker who keeps telling himself he’s going to quit next year.
Let’s say you’ve been planning to learn a second language and then land an international sales position that’s tailored to bilingual candidates. Maybe that’s your dream job.
The longer you keep kicking the can down the road, the longer you put off becoming fluent in another language, the less likely you are to land that gig. It’s as simple as that. Your time is finite, and if you get into the habit of putting things off, you may very well become so overwhelmed with responsibilities you end up not taking care of any of them.
Rather than focusing on getting everything completely done right away, Pychyl says, you should simply focus on getting things started. Once a project commences, the momentum should carry you toward completion, as the task won’t seem as daunting as it did from the outset.
In other words, a little progress goes a long way—both mentally and physically.
Why It’s So Easy to Procrastinate
Generally speaking, procrastination can be defined as the act of putting off must-do tasks for as long as possible while understanding that you’ll likely be worse off for doing so.
If we know that’s the case, then why do we procrastinate?
Understanding Derek Partif’s notion of the self might provide some insight. Partif, a British philosopher, argues that since we’re constantly learning, changing and growing, our identity is never permanent but instead always influx. As such, we don’t necessarily identify with our future selves.
Since we don’t know what we’ll be like in three months, what we will have gone through by then, we view our future selves similar to how we perceive strangers.
Building on Partif’s work, psychologists have tried to explain procrastination. If we don’t feel connected to our future selves, it makes sense that we might not really care about our impending responsibilities because on some level, we don’t care about what happens to our future selves—an identity we think about the same way we think about celebrities.
Whatever your reasoning—you may expect to fail, be unmotivated or simply feel like being defiant—a pattern of procrastination will almost certainly prevent you from achieving your goals.
Studies show that procrastinators aren’t even bad at managing their time. Rather, they’re more likely to do things like lie to themselves (e.g. “I’ll take care of that over the weekend”) or occupy their time with unproductive distractions.
Luckily, you have full control over what’s causing you to procrastinate: your mind. You are the only one who controls your actions.