by Jennifer Helkenn, PhD
“Oh, I’ll do that later.” This is a phrase that most people can identify with. Everyone puts things off sometimes. Some people will even say that they perform best under pressure. Granted, an approaching deadline can at times motivate or enhance performance, but this response may also be a way of justifying putting things off urgent and important tasks. Sometimes, procrastination is relatively harmless, such as when we delay cleaning that closet that has been a mess for the last year in favor of spending an hour in the sunshine. Other times, however, it can contribute to poor performance in school or at work and can result in the delay of important activities, such as saving for retirement or attending to medical needs.
Chances are you have found yourself saying “I’ll do it later” only to find yourself at the end of the day, or the end of the week, with an important task undone. If you find yourself questioning how you allowed yourself to get to this point, you are not alone. Although common, procrastination as a phenomenon is not well-understood psychologically. Sometimes, procrastination may be a type of avoidance behavior. If the task is feared or dreaded or if it causes anxiety in some way, playing a game on your phone or immersing yourself in Facebook eliminates that negative feeling, at least temporarily. Additionally, the instant gratification associated with an activity that is enjoyable may direct your focus away from longer-term goals. An afternoon of watching re-runs of your favorite TV show becomes inherently more appealing than an afternoon of planning a budget to help you reach your financial goals. Sometimes, procrastination may result from perfectionism; it may seem more acceptable to never take on a task than risk the possibility of falling short. Another theory holds that we are inherently less concerned for ourselves in the future than we are for ourselves in the present, meaning that it becomes more appealing to put off that task today even if it results in there being ten tasks to complete tomorrow.
If you find yourself procrastinating, telling yourself to stop what you’re doing and get to work is likely not the best approach. This may contribute to feelings of shame and guilt that may lead to further avoidance of the tasks at hand. Rather, forgive yourself first. This can reduce the guilt you feel, which is likely triggering more procrastination. Also, remind yourself that you do not have to be in a certain mood or mind state to get started. Rather, break down the tasks at hand into small, achievable steps. Sometimes even a small amount of progress can help you feel better and can help motivate you to continue.
While procrastination is a relatively common experience, if these tendencies are having a negative effect on your performance at school or work, or if procrastination is having an impact on your relationships, consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful. Sometimes a neutral, professional perspective can help you better understand the patterns that contribute these tendencies in yourself, as well as identify individualized strategies to help you be successful and improve your relationships.
At Sioux Falls Psychological Services, we meet you where you are, offering hope. Schedule an appointment today by calling 605-334-2696.