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Exploring the Psychological Mechanisms That Drive Procrastination
The term “procrastination” generally refers to any situation in which a person — often subconsciously — shirks responsibilities by rationalizing them away or by engaging in time-consuming distractions. The procrastinator may employ any number of distractions in this pursuit such as excessive smartphone use, alcohol or drug binges, or prolonged sleep. One defining trait of procrastination — and also its cruelest irony — is that the individual is often fully aware that he is harming his future well-being by avoiding present responsibilities. Yet he persists in avoidance behavior anyway.
Chronic procrastination is a serious burden for many people, draining hours from their lives that could be better spent and dragging down productivity. Ultimately, long-term quality of life inevitably suffers after years of procrastination – there simply isn’t enough time to waste huge quantities of it if we hope to achieve our goals.
As Andrew Kirby explains in his video exploring procrastination and its true causes and effects, people frequently lose respect for, and trust in, themselves when they put off completing non-negotiable tasks.
In this article, we’ll investigate what the research indicates actually triggers procrastination behaviors that hinder many from reaching their full potential.
What Does the Science Say About What Actually Causes Procrastination?
Many observers, laypeople, and medical experts alike characterize procrastination as a direct product of fear, poor self-discipline, or lack of motivation. While apprehension or poor motivation might exacerbate the detrimental effects of procrastination, these are the root causes.
Google searches for “procrastination” turn up endless listicle-style articles titled variations of “X Ways to Stop Procrastination.” While they may generate traffic for web publishers, most of these articles are essentially useless. The majority are predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of what modern research tells us about why people procrastinate.
As anyone who has experienced the psychological processes of procrastination can attest, no amount of motivation or calendar chiseling can grant the boost needed to overcome severe procrastination. An individual may have all the motivation he needs to complete his task, yet still, remain paralyzed by inaction.
Emerging evidence suggests that the medical community has poorly defined the root causes of procrastination. As with most cognitive/behavioral issues, the reality of procrastination’s origins is more primal than commonly believed.
The Risk-to-Reward Balancing Act
An important evolutionary survival mechanism called risk aversion speaks to why we procrastinate and explains our tendency to make constant risk-to-reward calculations as we move through the day.
As an example, you could place a foot-wide, 10-meter-long wooden plank on the ground and likely traverse it easily on foot. However, if you were to move that same plank to extend between two skyscrapers suspended hundreds of feet in the air, your brain would immediately perceive the heightened danger of walking over it relative to the grounded plank.
This risk-to-reward calculation of the plank example represents the fundamental psychological dynamics at play in procrastination.
The Visualization Process of Procrastination
Let’s take a step-by-step review of what is actually occurring in a procrastinating individual’s mind.
The process begins when the person visualizes himself performing the task in question. In this example, we’ll consider a university student who has a bulky exam to prepare for the following morning.
Once our university student initially contemplates studying, his imaginative brain is already diving into the potential emotional outcomes of the activity.
He may feel any combination of negative emotions associated with studying for his future exam: boredom, anxiety, or inadequacy. Although the student may cognitively process the fact that he must study to earn a good grade, these negative emotions serve as deterrents.
In this example, the student will likely continue his avoidance behavior (playing video games, chatting on Facebook, etc.) until the perceived emotional cost of not studying outweighs the perceived emotional cost of beginning to study.
In this way, we see that negative emotions act as the primary catalysts of both action and inaction.
"Good Is the Enemy of Great"
Taken to its logical conclusion, allowing our behavior to be dictated by negative emotions is unlikely to get us where we want to go. When avoiding uncomfortable emotions is the primary motivation, whether consciously or subconsciously, we will only do the minimum that is required to avoid negative repercussions.
Until we make serious moves to alter these patterns of cognition and behavior, we may become “good” at what we do but we will never become “great.”
Modern Technology Enables Procrastination
When faced with the negative emotions that cause us to procrastinate, the brain resorts to one of two coping strategies: rationalization or distraction.
We rationalize (often using faulty logic) when we invent reasons that purportedly justify why we cannot perform the task in question. A common example of rationalization is “I can’t do the cardio I know I should do today because I’m too busy” or “I’ll just run twice as far tomorrow.”
Distraction, on the other hand, is a tool that simply redirects our attention away from the dilemma.
In the modern era of dawn-to-dusk smartphone use and streaming media, total distraction is easier than ever – opening a pandora’s box of potential cognitive and psychological disorders associated with their overuse.
Today's Emotional Setbacks Affect Tomorrow's Procrastination
New research published in the medical journal Anxiety Stress & Coping tracked daily diaries kept by participants in which they reported the emotions they experienced as well as their levels of procrastination.
Psychologists have understood for some time that procrastination produces negative emotions. What the researchers of this study showed is that the inverse is also true: negative emotions predict future procrastination behavior.
The synergistic relationship between negative emotions and procrastination can create a “spiral” effect that is difficult to recover from.
Decision-Making in the Present vs. the Future
A fascinating study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology buttresses the theory of the centrality of negative emotion avoidance as an explanation of procrastination.
Participants were asked to make theoretical decisions about everyday activities. For example, they answered real and hypothetical questions about how much of an unpleasant culinary concoction their present selves, future selves, or another person, respectively, would consume for the sake of science.
The results showed that participants doled out larger quantities to their future selves and others, whereas they gave their present selves a lower quantity.
According to the study’s authors, the central finding of the study was that “when making real decisions, people treat future selves like others” whereas they set different, more appealing standards for their present selves.
These results partially explain the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we swap performing important work in the present for completing it in a vaguely-conceptualized “future” that is forever and conveniently on the horizon.
Developing New Strategies to Overcome Procrastination
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