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Procrastination is not necessarily laziness: The real motives behind the tendency to put things off

Posted by Deb Muoio

Dec 23, 2014 1:09:00 PM

It would be a misconception to state that procrastinators don’t get anything done. They do – eventually. In iStock_000010048393XSmallfact, history is full of famous procrastinators who achieved great things. In his book “The Procrastination Equation,” procrastination and motivation researcher/author Piers Steel reveals a surprising list of high-achieving lollygaggers. Architectural designer Frank Lloyd Wright sketched the blueprints of a project 3 hours before his client arrived. Author Margaret Atwood would get started on manuscripts at 3PM, after spending the entire morning and early afternoon procrastinating. A quick Google search will also drop names of accomplished procrastinators, including Agatha Christie, Albert Einstein, Robert Redford, and Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci.

When people engage in what’s considered a bad habit, we sometimes make the mistake of using superficial explanations or judgments, especially when it comes to procrastination. Bosses, teachers, or family members will assume that procrastinators put things off because they are lazy, low achievers, or simply don’t care. However, several research studies, including one we conducted, reveal that there are other underlying reasons why many people avoid doing things.

In an effort to uncover these other reasons, we collected data from 1,655 test-takers who took our Procrastination Test. Results reveal that top procrastinators put things off for two main reasons - a lack of motivation and a low tolerance for frustration. And that noble excuse for handing an assignment in late because the employee was trying to make it “just right”? Our research agrees with other studies: perfectionism is often at the root of procrastination, both for the habitual and sporadic “slackers”..

The most common areas where both chronic and occasional procrastinators tend to lapse relates to health and well-being, like putting off a visit to the doctor. Gender comparisons indicate that women are slightly more likely to procrastinate on issues related to their health (score of 47 for women, 44 for men on a scale from 0 to 100). Women also tend to procrastinate more than men because of perfectionistic tendencies (57 vs. 52) and low tolerance for frustration (58 vs. 54).

Surprisingly, age analyses reveal that people 25 and older are slightly more likely to procrastinate than younger age groups, although the younger cohorts are more likely to suffer from a lack of motivation when they choose to put things off.

It’s not all bad news - procrastination does have a few benefits. You allow yourself more time to plan sufficiently, to let ideas simmer, and to relax a little rather than constantly stressing over getting things done. Some people also thrive on Eustress … they need the pressure to get their creative juices flowing.

The problem is, if you put things off on a consistent basis, to the point where your personal or professional life is negatively impacted, then this is when it’s become a serious liability.

For those who have made procrastination a habit, here are a few tips:

  • One step at a time. If you have a rather large and formidable task to do (like writing a big report), then break it up into smaller chunks. Think only of completing those smaller portions of the job. For example, if you are having trouble getting started, you can devote a short time to reading a couple of research article and taking notes. The next day, you can brainstorm and put together a rough outline. During the same day, you can sit down several times for half an hour each time to write one paragraph, or expand on a few items. Little by little, you'll start chipping away at what seemed to be a huge task. Each small step you complete will not only improve your morale, but you might find yourself becoming energized and doing more than you had anticipated.
  • If at first you don't succeed... If you're afraid that you're not up to a task and seem to find every excuse to put it off, tell yourself that you can only do your best - and that's usually more than adequate. If you fail, learn from your mistakes and then let it go. Putting off a task because you think you won't be able to complete it successfully or perfectly is the real failure.
  • Learn to manage your time. Use the latest technology or a good old fashioned appointment book and start planning and prioritizing your tasks. Research has shown that people who set reasonable goals and objectives for themselves are less likely to procrastinate. Also, if you're the type of person who works better when under the heat of a looming deadline, try this challenge: Say your deadline to in hand a project is a month from now. Set your own personal deadline for next week, and see if you can meet it. After all, missing your personal deadline will get you into a lot less trouble. Also, keep in mind that finishing a task ahead of time gives you the chance to check it over.
  • Give yourself rewards for jobs completed. Take yourself out to lunch if you complete the first draft of a paper or finish that dreaded project. Buy yourself something, watch your favorite TV show, or go for a massage. There is nothing wrong with giving yourself incentives as long as you enjoy the incentive after you have done what you set out to do (rather than “bribing yourself” ahead of the achievement). This will reinforce the general sense of well-being that comes with completing tasks.
  • Give yourself a reality check. Remember that getting a task done is mostly for your benefit. If you are angry at your boss or a client, putting off doing something for them will only backfire and make you feel worse. The best revenge is to do what needs to be done, and to do it well. You'll end up feeling really good about yourself and silence any potential critics.
  • Clear your conscience. If you just don't feel like working and would rather be out having fun somewhere, then it might be worth considering the fact that those fun things might be even more fun if you have a clear conscience. Even though you might be pretty good at blocking out your unfinished responsibilities, they will be lurking somewhere in your thoughts, eating away at your peace of mind and ruining your fun.

If you’re interested in using the Procrastination Test or other assessments for professional purposes, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here

Want to learn more about using psychological tests for hiring, leadership development, career development or talent retention? Download our free eBook loaded with down-to-earth information about psychological testing for HR purposes.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Time Management, Goal Achievement, Mentoring, Personal Development, Motivation, Coaching, Productivity

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