As most of the people today have settled into work remotely and are under stay-at-home orders, some have fallen victim to excuses and distractions that have further led them to procrastinate. Instead of working on an important and meaningful task, they find themselves performing trivial activities. This is why the action is considered a form of self-sabotage. However, psychologists see procrastination as an emotional coping mechanism.
Procrastination as a self-protective mechanism
According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, procrastination is more than just spending time on Facebook before starting your work duties. He told leadership platform Big Think it is a “powerful emotional coping mechanism” to put off responsibilities for what appears to be an innocent short-term pleasure. People use avoidance to cope with the many forms of non-conscious emotions to feel good.
Hoarding behavior and intervention specialist Elaine Birchall, MSW, RSW, and courseware consultant Suzanne Cronkwright also referred to it as a self-protective mechanism and an anti-risk behavior. They believe that when people don’t feel safe, they will find ways to protect themselves and procrastination is one way to do that. They protect their core from the wounding and deep sense of personal failure, accepting that they have limits but are still respecting themselves. It’s a "behavior that protects people in some way,” they said.
One of the causes of procrastination is the fear of failure, but Birchall and Cronkwright consider it fear of anxiety about proving oneself. When a person has vulnerabilities about their self-esteem, they can experience anxiety in equating the degree of perfection they need to produce for their sense of worth.
They continued to say that many individuals who procrastinate think that they fail if they don’t rank at the top. It is the kind of all or nothing thinking that leads to two extremes: being mediocre and a failure or being beyond criticism. To stay out of such a trap, they put off a project and then rush to meet the last-minute deadline. That way, if the result is lacking, they have a safety cushion or way out. They tell themselves that if they only had more time, they could have done better. They also convince themselves that they were not lacking, but only suffered because of the circumstances. Although the method doesn’t feel good, it protects their self-esteem.
Fear of success is another main cause of procrastination. It seems contradictory though, since people generally want success and it makes them happy. Yet, success can also create fear in some people. For instance, if they are promoted in a company, they have to make decisions and have the ultimate responsibility for those decisions. Eyes will be on them, judging them, and assessing their performance but it can also cause them anxiety. Another reason why some people fear success is that they worry that others expect them to be increasingly more successful. “The bar is always set higher and higher,” Birchall and Cronkwright mentioned.
Fear of being controlled is another cause of procrastination. People who have this fear tend to do things on their timeline. They think that going along with what others expect them to be is an insult to their self-esteem so they guard their sense of autonomy and independence. They think and feel that if they simply agree to meet other people’s expectations, they also compromise their autonomy and personal integrity. This is the reason why procrastination enables them to preserve a sense of control and separateness.
Procrastination as a form of self-sabotage
Self-handicapping or self-sabotage is a concept used for those times when a person performs an action that intentionally impedes their progress. A part of their personality acts in conflict with another part of their personality. List-making app Trello has defined it as doing something directly in opposition to what one is supposed to be doing. Some studies suggest, however, that persistent self-sabotage leads to a negative motivation loop. It means that when one engages in self-sabotage, they are less motivated the next time they get things done.
Every failed attempt effectively proves that they are incapable of accomplishing the task. This behavior, though, has long-term effects on a person’s productivity. They also run the risk of producing a low quality of work because they force themselves to operate under tight deadlines because of their procrastination. Some studies correlate depression with high self-sabotaging behavior. Doing things in shorter periods can be effective to force oneself out of the self-sabotaging procrastination loop. Take, for instance, the Pomodoro Technique. It is a method that requires a person to focus for 25 minutes at a time to limit monotasking. Many people who find the Pomodoro Technique effective enter the exclusive “zone” and may even continue past the 25 minutes allotted for intense focus.
Procrastination affects most of us. In a survey conducted by Microbiz Mag comprising 1,000 adults in the UK, they found that 24.7% of them procrastinate sometimes, 22.1% often, 20.5% every day, 15.6% never, and 14.4% rarely. This is quite a big deal as it means 1 in 5 of UK adults procrastinates and it affects their work and lives daily. In short, it’s human and both men and women deal with procrastination.
The extent of the problem is reflected in Google search results too, showing the number of those seeking help with procrastination. The keywords "how to stop procrastinating" have an average monthly global search of 22,500 and the keywords "overcoming procrastination" is searched 3,200 times per month. This only means that the behavior is affecting a majority of people all over the world, more so during a pandemic.
Time inconsistency and procrastination
Behavioral psychology studies have revealed the concept of time inconsistency. It helps us explain our behavior despite the good intentions that we have. Time inconsistency means that the brain values immediate rewards over future rewards.
If you believe that your actions form a pattern of self-sabotage, recognizing and challenging the behavior can help you get out of that pattern. Analyze the reason behind your actions and whether they are based on clear facts or rational thought. On the other hand, procrastination can also be a savior because you avoid quickly jumping into something that may not be right.