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Perspectives on Procrastination

· Goals,Behaviour

In a recent monthly coaching session we had an in depth discussion about our business and personal goals and the things that were getting in the way. Sometimes external barriers come into play like finance, market conditions or the behaviours of clients. But often the biggest factors that govern success come from within – positive and negative.

This led to a very interesting discussion on procrastination that I would like to share with you. Procrastination is usually seen as a major barrier in goal achievement, where individuals put off important or meaningful tasks in favour of other activities. This is especially relevant to people completing studies, working to deadlines and needing to self start.

A fabulous TED talk by Tim Urban outlines the traditional view of procrastination:

In summary, the ‘Rational Thinker’ in a procrastinator’s brain is side tracked by an ‘Instant Gratification Monkey’. This character decides that hard work is undesirable in the moment and instead lures us into a series of random leisure activities which are loaded with guilt, dread and self hatred because they are not earned.

Often, the monkey is only banished as the deadline comes closer and the ‘Panic Monster’ sets in, allowing for extended periods of focus and productivity. However, if there is no deadline to an activity (e.g. seeing friends, learning an instrument, starting a new hobby) then panic never sets in and procrastination will always be the outcome.

Tim Urban, the rational thinker, the instant gratification monkey and the panic monster

This paints an amusing and seemingly sensible generalisation of what procrastination may look like. But it also leaves out some other forms of procrastination which we enjoyed discussing in our group.

Procrastination can sometimes be an essential part of the creative process – perhaps it even IS the creative process. One of our members is a publisher and writer and she noted that for many people in this industry, procrastination is the only work style they can utilise.

Imagine a deadline at the end of the month to write an article, complete an essay or create a piece of art. At the beginning of the month you experience a sense of certainty that this goal will / must happen, yet now is not the time to start. This ‘block’ stage can be a source of distress for some people, feeling inhibited that they cannot begin straight away or that whatever work they do at this stage will not be good enough or just need re-doing anyway.

writers block, procrastination

What tends to happen is putting off the task until much closer to the deadline – as illustrated by Tim Urban’s model. But consider what may be happening in that ‘non-productive’ space which can be essential for that focus later on:

Idea generation – though not recorded or acted upon, the space between start date and deadline gives us time to play around with ideas in our head. This may be conscious or subconsciously. Thinking of themes, organising ideas, getting a feel for when and where we will do the work.

Clearing space – Tim suggests that procrastination activities are leisurely and therefore distract us from hard work. But functioning procrastinators will tell you that often their activities help prepare them for the work later. Cleaning their desk, organising files, doing the shopping and other such side tasks may not be directly relevant to the main task, but may ensure a sense of clarity later. Being able to work in an organised space without worrying about other chores extends the focus when it does come.

Getting in the zone – Both of the above points combined with a looming deadline may support some people to get in the right state of mind to work. Especially if they are an Away From Motivation (see blog) and require a sense of adrenaline and urgency in order to start work.

So, is procrastination a black and white, good or bad thing? Or could procrastination be a functional part of the creative process?

I think it may depend very much on individuals and tasks. Putting off doing the washing up in favour of playing mobile apps does not sound like a creative or productive form of procrastination. But putting off a report in order to spend time with colleagues may actually be a part of clarifying ideas for later.

I would love to know what people’s thoughts and experiences of procrastination are in order to fill out this picture of when procrastination may be beneficial.

What types of procrastination seem to help you / hinder you?

How do you decide what to do when you are putting off a task?

What happens if you force yourself to do the task early on?

What kind of final results do you get?

Send us an email so we can collate people’s views.

Image credits:

Tim Urban, Inside the mind of a master procrastinator, 2016

Jonno Witts, Writers Block, 2008

Stefan Baundy, Question! 2007

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