Exploring the roots of procrastination


We all have times in our lives when we have a task to do, yet find ourselves busily engaging in anything but that task. This is not always a negative thing. When compared to pre-crastination (compulsively completing tasks as soon as possible) procrastination can sometimes be a positive process, slowing us down and allowing more creative ideas to emerge and flow [1].

Interestingly, procrastination tends to be endorsed in popular culture. It’s almost a badge of honour to present oneself as someone who dallies over tasks. After all, who wants to be labelled as the ‘goody two-shoes’ who virtuously completes everything on time? But underneath this benign perspective of procrastination lurks a different view. For some people, dallying over tasks can be a stuck pattern of avoidance, having a very negative impact on their ability to engage in relationships, learning, work, and to achieve life goals.

In a recent column [2], Oliver Burkeman contended that the root cause of all procrastination is perfectionism. The argument here is that we avoid certain tasks because we prefer to maintain some ideal or ‘perfect’ imaginative version of whatever we are avoiding doing. Rather than gritting our teeth and producing something that might be flawed we remain in thrall to this fantastical notion of perfection.

The theory that procrastination can be traced to perfectionism tells us something important—that that settling for ‘good enough’ as a goal that is more likely to spur us to begin to undertake a task that we have been avoiding. But it’s not the whole picture, because although most of us will be able to tell tales of dallying over certain tasks, procrastination comes in all different shapes and sizes: Not only do we engage in different avoidant activities, but the things we procrastinate about differ markedly.

For some people the task of making a phone call to a colleague or a friend is one that sends them to the kitchen for endless snacks and cups of tea. For others, an advancing assignment deadline can be a trigger for cleaning the house from top to bottom.

Rather than simply labelling these behaviours as ‘procrastination’ and stopping there, it can be very helpful to think carefully about the kinds of tasks that we find ourselves habitually avoiding, as well as what we find ourselves doing instead. For example, it could be that an ongoing pattern of avoiding meeting up with friends by spending hours shopping on the internet is linked to fear about how we appear to others, and the activity of shopping could be a kind of search for products to bolster this lack of self-worth.

We can gain important insight into our inner world if we become more curious about what we habitually put off, and how we do that. This exploration of the roots of our avoidant patterns can help us begin to understand how we might make changes to these habits.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/opinion/sunday/why-i-taught-myself-to-procrastinate.html
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/07/the-pessimists-cure-for-procrastination-oliver-burkeman-philosophy


When good changes stir up difficult feelings

We all go through adjustments and transitions in our lives and are constantly adapting to these changes. Some of these changes we expect to find stressful. Going through a relationship break-up, experiencing the death of someone close to us or losing our job are examples of difficult changes we encounter at various points in lives and that we expect to find stressful and difficult to cope with.

Sometimes, however, we also find that transitions that we have actively planned for and looked forward to—like starting a sought after new job, retiring from work, getting married, or completing a course of study—much more stressful, and difficult to cope with than we had predicted. At these times we can be caught by surprise that instead of feeling jubilant and happy, the change prompts feelings of unhappiness and anxiety.

This can be especially difficult to deal with if friends and family are expecting you to be in a celebratory mood, and find it hard to understand why you are not experiencing the good feelings about the change that you and they had predicted.  Yet, it is very normal that life transitions that are presented in the media as ‘good things’ to happen can stir feelings which feel destabilising and anxiety provoking. This is because all changes bring into view questions about ourselves and our relationships with others that we may not have asked before. Rather than being able to welcome the change, we feel stuck in a place of mourning the old way of being, and destabilised by the questions about our life that can be prompted by the change.

Completing a course of study is a good example. It is something that most students look forward to—the end of coursework and stressful assessments. Yet, once a course has been successfully completed, some graduates find themselves feeling unaccountably flat, and unsettled. It’s as if all the routines they have developed, and the energy they have expended in order to complete the course fizzle away, and they are left wondering–where to now?

Talking through the good and bad feelings about how we experience change is important, because otherwise we get stuck with having to present a cheerful front, which can make understanding and moving through the more difficult feelings that have been stirred up by the transition even more problematic.


What is anxiety, and is it really on the increase?  

Anxiety is a word that we use to describe a plethora of feelings—ranging from milder and transient ‘keyed up’ mindsets through to more long-lasting and unbearable states of panic. At the milder end of this spectrum, anxiety can be seen as a frame of mind that prepares us for action. At the severe end, anxiety is very debilitating, stopping us from relating to others, working, and doing the activities we enjoy.

In recent years, health practitioners and researchers have reported sharp increases in the prevalence of anxiety in the population, prompting headlines about a societal ‘anxiety epidemic’. On the basis that our understanding of anxiety is actually quite patchy, a research team at the University of Cambridge, recently reviewed existing studies of anxiety (Remes et al., 2016). Their results showed that 4 in every 100 people experience serious forms of anxiety and that the groups most affected were young people, women, and those with chronic health conditions.

Reading the burgeoning literature on anxiety, there seem to be two main explanations about why we experience anxiety. One is that anxiety is on the increase because of the way our lives are now lived at such speed, in an increasingly competitive environment dominated by technology, and riven with fears about increases in violence and terrorism. The second explanation is that being anxious is an inherent part of the human condition–a ‘side effect’ or ‘over-dose’ of being self-conscious, and if we are experiencing severe anxiety, it can be a sign that we are being troubled by an inner conflict that needs expression.

Both of these explanations are probably true. Anxiety is no doubt is part of the human condition, but is also being exacerbated by the increasing pressures in our society–demands that can create a discord between what we believe the world is telling us we should be doing, and what we really want to be doing with our lives.

If we understand anxiety as a symptom of some kind of deeper conflict within us, then we need some way of standing outside it, in order to understand what we are experiencing rather than just being gripped by it. One of the difficulties with anxiety, however, is that when we experience it (especially in its more severe forms), the very last thing we feel able to do is to slow ourselves down, and begin to think about what is going on. Instead, anxiety provokes us to close down our reflective thinking capacity, and go into the survival mode state of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.

There is perhaps truth in the old adage “a worry shared is a worry halved” because the act of talking with another person about our anxieties, especially if they are knowledgeable and trained to do this kind of work, (such as a therapist), we are often able to see aspects of it that otherwise remain hidden from view. Other practices that have been shown to help with anxiety include breathing techniques, mindfulness, meditation and yoga. There are also many self-help books written about ways of coping with anxiety written by people who have experienced it themselves.

A link between these various practices and techniques is that in all of them, anxiety is viewed as something to be explored and understood better, rather than simply a state to escape from. In other words, without minimizing the pain and debilitating effect that anxiety can have upon us, we also need to be aware that it is a symptom which calls us to investigate and explore the pain or conflict within us, in order to gain a deeper understanding of our self and how we want to live our life.


Remes, C. Brayne, R. van der Linde, L. Lafortune. A systematic review of reviews on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in adult populations, Brain and Behavior, 2016; 6(7), e00497, doi: 10.1002/brb3.497