Updated: Jan 15
“I love deadlines, I like to wave at them as they pass by.”
To be completely honest, I procrastinated this month’s edition on procrastination.
Hypocritical? Maybe. But, at least I am honest?
For me in my life, procrastination looks like a form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) - where I cannot remain focused on one thing at a time. I will write down my to-do list for the day, look at it, and purposefully skip over the ones I know are going to be harder to check off. Then, the end of the day comes and there on my list remains my unchecked tasks staring at me in the face.
And, this is when I leave for the day.
For some of my clients, they describe their procrastination in the form of “laziness,” in which
they feel as though the overwhelm of having things to do paralyzes them into watching that 8th episode of Friends - as if they haven’t seen the series four times.
They trick their mind (with the help of their favorite streaming service) into believing that it’ll get done and they are enjoying their “self-care.”
This alternative to the “treat-yo-self” epidemic of spending money seems more fair when their inner dialogue says “just one more episode.”
Through my lens, there seems to be two different categories in which my situations play out;
ones that are “easy” and ones that need to be “handled”. I started to believe my issue was that I could not (for the life of me) remain on task for the ones that needed to be “handled”.
I would do EVERYTHING else and for the time I was working at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these avoidant behaviors were amplified. However, I recently stumbled upon an article written by Charlotte Lieberman and highlighted by Adam Grant, a fellow Organizational Psychologist, in which the title read “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing To Do With Self Control)”.
She opens her article with the words,
“If you’ve ever put off an important task by, say, alphabetizing your spice drawer, you know it wouldn’t be fair to describe yourself as lazy.”
This is me. I am the spice cabinet organizer.
Lieberman gives a very quick vocabulary lesson on where the word “procrastination” originated and what made it the negative being that it is:
“Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it’s more than just voluntarily delaying. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgment.”
It is well known that procrastination has negative consequences for our performance and
well-being, especially when the task at hand will help us gain an edge.
To be quite honest, networking for business development as an Organizational Psychologist is something I dread doing. Recently, I was invited to a networking event that started at 7:30am - which wasn’t the worst part. The kicker was that the day they picked was a Friday. However, I finally came over my procrastination of “I’ll attend next week,” and gained two prospective clients.
In telling you this, I realized that I was creating a sense of self-harm in putting off what I know will only propel my business forward. So, when I prefer to organize the spice cabinet rather than step a little harder on that business development gas pedal, it can’t possibly be laziness.
In a not-so-recent study on procrastination, published by Beck, Koons, and Milgrim in 2000, the word “self-handicappers” is highlighted. In sum, the definition of a self-handicapper is to
knowingly undermine performance (ah, procrastination by organizing the spice drawer) in order to fail. Yes, I know this sounds crazy, but hang in there. HERE IS WHY:
“If you fail, you protect your sense of competence because you can externalize the blame to the procrastination. As well, if you self-handicap and succeed, you have succeeded in spite of less than optimum conditions, enhancing the internal attributions for success and boosting self competence (except, not really because of a thing called ‘self-deception’).” -- Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., Psychology Today
Further in the study, the authors describe procrastination as being a “multifaceted behavior,” with self-handicapping as one of the main components - since these two concepts were found to be highly correlated. The main idea shows that people who procrastinate are creating an external excuse for either their success or failure.
This means they feel as though they can’t lose and if they win, it was circumstantial. You can’t tell me this deceptive behavior isn’t a form of self-harm. But, let’s circle back to the “why” of the spice drawer organization for a second.
If self-handicapping is the behavior we are seeing in people who procrastinate, then what is the thought that drives the action?
In Cognitive Behavioral Coaching, it is taught that there first comes a thought, then an emotion, then an action. So, if we are working backwards from behavior to the thought, the article previously mentioned written by Lieberman explains the emotive and cognitive side of things.
First, there is something called “procrastinatory cognitions,” that Lieberman describes as
“self-blaming in the wake of procrastination.” These thoughts are then paired with emotions
such as boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt, stress, and more. Thus the purpose of procrastination is to allow ourselves temporary relief from these negative feelings.
With this system explained, it made sense as to why I elected to organize the spice cabinet instead of writing the blog or going to the networking event. In my head, thoughts like “what if I do a bad job,” kept floating around and the solution was to slave over spices instead. Logical, I know.
Where Lieberman makes a good point in focusing on changing the emotions associated with procrastination in order to change our cycle of continuing the behavior, from a Cognitive Behavioral Coaching standpoint - it would be easier to change our thoughts.
We hear the saying all the time from others on “controlling our emotions,” but think about how much more control you have over your thoughts.
First, let’s think about our thoughts (called metacognition). This will require you to do a little experiment on yourself, but if you can pin down procrastination to a few thoughts, then you can change them. For example, if every time I put something off I recognize that I tell myself “what if I do a bad job,” then I need to start telling myself “so, what?”.
Then subsequently I will tell myself that I can get better by doing whatever it is I have decided to put off. Make sense? If I tell myself that I can get better, I will usually have a more positive emotional response that will automatically come with the change of thought.
Therefore, the behavior changes as well and unfortunately I will have an unorganized spice cabinet - but, better business development. And, who doesn’t want a better business?
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Mackenzie Childs | MSc
Former educator, realist, and wine enthusiast, Mackenzie comes from a diverse background of behavioral intervention, teaching, and business development strategies. As part of a project within the Klein Independent School District to launch a new behavioral program on several campuses, she found her niche in wanting to help others grow their strengths within their career.
Drawing from experience in several industries, Mackenzie brings thoughtful, visionary, and practical coaching within developing organizations. When the stakes are high for a new or veteran executive, a troubled team needs intervention, or transition needs to take place, she can provide planning for the future while simultaneously improving day-to-day function. Her sensitive insight with tough issues defuses tensions and catalyzes collaboration.