Procrastination…The tip of the Iceberg

Procrastination is the putting off or avoidance of an activity or task that requires completion, by focusing on some other activity or task. For the person procrastinating this may result in stress, guilt, loss of productivity, creation of crisis, and the consternation of others for not fulfilling one’s responsibilities or commitments. While most people procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes functioning. The word procrastination is derived from the Latin word procrastinatus: pro- (forward) and crastinus (of tomorrow).

The symptoms of procrastination commonly reflect the inability to finish tasks, meet deadlines, arrive on time, and keep promises. Poor concentration, negative internal messages, unrealistic expectations, and the inability to organize and work constructively are present with procrastination. It is a part of an inner system that has many parts to it. Procrastination is principally caused by low self esteem and self criticism.

Self esteem issues begin early on. The common causes of low self esteem stem from childhood loneliness, emotionally distant parents, critical parents, an alcoholic parent, a parent with low self esteem or a passive parent. Children identify with distant, critical and unloving parents by blaming and criticizing themselves. They cannot abstract that the environment is not providing enough emotional sustenance and support. The child feels hurt and angry because he is not receiving the love, affection and attention that he needs. The anger that he feels cannot be expressed for fear that the parent will be more critical or withdraw even further. So, the anger is pulled back into the self for safe keeping. This same anger connects to the self in an interesting way because the solution to feeling lonely, distant or bad is to be perfect, and the anger that is now identified with the child becomes self criticism when perfection fails.

Procrastination has been associated with perfectionism, which is the tendency to negatively evaluate outcomes and personal performance, or the intense fear and avoidance of evaluation of one’s abilities by others. It can also be associated with a heightened social self-consciousness anxiety, and recurrent depression. Psychologically perfectionism begins as a result of an attempt on the part of the child to draw closer and gain approval from a distant or critical parent. The attempt to be perfect causes the child to create an idealized or perfect self to replace or to hide the inadequate true self. This means that the actual self is pushed down and the ideal one, the perfect one over-rides it. This creation forms into a pleasing personality on the outside and a critical or angry process inside. The pleasing personality is meant to both hide the true inadequate self from exposure and feared rejection and to put forth an acceptance seeking personality. The purpose here is to feel better inside by gaining approval and to bring in emotional supplies that are in short supply because of a critical internal environment. The original anger the child felt toward his parents that was internalized comes back to him as self criticism and makes it impossible to fully take in the approval from people pleasing. Finishing tasks then becomes a referendum for his adequacy. Procrastination has two main purposes, first to avoid the confirmation of inadequacy because the product will never be perfect enough and second to evade self criticism when the outcome is less than perfect.

Self criticism is an effort to magically change ourselves into a better person and to make us more acceptable to others. It is a dynamic attempt to transform ourselves into someone who can be loved and to improve who we are. In that sense it is an effort to change ourselves from being inadequate to adequate through coercion. Nothing could be more counterproductive than that. Self criticism never works because the focus is on ourselves to fix what we feel is wrong with us and it then diminishes our ability to focus outside ourselves on the task at hand. Self criticism as a process in appearing to be perfect creates failure within the self because we feel like a fraud, we seek approval from others to bolster ourselves from within, we feel weak and we internally criticize the product of our efforts because it fails to be perfect.

Our psyche works in several important ways; it seeks equilibrium and order, protects us from harm both internal and external, and drives us toward pleasure and away from pain. So our system balances inadequate feelings with perfection and protects us from pain by creating compelling defenses like denial, projection, displacement and intellectualization. Also, distractions such as sports, news, gambling, drama and computer surfing all help to create a very good defense against feeling bad about ourselves, albeit only temporarily. We dodge self criticism by avoiding the activities that invite it, like tasks, assignments and obligations. In this way perfection fixes inadequate feelings and procrastination protects us psychologically from self attack, but not for long.

So, we have the idealized self, the perfectizing system on the one hand and the real self that is depleted from being devalued and ignored on the other. Our needs, wants, desires are shifted away from our consciousness by our personal project aimed at fixing our inadequacy through perfection. Our ability to function is then compromised by the very system that is intended to save us. We struggle to appear perfect, procrastinate, and continue to feel bad about ourselves. We have trouble setting boundaries with others because we do not want to disappoint them and lose a precious resource for feeling good inside. This internal split from our true self creates stress, depression, and anxiety.

It is important to strengthen our resolve by understanding why we procrastinate and accepting the reasons why it is so difficult to complete assignments and tasks. Once we come to a deep understanding that includes compassion, respect and empathy we are counteracting the internal self criticism that causes us to freeze up. It is important to remember that completing a task is not about our self worth.

Roadmap to Solving Procrastination

  • Understanding your own system and how it was formed.
  • Begin the process of neutralizing self criticism by counteracting negative messages with reality based affirmations.
  • Work toward an understanding that perfection is not a goal, and begin to value the process of doing things because it makes us feel good about ourselves.
  • Completing tasks because it makes us feel good is a positive affirmation as opposed to focusing on what other people think.
  • Value our needs, wants and desires.
  • When we focus outside our self and on what needs to be done, we become actively involved in self satisfying activity.
  • If we are not trying to be perfect we can connect to others and not so much on fixing ourselves.
  • Learn to set boundaries based on what feels right.
  • Focus on the process of activity and not the product. If we become immersed in the process the product takes care of itself.
  • Work toward developing a personal identity. Likes, dislikes, interests.
  • Develop our own values and wishes for our future.
  • Work toward valuing our true authentic self. To demystify our need for approval, to neutralize self criticism and to fully respect our need to be self satisfying is the goal.
  • The antidote for procrastination is self acceptance,
  • Developing the ability to establish a true sense of reality within our self and from a clear perspective on what needs to be done to make us feel better.

Some Practical Tips: (Provided by Counseling Services for University of Buffalo)

  • Recognize self-defeating problems such as fear and anxiety, difficulty concentrating, poor time management, indecisiveness and perfectionism.
  • Identify your own goals, strengths and weaknesses, values and priorities.
  • Compare your actions with the values you feel you have. Are your values consistent with your actions?
  • Discipline yourself to use time wisely: Set priorities. Make a schedule of your day.
  • Work in small blocks instead of long time periods. For example, you will accomplish more if you study/work in 60 minute blocks and take frequent 10 minute breaks in between, than if you study/work for 2-3 hours straight, with no breaks. Reward yourself after you complete a task.
  • Motivate yourself to study: Dwell on success, not on failure.
  • Break large assignments into small tasks. Keep a reminder schedule and checklist.
  • Set realistic goals.
  • Modify your environment: Eliminate or minimize noise/ distraction. Ensure adequate lighting. Have necessary equipment at hand. Don’t waste time going back and forth to get things. Don’t get too comfortable when studying. A desk and straight-backed chair is usually best (a bed is no place to study). Be neat! Take a few minutes to straighten your desk. This can help to reduce day-dreaming.

We all suffer from instances of procrastination at times, but if it begins to impede functioning and is emotionally uncomfortable it should be addressed. The ideas and suggestions that are contained in this short article are the major points about what causes and helps to eliminate procrastination. If you find that after reading and working with this material that you are still experiencing great difficulty please seek professional help.

Further Reading

  1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. This is a book for personal productivity.
  2. How to Work the Competition Into the Ground and Have Fun Doing It by John T. Molloy. Unfortunately, this book is out of print, but if you’re lucky enough to get a copy, this book outlines a program that will increase your ability to concentrate and get back to work. This book outlines a system that simply needs to be implemented in order for you to see results.
  3. Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd Ed. by Tom Demarco, Timothy Lister. This book focuses on productivity for teams, and emphasizes the importance of having an environment where you can remain undisturbed for a while, because it takes time to get into a Flow state.
  4. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This book represents research in to the positive aspects of human experience, and comes up with general principles, along with concrete examples of how some people have used these principles to transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment.

Please feel free contact Dr Bill Cloke today with any questions

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  1. Thank you Dr Cloke. This is the first article I have ever read that explains my own behaviour and how to correct it. JW

  2. I found this artical very helpful, It articulated my own beliefs on self esteem and procrasternation and the part is has played in my own life. As a female it would have resonated with me further if it had been gender-nutral.