It’s the night before the presentation/the exam/the interview and whilst we wish we’d spent the previous week/s preparing, instead we’ve wiled away most of that time procrastinating, and procrastinating hard. So, unless our test is on ‘sounds cats make when they see cucumbers on the floor’ we’re likely wishing we’d spent more time studying than watching videos on the internet.
And yet, we all do it - but why? What makes us prone to procrastination? And can understanding why we do actually help us put a stop to it?
Procrastinating, ah we know it well, is the art of putting off something we need to do and instead doing, well, almost anything else - which explains why our kitchen always ends up spotless before we get round to doing our tax returns. Unless your kitchen is due a good clean though, for most of us procrastination is a pretty irritating habit, that keeps us feeling stuck. Those who chronically procrastinate often have higher stress levels and poor sleep patterns  and studies have also shown links between procrastination and depression  and anxiety .
Whilst procrastination’s bad rep may be justified, often the reasons why we procrastinate are dismissed as simple laziness, inattention and idleness. Yet research shows that the reasons behind why we procrastinate are usually a little more complex...
Why do we procrastinate?
Sometimes procrastination, contrary to being lazy, is actually a behaviour associated with perfectionism. In these instances procrastination results from a desire to carry out a work or study task to an unattainably high standard. So we actually put off the task to ruminate over the best possible way to do it and/or carry out the task several times in various ways until we decide which approach is good enough to share publicly. The process takes an inordinate amount of time and can be mentally and (even) physically exhausting. So naturally, to avoid feelings of exhaustion we put off the task at hand, or start but feel so defeated by trying to do it perfectly that we quit or stall. To add insult to injury, if we’re a perfectionist procrastinator, we’re more likely to chastise ourselves for not making the deadline, or not being efficient with our time. This in turn leads to a sense of shame or guilt if the end result is perceived to let anyone else (or ourselves) down.
As procrastination triggers critical feelings about ourselves, this can cause paralysis when it comes to completing the task at hand. We begin, then we might think ‘well it’s not going to be any good anyway’, so we put it off for longer, and then we’re angry with ourselves ‘you’re so lazy, why didn’t you start sooner?’ and these negative feelings create a loopty-loop of perfectionism-paralysis-guilt that gets us going nowhere fast.
"Far from the so-laid-back-you’re-lying-down trope, procrastinators who are perfectionists usually dispense so much energy trying to create something earth-shattering that they often end up feeling defeated and down on themselves." Natalie Collins, Beingwell Engagement Manager
How can we overcome procrastination?
Research by Dr Fuschia M Sirois  has demonstrated the important role that self-compassion can play in helping us to overcome procrastination. Self-compassion means responding with kindness and understanding towards ourselves when we experience failure or pain. In her study, procrastinators were found to have lower levels of self-compassion and high levels of stress. Procrastination was even considered likely to increase people’s stress by triggering negative self-judgements.
In response, Sirois suggests that self-compassion can be a powerful antidote to procrastination by enabling those who procrastinate to fully grasp the downfalls of their procrastination habit without fixating on traits they dislike about themselves. By showing kindness to themselves, all the time, but particularly when they feel drawn to procrastinate, participants can cultivate a sense of wellbeing that supports them to risk failure and take action. Self-compassion interrupts the perfectionist-paralysis loop by cutting out the negative self-talk in favour of more positive affirmations, which, it turns out, make us more likely to get stuff done.
Compassion-ate more to procrastinate less: So the next time we’re putting off something important we can tune into our inner voice and ask ourselves:
Am I being critical right now? Are these thoughts helping or hindering the task at hand?
Having this awareness of our internal monologue is going to make it easier for us to change course. To replace critical self-talk with a more positive one, we can try writing down three qualities we like about ourselves, or even try repeating a positive affirmation in the mirror each morning. Contrary to what our brains may have us believe, procrastinating doesn’t make us lazy, and the kinder we are to ourselves when we feel like procrastinating the more likely we are to kick the habit and get the task at hand done.
For more inspiration on letting go of perfectionism have a nosey here.
1. Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion (2014). Self & Identity.
2. Multidimensional Perfectionism and Academic Procrastination: Relationships with Depression in University Students (1993). Psychological reports.
3. Procrastination, Negative Self-Evaluation, and Stress in Depression and Anxiety (1995). The Springer Series in Social Clinical Psychology.