Sunday, February 8, 2009

Procrastination, Part III: How to Defeat Yourself In One Easy Step

Current Reading: Marching As To War, by Pierre Burton and The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

Inspirational Quote: "Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it impossible." -- George Claude Lorimer

I woke up this morning and lay in bed thinking about all the things I wanted to do today, including writing this post. I lay there a good twenty minutes, not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to start. I don't really understand why.

Procrastination is putting off a task. It doesn't make sense in a purely practical manner. If something is unpleasant enough to make one procrastinate, it would make more sense either to get it over quickly (I used to eat my mashed potatoes first before enjoying the rest of my supper), or avoid it completely (like feeding the potatoes to the dog... who didn't know any better). Instead, we take some tasks and put them off, often getting around to them only at the last moment.

The tasks we put off are invariable important, which is why we find we must do them in the end, but there is something about them that makes it impossible for us to start. Instead we fill up the time, often with trivial things that suddenly seem incredibly urgent. Everyone knows a student who could not start their essay until they had first cleaned their entire dorm room. I once spent an hour practicing my hand-writing when I should have been studying for a university physics exam. I only got 57% on the exam, but my answers were beautifully scribed.

We pay two prices for putting off necessary tasks. First, consciousness of our efforts to delay, of looming deadlines and of the need to complete the task ahead lead to stress. Strangely, this stress doesn't motivate us to get started. It motivates us to delay more, as though the anxiety of undertaking the task could possibly be greater than the anxiety mounting inside us as the deadline grows nearer and task remains undone. Second, when we finally do put our hands to the task, the deadline is almost upon us and we are forced to rush. We produce a sloppy result because of the corners we cut trying to fit the task into the remaining time.

We are ashamed of the result, feel guilty about our behavior, and each time promise ourselves that we'll not be so foolish next time. We are invariably wrong. Yet it's not laziness, lack of ambition or a failure of willpower. It's not unusual for procrastinators to put greater effort into the things they do to procrastinate than they would have put into doing the task they're avoiding.

And the question remains: Why?

An interesting point to note is how many web resources exist to discuss and address student procrastination.

Causal research is divided. Common accepted wisdom holds that it's a reaction to the anxiety caused by starting or completing the task at hand, but that seems unlikely given how intense the anxiety resulting from procrastination becomes[1]. Fear of failure or fear of success would seem more likely to push us to abandon the task altogether rather than merely delay it. Some researchers believe it a product of perfectionism. Tasks are delayed to avoid facing the unpleasant fact that perfection cannot be achieved[2]. A third school of thought holds that we condition ourselves to seek lesser but more immediate rewards at the expense of greater rewards in a distant future[3]. Certainly, given the cultural preference for immediate gratifaction, this theory makes a fair bit of sense.

It leaves me wondering, though, what was so great about neat hand-writing? I really should have cleaned my room or washed the dishes or something.

Next time (maybe): Treatment!

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