Every one of us procrastinates. Paradoxically, delaying matters sometimes results in better outcomes because it affords us the time to reflect rather than respond impulsively. Most of the time, however, procrastination is thought of as a negative characteristic. Students who put off doing their assignments until the very last moment often produce work that is rushed and not thorough. At times, the work is delayed so long that it never gets done or results in penalties for lateness. The “what me worry” attitude or repeated promises that the work will get done proves maddening for parents, teachers, and employers.
Procrastinators are not all the same and procrastination has more than one simple origin. We all find it easier to do the things that we find interesting and rewarding in contrast to those tasks that give us little pleasure or pose a challenge to our skill level or competence. The choice between cleaning their room and doing homework vs. chatting with friends on the internet would be a no-brainer for most kids. Procrastination becomes a problem when it interferes with the constructive functioning of individuals (and those around them). The chronic avoidance of responsibility often is a signal of more complex psychological issues. For example, some practitioners of the art of delay are very anxious individuals who are too worried about their ability to carry out a task and use deflection as a mode of defending against the fear of failing or coming up short. Similarly, some individuals who are perfectionists engage in exhausting obsessive thinking/worrying and find committing their ideas to words excruciating, critically evaluating every word they write and being unable to choose the “right” words. Others resent the idea that someone else is telling them what to do or making a demand on them. Their response is to oppose by not performing. Procrastination often masks underlying depression and/or anxiety as well as undiagnosed learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder.
Why is reversing this behavior so difficult? Repeated delay and the secondary gain of defeating authority figures reinforce the habit of not doing. While straightforward approaches are good when they work, extinguishing this multifaceted habit may require thinking outside the box. Since procrastinators know what they need to do and when they need to do it, pressure just hardens their resistances. Paradoxically, expressing an interest in and genuine admiration for the individuals’ persistence in resisting the overwhelming pressure to perform is a first step toward diminishing the need to resist. While this is just a start, it is usually one that leads to a decrease in the need to delay and defeat.