Let's Talk About Procrastination
Updated: Jan 18
I love the topic of procrastination! Nerding out on stuff like this is my specialty. Plus, I have been infamously procrastinating about writing my first blog for all you folks out there!
Disclaimer: If and when you read this, please keep in mind that I am not a researcher, nor will I be synthesizing a bunch of research to share the latest and greatest with you. Procrastination is complex and there have been many studies (here is just one academic paper on the topic) that you can search up if so inclined.
I think the reason for my interest and amusement in this topic, as a Clinical Counsellor and a person with an ADHD brain, is related to the accompanying discussion about:
1. the label of “lazy”,
2. emotional regulation,
3. brain chemistry and,
4. creative idea generation.
If you don’t mind humouring me, let’s look at the etymology of the word PRO-CRASTINATION! In Latin, pro means “forward” and crastinus means “tomorrow”. So, it really is “forward something to tomorrow”! I recently learned that this word and behaviour was first documented as far back as the early Renaissance! What do you think they were procrastinating about back then?
You’re just being lazy!
In modern times we often describe someone as LAZY if they procrastinate. But are they the same thing? I have never been friends with the word lazy. I have an aversion to the sound of the word but also some deep-seated (“seeded” seems more accurate) resistance to it. Likely, it is my mother's accusatory voice that got planted into my brain and grew a neural pathway.
The Merriam-Webster definition of lazy is “disinclined to activity or exertion”. Some other definitions replace the word “disinclined” with “unwilling”. Disinclined sounds gentler to me but, essentially, it's okay to have boundaries and say "no" to things right? Unfortunately, the word lazy has been hijacked and used as a way to judge and criticize people for being unproductive or not doing what they are "supposed" to be doing. Lazy has become a loaded word that suggests some kind of moral failure or personality flaw.
My partner highlighted that lazing around, is actually helpful. Lazing permits us to relax and just BE rather than DO! After all, we are human beings, not human doings! Most of us have an internalized message that we should always be productive. That's the Capitalist Way. But, we often have issues when we procrastinate because we are usually putting off a task or project or goal that we need or want to achieve.
If you're still confused about laziness and procrastination, it's okay! So am I and so are the researchers! And, just so you know, in my musings about procrastination, I am not calling for more productivity. This post is mostly about understanding procrastination and being more gentle on ourselves and others when the spirit of procrastination appears. Basically, the important thing to remember is that there is typically a REASON for procrastination.
Can I blame my genes?
A genetic study in 2014 found that procrastination is linked to impulsivity, is a trait that can be inherited and, that the correlation between conscientiousness and procrastination is very high. The more conscientious a person is, the more likely they are to procrastinate. Here’s an article from Psychology Today that discusses this study. However, procrastination is not more inheritable than any other characteristic we have and it is not caused by one single factor. Self-regulation and executive functioning of the brain are both also implicated in the phenomenon of procrastination. Continue reading for more info on that.
How do my emotions affect my need to do a task?
Psychology also tells us that procrastination is an EMOTIONAL REGULATION issue and that it is our way of coping when faced with something unpleasant. We tend to avoid the things we find boring or effortful. Sometimes tasks make us confront questions about our competency or abilities or we experience fear of failing at the task. Sometimes we think we have to be perfect at it. Sometimes the task is given by someone else and it doesn’t resonate with our own values. So, what emotion or fear might you be avoiding when you feel disinclined to do something against your better judgement?
What the heck is going on in my brain?
Given it is an emotional regulation issue, a brief explanation of how the brain works is necessary. Procrastination has an evolutionary history related to our neurochemistry, neurophysiology and our amazing adaptive or coping skills. The brain chemical activated with procrastination is DOPAMINE which initiates the pleasure and reward feelings we get by avoiding that thing or doing something other than what we are “supposed” to.
Also, we need our executive functioning, the Prefrontal Cortex of the Brain (the organizing, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, rational part of the brain), to be online in order to initiate a task. When we experience a fear or emotion (boredom, overwhelm, sadness, anger) in relation to that task, the PFC gets hijacked by the AMYGDALA, the small threat-detector part of the brain that houses fear and emotion, and stimulates the stress/survival response of fight, flight, freeze. In a nutshell, the emotional part of our brain turns off the executive thinking part of the brain and we need to regulate our emotional parts so that our executive functioning parts can come online again.
We often know rationally that procrastination will not serve us well because there will be consequences but we do it anyway (consciously or unconsciously) because it gives us a sense of relief. It may feel good in the brain/body because of the dopamine hit that gives us a reward but then the issue can get complicated by the critical and self-defeating voices that also tend to rear their ugly heads. Such negative self-talk then often results in additional layers of emotion such as guilt and feelings of anger towards ourselves. And, if you have an ADHD brain like me, this is a much bigger discussion!
How can I help myself?
So, now that we understand the mechanisms involved, let’s talk creative strategy and problem-solving!
This is a resource I created to help folks manage and work with procrastination.
It speaks to the following: engaging your self-forgiveness and self-compassion, cultivating your curiosity, tricking your brain, reframing your thinking and managing distractions. This is not exhaustive. There is so much more you can do:
Connect to your values and ask yourself why this task might be important to you. What is the bigger picture?
Chunk tasks by breaking them down into smaller pieces and celebrate the completion of the pieces along the way.
Pair the task with something enjoyable or turn the task into a competition or game.
Find someone who may be able to help you with the task.
My favourite trick is to tell my brain I am only going to do it for 5 minutes and once I am 5 minutes in, I am in the ZONE or in a FLOW STATE! (and then my ADHD brain hyperfocuses and you can’t pull me away from it!)
Remember, you are not being LAZY or STUBBORN. You are resisting something for a reason – get curious about your procrastination, find your reason and then find your gentle voice and some new ways to creatively work with your brain!