Why procrastination should be taken more seriously

A woman sits at a table, staring down at her phone

writer icon Kristine Hanson     ISB   |   Culture     🕐 04. Jan. 2019

Everyone can recall a time when they put something off, despite the time being right. There was no clear reason for not getting started, it was simply put off for no apparent reason.

Procrastination is the act of willingly delaying the completion of a task, despite the fact that not completing it leaves you worse off. When someone is procrastinating, there are no obvious obstacles to them completing their task or endeavour.

Nevertheless, a person can still be unable to get started, finding themselves wasting valuable time on meaningless non-helpful endeavours instead. Such as, reading several pages of information on Wikipedia that holds no relevance to the task at hand, or binge-watching unrelated YouTube videos.

A matter of mental health
A study published by the American Psychological Association showed that approximately 15%-20% of the adult population in the US believed themselves to have significant difficulties in their everyday life as a direct result of chronic and recurrent procrastination. 

It is not far-fetched to consider procrastination to be an issue of poor mental health, similar to addiction or obsessive compulsion. Stress, worry, and feelings of guilt are common among those who procrastinate recurrently. 

Negative stigma
If procrastination is so prevalent and can lead to such harm, it is a wonder that there is not more research put into tackling it. Instead, the common approach tends to be more organised people telling less organised people to simply focus, and not procrastinate. These negative preconceptions limit the possibility of treatment.

Swedish Professor of Psychology, Per Carlbring, has dedicated some of his research efforts to investigating an effective treatment for procrastination. Carlbring put Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to the test and ran trials to assess the effects it had on self-proclaimed procrastinators.

Carlbring’s research showed that CBT was “beneficial for people suffering from problems caused by procrastination”. The amount of contact with a therapist was also deemed important.

The role of therapy
According to the study, meeting with a therapist gave a positive effect to the treatment outcome. To some extent, procrastination can be explained as a "self-regulatory failure”. Checking in with a therapist provided accountability and introduced another “regulator”.

Carlbring also researched the effectiveness of CBT when provided via the internet instead of in person. The study found this method to be effective, which is of high significance, “as the availability of adequate care is limited”.

Tim Urban’s theory of procrastination
One well-known procrastinator is Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why. In 2013, he published a blog post about his own struggles with procrastination, and his theories surrounding why some people procrastinate. 

The blog post quickly went viral, as people all over the world related to his story in a very tangible way. He was subsequently invited to speak at a TED conference in 2016.

During his talk, Urban described the aftermath of his blog post. He received thousands of emails from people from all sorts of backgrounds.

“These people were writing with intense frustration about what procrastination had done to their lives”
, he recalled.

Two kinds of procrastination
Urban described two types of procrastination. The most discussed is the procrastination leading up to a deadline. In this case, “the effects of procrastination are contained to the short term”.

According to Urban, the second form of procrastination is more subtle. It is the kind of procrastination that occurs when there is no deadline. Self-starters, people in the arts, entrepreneurs - all of these people have tasks that require action with no clear deadline.

“Nothing’s happening, not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get momentum”
, he pointed out. He went on to mention other important things outside of one’s career that do not involve deadlines. For example seeing family, taking care of one’s health, and working on relationships.

The long-term, unlimited procrastination has the potential to truly hold people back. Urban concluded - “It's usually suffered quietly and privately. And it can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness and regrets.”

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