Especially appealing in the face of pressure and overwhelm, procrastination may be causing the stress it seems to mitigate. Natasha Thompson helps us discover how to quit putting things off.
As we move towards the silly season, it’s easy to push problems onto the 2018 to-do list. While avoidance might appease current qualms, science suggests working to resolve issues in the present is likely to improve psychological health in the future – not to mention enabling you to enjoy the holiday unencumbered.
In psychology, the act of repetitively putting anxiety-inducing tasks, activities or thoughts into the ‘too hard basket’ (so to speak), and rarely resolving them, is known as avoidance. Forms of avoidance can vary, from failing to discuss an unachievable workload with the boss (behavioural avoidance) to ignoring upsetting emotions in a relationship (cognitive avoidance).
In its most severe form, avoidance can fuel clinical disorders, such as avoidant personality disorder and social phobia. In its more common incarnations, avoidance can be the trigger to repetitive procrastination. Stephanie Osfield wrote extensively on the topic in our October issue, outlining the reasons why we avoid certain situations, tasks and emotions, and how we can stop. But why is it so important to reduce avoidant behaviour? And can we really turn off the procrastination switch?
The cost of putting it off
Avoidance has been suggested as a cause and perpetuating factor in mental illness since the beginning of modern-day psychology. In fact, a key aspect of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was the role of defence mechanisms – psychological techniques people use to deny or manipulate reality as a means of avoiding distressing emotions. Contemporary research has affirmed the role of avoidance in many psychological disorders. It’s not surprising then that anxiety is one of the most readily referenced avoidance type disorders given its almost symbiotic relationship with avoidance.
Avoidance in depression has been less discussed, though new research suggests it may be a common feature. In their 2009 study, researchers Raes, Vandromme & Hermans proposed that rumination (the repetitive consideration of a particular thought or problem without resolution) may act as a cognitive avoidance strategy in depression. Their findings, published in Abnormal Psychology: New Research, supported this idea, with participants who reported more rumination exhibiting higher levels of cognitive avoidance, regardless of the degree of anxiety experienced. The researchers concluded: “These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that rumination functions as a (cognitive) avoidance strategy.” In simple terms, they found that people with depression appear to ruminate as a means of distracting themselves from processing anxiety-inducing thoughts or emotions.
The procrastination paradox
For non-clinical avoiders, the act of delaying an intended thought or behaviour can still impact mental health. You don’t need a double blind experiment to tell you that procrastination is associated with stress. What you might not know is that the stress caused by procrastination can have serious consequences on both mental and physical health.
In their often-cited longitudinal studies, Tice and Baumeister found that students categorised as ‘procrastinators’ experienced less stress and better health at the start of the semester but more stress at the end of the semester, worse health overall and received lower grades on all assignments. “Procrastination does not simply shift the same amount of stress and illness from early to late in the project period,” the authors concluded.
“You learn to become a procrastinator. And if you learn it, you can unlearn it.”
“Rather it apparently increases the amount of stress and illness.” In other words, Organised Ally might be a little bit stressed and sick as she gets to work immediately on a new project but by leaving it to the last minute, Late Larry will get more stressed, more sick and do a poorer quality job overall. It seems just ‘getting it done’ would be the advisable option if good health and quality work is our motivation. At the time of publishing, Tice and Baumeister’s findings were revolutionary. Twenty years on and stacks of research papers later, have we learnt anything more about the effects of procrastination?
There are few people who know procrastination better than Joseph Ferrari (PhD). The professor of psychology from Chicago’s DePaul University has authored four scholarly books on the topic, countless journal articles and popular read Still Procrastinating? The no-regrets guide to getting it done. He also facilitated the 10th biannual procrastination conference held in Chicago earlier this year.
“Everybody procrastinates but not everybody is a procrastinator,” he begins. “The research shows 20 per cent of adult women and men are chronic procrastinators. That’s higher than depression, phobias, panic attacks…and it’s not just in America. We have found this in Australia, Italy, Ireland, Saudi Arabia and more recently in Japan, South Korea, and India. We have been doing these experiments for 20 years. These 20 per cent of people are waiting for something positive, but there isn’t anything positive.”
Dr Ferrari outlines the destructive effects of procrastination in a new paper co-authored with Thomas Tibbett (PhD). Poor savings and relationship difficulties are characteristic. The health effects, however, are only just starting to be explored.
“It’s a new area of research,” says Dr Ferrari. “But what we’ve been finding is that chronic procrastinators have more headaches, worse menstrual symptoms, more flus, more aches and pains, and three times as many heart attacks and twice as many strokes. Why? It’s not the procrastination, it’s the worry people have about not doing these things. It’s their immune system that is suffering because of it.”
Motivated to procrastinate
If the effect of putting it off leads to more stress, worse health, poorer finances and relationship issues, why do procrastinators persist? “Procrastination is one way procrastinators avoid what they need to do because they have a fear of failure or a fear of success,” says Dr Ferrari. “Fear of failure is pretty obvious. They fear success because if they do well, they might be given more responsibilities, the expectations might increase and they might think, ‘I can’t do this.’
In developmental psychology we talk about a diffuse identity. Some people never quite commit themselves to certain values or opinions. They don’t commit themselves to their identity and they never go through a crisis – they never question or explore who they are. Those people have a diffuse personality, they never quite settle, they’re always hanging out there. Procrastinators often happen to be these people, and one common characteristic of this personality type is avoidance.”
“I want people to be optimistic about it. Just because you’re a procrastinator, doesn’t mean you can’t change.”
So could procrastination be deemed a personality trait? “I never use the word trait,” says Dr Ferrari. “Trait implies you can’t change. You learn to become a procrastinator. And if you learn it, you can unlearn it. It’s all about saving public image. What we say in psych is ‘self-esteem’ – that’s how I feel about my self. ‘Social esteem’ is how others feel about me. If you give me a project and I give you the image that I didn’t finish it, I’ll be giving the image of someone who didn’t try. Yes it’s negative too but to them it’s not as bad as if I did do it and it just wasn’t very good. They want you to like them.”
“It’s a learned behaviour because I think our culture encourages it. We don’t give the early bird the worm anymore. We are too politically correct – everybody gets a bit of the worm. We have to change that. We need to reward people for being early. If I pay my credit card off early, where is the nice little perk I get from the company at the end of the year, saying, ‘thank you for paying off your credit card on time every year’? There is none. We don’t reward people in our culture for doing things early. We have to go back to giving the early bird the worm.”
What about society’s obsession with being busy – are we simply overloaded? “There are two common myths about procrastination,” says Dr Ferrari.
“One people like to say is our lives are busier today. That’s a pretty insulting comment to our ancestors. You’re in Australia and New Zealand, you come from people that had to escape and survive on their own. There’s still 168 hours in a week – it’s a bit like that between my ancestors and yours. Our lives are not busier, but they are different. Our ancestors had to get up milk the cow, yarn the fence…but they got it done.”
Dr Ferrari also absolves technology of any role in fostering procrastination. “People say technology today makes it easier to procrastinate. Let me answer that one with a story. In 2006, a reporter from Connecticut called me. He asked, ‘What do you think about the snooze button on the alarm clock?’ I asked, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘That was the first technology for procrastination and it’s 50 years old today.’ I thought, what about the telephone? What about the automobile? There was a time when you had to jump in your buggy and drive three miles down the road to meet your neighbour, and then the phone was invented, and you could call and wake up later.”
Learning to Get. It. Done.
Viewing procrastination as a learned behaviour provides hope. As Dr Ferrari states, if you learn it, you can also unlearn it. So how might treatment approaches support this ‘unlearning’? It depends what you believe about the mechanisms underlying procrastination. While many people continue to blame poor time management as the source, Dr Ferrari says the research is clear: “Procrastination is avoidance, it’s not time management.”
Science appears to support Dr Ferrari’s claims. “The first speaker (at this year’s procrastination conference) did a meta-analysis of all the interventions that have been done on procrastination,” says the professor. “They found that the time management ones were the least effective. The most effective was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). That’s what these people who have this avoidant strategy need to do – change the way they think and act.”
How might CBT work? This short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapeutic treatment is aimed at changing maladaptive cognitions and behaviours. In procrastination CBT is used to target thoughts and behaviours that may be maintaining procrastination. One CBT strategy used for procrastination is the behavioural experiment. This strategy involves the therapist and procrastinator identifying a few key beliefs the procrastinator has about carrying out the tasks they often procrastinate. From these beliefs, the individual forms a hypothesis and then tests its validity.
Let’s consider the student who regularly starts assignments the night before they are due because they worry they don’t know where to start. They often require extensions, have poor grades, are very stressed throughout the term and keep getting sick. The therapist might encourage this student to consider their fear about starting. Is this fear driven by a belief that they don’t understand the material well enough, that they’re not smart enough to be studying this topic or that they cannot ask for help? Once a belief has been established, a hypothesis is formed. For instance, if the student believes they will get stuck as soon as they start, they may form the hypothesis: It will take me a whole week to answer the first assignment question. The therapist will then have the student test this hypothesis. To do this, they may ask the student to schedule six 30-minute time blocks spent on the assignment spread out across two days. The student will also be asked to record their feelings before, after and during the ‘experiment’ and how much work they complete over the period. These experiments are designed to be achievable for the individual. At the subsequent therapy session, the therapist and student will consider the hypothesis. Did the student finish the first assignment question in less than a week? They will also consider how the student felt after each 30-minute block.
Whichever strategy you use to tackle procrastination, Dr Ferrari urges that you remain hopeful. “If you’re the one in 20, take comfort in that you’re not alone. I want people to be optimistic about it. Just because you’re a procrastinator, doesn’t mean you can’t change. Make the world a better place, be active, be productive.”