Procrastination: Common Causes and Remedies

Procrastination is like a disease that steals time away from people. The condition is often followed by lack of motivation, which creates a vicious invisible cycle: doing and achieving progress gives people motivation, however the more people procrastinate, the less they do, thereby generating less energy, which further reinforces procrastination responses.

Needless to say, procrastination is not a positive contributing factor in teams. It reduces productivity of individuals and, if accepted, can infect the whole team. It can also lead to unhealthy team dynamics because procrastinators often behave like a volcano: they wait and accumulate stress as a result of constantly thinking about what they are not doing, until suddenly it reaches a boiling point and they respond frantically, wanting to attend to the tasks urgently.

According to Psychology Today, 20% of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators: “For them procrastination is a lifestyle, albeit a maladaptive one. And it cuts across all domains of their life. They don’t pay bills on time. They miss opportunities for buying tickets to concerts. They don’t cash gift certificates or checks. They file income tax returns late…”

Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but 20% of people admit to chronically avoiding difficult tasks and deliberately looking for distractions. Considering the fact that  not all procrastinators acknowledge their time management habits, it’s likely you know a procrastinator or two.

Like with any other habits, describing it is helpful only for identifying it. If we wish to support these people to develop new habits, we need to start looking at causes and remedies. The most common are:

Failing to link action-related thought to action: Thirst is an indication you need to take action and drink. If you repeatedly ignore thirst and skip drinking every time you are thirsty, your body will reduce the trigger, and you’ll stop being thirsty as frequently. Procrastination behavior is affected by a similar mechanism: people start ignoring action-related thoughts and, if they do that frequently enough regarding little tasks, soon the smaller action-thoughts become less frequent. To stop procrastination, people need to start small, redeveloping the habit of responding to minor daily action-thoughts with action.

Curing the rebellious bug: Not surprisingly, procrastination is a response to a deeper emotional reason. In most cases it is an attempt to be in control of one’s life, by not cooperating. It is very common for people who adopt procrastination to be brilliant individuals who are highly responsible and ethical. Typically they are excellent at what they do and they have very high standards, which they expect themselves and others to meet. Procrastination is a rebellion, the light of their hidden need for self-expression to shine above all the shoulds and other self-inflicted expectations. To overcome this need to procrastinate, procrastinators need to be more deliberate about choosing when to respond according to what they believe they should do or according to what they feel and want to do. It often feels counter intuitive to procrastinators, but the more choice and control they actually have over their lives, the less they’ll need to rebel, hence, the less they’ll procrastinate.

Like with any other change, people who procrastinate have a resistance response, which is why remedial coaching won’t work with procrastination behavior (see the third stage in the five-stage acquisition model). As with the acquisition of any change, 90% of people will quickly stop cooperating with the acquisition process and get in their own way. The way to overcome their resistance will depend on the specific way they resist (which is very different for each team and individual). To learn more about resistance styles and how to overcome them, reach out. We’d love to chat with you about your procrastinator…

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