On Procrastination

Ana Gonzalez

At the end of a long week, I review my to-do lists of each day in my planner. Some days, I am relieved during this process, seeing that I have completed all of my daily tasks for the week and that I can finally relax. Other times, however, I look at my lists in dread and awe because so many of my tasks are left unfinished. Occasionally, this means that I will either have to spend my weekend completing what should have been finished during the week, or push the avoided tasks to the following week in addition to that week’s responsibilities.

Why do some of us avoid or wait until the last minute to complete the tasks we need to finish?

The prospect of completing a task can seem overwhelming to many of us. Some people procrastinate to avoid the anxiety that arises when they sit down to work on what they are responsible to finish. This anxiety may be about an anticipated threat to their self-esteem or about experiencing discomfort. If you believe that you must always do well and that it means something about you as a person if you don’t, you might sit down to complete a task and feel anxious about the possibility of failing to do as well as you believe you must. Additionally, if you believe that present discomfort should be avoided to experience present gains, you’re more likely to continue putting off the important tasks.

These anxieties often lead to the avoidance of the very thing we ought to be doing if we want to perform well at work, school, leisure activities, etc. Often, there are two things that get in the way of buckling down and getting it done. Since my last blog focused on self-esteem and self-acceptance, my focus here will be on discomfort anxiety.

According to Dr. Windy Dryden, in his book, Beating the Comfort Trap, two concepts that go hand in hand in leading us to put off tasks are (i) low frustration tolerance and (ii) short range hedonism. Low frustration tolerance arises from catastrophizing about discomfort – you are aware that you may have to experience some present short-term pain to achieve some long-term gain but view that present pain as too painful, and too uncomfortable. In essence, low frustration tolerance is the belief that you cannot stand short-term pain for long-term gain. Short range hedonism is the belief that our wants should be immediately gratified and discomfort should be avoided. In other words, it’s the philosophy which states that one must be comfortable in the moment almost all of the time without considering that pleasure now might mean less pleasure later.

What is a more rational alternative belief that can help you move past your procrastinating tendencies?

If you change the way you think about present discomfort and inconvenience, you will be able to change how you feel about it and the behaviors you engage in when presented with it. If you consistently and determinedly tell yourself that 1) certain tasks are undesirable but cannot be avoided if you are to achieve your goals, 2) you would prefer that these undesirable tasks could be avoided but there is no law which states the world should and ought to work as you want it to, and 3) you can tolerate discomfort whether you enjoy it or not, then you are more likely to be able to eradicate your procrastinating habits.

What are behaviors you can engage in to help combat procrastination?

  1. Try breaking down the task into smaller, less overwhelming pieces. Typically, starting a task is the hardest part. If you can do just a little of the total task, the rest of the task can become less intimidating
  2. Commit yourself to wholeheartedly working on the task for five minutes. Similar to breaking the task down into smaller pieces, the key to this method is to just make a start at the task. At the end of the five minutes, you can decide if you want to stop or continue for another five minutes. Most people will find that at the end of the first five minutes, they feel a bit more comfortable than they did at the very start of the five minutes.
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