Twiddling our thumbs

Research on time management uncovered some juicy reasons why we procrastinate. We all do it and it's not because we are lazy, disorganised or incompetent.

Have you made that appointment, Matthew?”

“Not yet, but I will.”

“Have you finished the article, Chantal?”

“Haven’t started it, but I’ll get there.”

Why do we put things off? The thought hovers, grey and heavy: “I know I should, I must get started, but oh, I don’t feel like it.” The dragging feeling in your stomach, the drop in your chest. Ugh.

And then you find something else to do. Like the dishes, or the filing, or a sudden desperate need to blow out your keyboard, polish your desk, or rearrange your pencil bag.

We all procrastinate from time to time but it’s when it gets in the way of us achieving our goals, realising our dreams, and meeting our potential that it becomes problematic. Chantal was doing research for some work on time management and came up with some fascinating data about why we procrastinate.


Everyone procrastinates

No matter what anyone else says, it’s not because we are lazy, or incompetent, or lack discipline. Our drive to act becomes superseded by a drive to delay for all kinds of, often irrational, reasons. As with so much in life, it is never just one thing that is the cause. Just cast your eye on the list below and see if anything resonates:

Fear of failure: Fear of failure is a common cause of procrastination. Underpinned by a fear of not meeting expectations, coupled with the fear of receiving criticism and judgement it sometimes feels easier to just not do it than risk failing.

Perfectionism: For some of us it is all-or-nothing. If something can't be done perfectly, it's better not to do it at all. The desire to get it right and perfect paralyses us and leads to delays and avoidance of the job.

Decisions, decisions: When the choices are difficult to make, or there are too many, it can send us into a delay spiral. When you cannot come to a decision, there is no forward motion, no action, no starting, and no completing. Not being able to make up your mind and decide, can be the reason you procrastinate.

Don’t like it, won’t do it: When a task is unpleasant, boring or difficult there is a natural tendency to avoid it. It is normal to feel this way, until it gets us into trouble.

Overwhelm: Sometimes, the sheer size or complexity of a task can make it daunting. You don’t know where to begin, so you can’t start.

Lack of motivation: When you are uninspired by a task, lack interest or don’t see the value in it, it is much more difficult to get down to doing it.

Expected effort: When you think a task is going to require a great deal of effort and energy, either physically, mentally or both, it can lead to putting it off.

Rebellion: When a task is forced on you by someone else, procrastination can be an act of passive resistance or rebellion.

Avoidance of negative emotions: Starting a challenging task might bring up feelings of anxiety, insecurity, or vulnerability. Procrastination can be a way to avoid these uncomfortable emotions.


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Procrastination poltergeists

Recognise your favourite reason for not getting stuff done? Understanding that there may be different reasons depending on the circumstance, it could be that one or two raise their postponing heads more often than others.

Chantal’s perpetual procrastination poltergeists are “Don’t like it, won’t do it” with specific reference to admin-related tasks like visiting the bank, doing the finances, or completing and collating documents for some bureaucratic hoop that has to be jumped through. Yes, there is a vague sense of “Rebellion” in there somewhere too.

“Expected effort also trips me up,” said Chantal, “If I think a job is going to need a chunk of time where I need to focus purely on it for a good couple of hours, then I can put it off. There is always something else that sneaks in to be done.”


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Delaying demons

Matthew’s personal delaying demons are “Decisions, decisions” specifically discerning what is important and urgent, and “Expected effort”.

“I sometimes work on what shows up in the moment, rather than making a judgement call on whether it is important to do in light of the priorities at play,” said Matthew, “When there is too much to do then I can find it difficult to prioritise effectively. It’s easier to do what’s right in front of me.”

“Expected effort” has an added tail to it for Matthew.

“If I think that the work I am going to put into a task is not going to be appreciated, I can think, why bother? It’s not so much about fearing judgement or criticism, because then at least the work has landed and been engaged with. It is more about the work being dismissed, overlooked and not valued.”

“I get that,” said Chantal, “We have had so much of that with our work over the years, it can be very demotivating.”


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Twiddling our thumbs

When we procrastinate it’s not as if we don’t do anything. It’s not as if we sit around staring into space, twiddling our thumbs. We do things, other things, just not the thing we are avoiding.

It’s a way of numbing those feelings of discomfort that arise like clouds over the sun when we consider that unpleasant task. Whether it’s anxiety, fear, vulnerability or resentment. Or something else, it feels uncomfortable and even distressing.

Exerting ourselves by washing the windows, or rearranging the furniture somehow feels productive. It makes us feel better even if it doesn’t get the actual job done that we were meant to be doing!

Being aware of what sits beneath the drive to delay rather than do, can help build strategies to overcome these hurdles. If they are getting in the way of us achieving our goals and have become a cause for concern then it would be wise to take note and make some changes.

However, we don’t have to be on top of everything all the time and we don’t have to bring our “A” game consistently. That is not realistic. That can also cause anxiety and undue pressure. It is okay to give a little and procrastinate with intent. Twiddling our thumbs then can be mindful, reflective and even good for us.

Until next time.

Yours in feeling,
Chantal & Matthew

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