Why We Procrastinate And How To Stop It

It's usually a learned behaviour that is crippling for many of us.

27/05/2016 10:07 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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Sometimes procrastinators are really just perfectionists.

If you're the kind of person who puts off everything, from replying to emails, to taking out the bins, to cutting your nails, to ending a relationship that went sour seven Christmases ago, then chances are you are a serial procrastinator.

It doesn't matter if you're procrastinating over trivial issues or major hurdles, at the end of the day you are an 'experience avoider'.

Psychologist and anxiety expert Anthony Berrick told The Huffington Post Australia the science behind the 'art of procrastinating' is complicated. Yet it is also pretty simple.

"Procrastinating varies from person to person. But, in general, it's a form of what we call 'experience avoidance'. So it's an attempt to avoid uncomfortable experiences, which ultimately cause more suffering in the long run," Berrick said.

"There might be an email you've been avoiding replying to. It seems fairly trivial but writing that email is clearly making you feel uncomfortable. So when our mind says, 'It's time to write that email', and we picture ourselves doing that, we think of something else we also need to do. So we end up doing something else that is more palatable than writing that email you've been dreading."

Clinical psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack said procrastination is usually a learned behaviour.

"Often if we have an authoritarian parent or partner always telling us what to do, we tend to rely on that final, 'Okay, this is your last chance!' that they've heard many times over many years. That's why there are generally other members of the family who end up being procrastinators too," McCormack said.

Alberto Incrocci
People who procrastinate will do almost anything to avoid a task.

"There's the issue of avoidance that takes shape because they don't want to fail or get into trouble. Perfectionists are also great procrastinators because they want everything to be perfect, yet they will hold off completing an assignment that they've had for two weeks until the night before it is due. Then they can excuse themselves and say, 'Of course I didn't get 100 per cent. I didn't have enough time to do it'."

You might be a university professor, just days away from completing a book about your life's work. Yet, instead of forging ahead and finishing those last few chapters, you begin a new book. Yes, you are a procrastinator but, at least, you are productive in your procrastination.

"This kind of procrastination involves the fear of subjecting your work to being judged by your peers, or the public. Our minds can become very critical and we end up having thoughts such as, 'It's not good enough!' or 'I'm not as great a writer as I should be!' And, as long as you don't finish that book, you can delay those judgements because it's not a completed work yet," Berrick said.

One thing's for sure: procrastination is always going to cause stress. McCormack said even the best procrastinators do not do it deliberately because nobody really wants to add more stress to their lives.

"We need to recognise that it's the stress we want to avoid, not the actual task. So the only way to avoid that stress is by doing the task we're avoiding and getting it out of the way," McCormack said.

Tips for procrasinators: keep reminding yourself to stop putting off tasks that you need to finish!

Sally-Anne McCormack's Tips For Procrastinators

1. Set yourself alarms. For example, if you procrastinate about taking the rubbish outside, set an alarm for 7pm Sunday. If you take the bins out before then, that's fine, but at least you've given yourself a deadline.

2. If you're tackling a big project, set small goals for yourself. Divide your time into easily manageable goals that don't overwhelm you.

3. Keep reminding yourself of the consequences of procrastinating; that you will end up feeling terribly stressed if you leave things until the night before it's due.

4. Reward yourself! Thank yourself for succeeding in not procrastinating. Give yourself a day off or whatever will give you a buzz.

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