Is Procrastination a Disease?
Or are Procrastinators Just Lazy?
No, seriously. This article took me a long time because I did not want it to be just another motivational post but offer facts and info. Facts can be a bit of a dry read.
Procrastination is a problem every single person has to a certain extent. There are different causes, types, and solutions.
There was one great guy, a Sales Manager who was working harder than most of us. He was more disciplined. He put in around 70 hours weekly, you never saw him chatting – but he did not reach his goal. He bombarded you with emails on Sundays, his days off – basically he was working as close to 24/7 as humanly possible.
I thought it was interesting that he did not harvest the reward for putting in more hours and working harder, so I watched him a little bit closer.
You know what? He was a huge procrastinator. Here is how he would go about a task:
Let´s say he had to prepare a simple report. It could look like this:
- He would start with entering his todo´s into the project management software. Then he would encounter a bug in the software. Nothing that would be important for his simple report. For his report, he would not need to set up a project in the first place.
- He would try to get help from internal Consultants to figure out a workaround. Sales Managers are not the most respected people anyways. We hang out with the client, promise the world and then send the consultants (the ones in the know) who have to do the job. Sales Managers who do not make their numbers and always burn resources enjoy even less respect.
- Next, he would contact the support of the software company and open a ticket.
- Then he would look for different project management software.
- He would start a software evaluation project to choose the best one.
- Right after he made his choice he would present his case internally and suggest that the company changes their project management software…
He was working very hard, but he did everything he could to avoid his task. He was a procrastinator.
A procrastinator is not necessarily inactive. There are different types of procrastination, it can even be a disease.
Definition and Classification of Procrastination
Laziness or disease?
Later the word was also being used for idleness. In Christianity, laziness counts as a vice. Not a deadly sin but a vice that can lead to sins. Slackness of heart and mind.
Medicine describes procrastination as a disorder.
The key is to analyze which forces keep the procrastinator in the status of idleness. Only a counter force can break the mental barrier.
“Nach Faulheit folgt Krankheit”
This old German saying means: Laziness is followed by disease.
But many people do not acknowledge procrastination as a disease. They think all it takes is a bit of discipline: “Get your act together!”
That implies that procrastination is a self-inflicted state that can be ended at any time by the procrastinator.
But even it would be true, and the behavior is self-inflicted. Would it be off to describe procrastination as a disease?
We call it disease if someone gets diabetes from eating the wrong food. We accept gastrointestinal illness after binge-drinking as disease.
Therefore, one can conclude that severe cases of procrastination are a disease, as the performance and well-being of the procrastinator are in disorder.
Formal definition of procrastination
I found this definition in a dictionary:
“The act or habit of procrastinating, or putting off to a future time”
What is missing in the definition is that it is mostly unnecessary and irrational putting off. Eric Hoover´s description in his article “Tomorrow, I love ya!” goes as follows:
“Choosing to do one task while temporarily putting another on hold is simply setting priorities, which allows people to cross things off their todo lists one at a time. Procrastination is when one keeps reorganizing that list so that little or nothing on it gets done.”
Forms of Procrastination
There is no typical form of procrastination.
Looking at the two extremes is the best way to approach a classification.
The slacker. Someone who puts off everything and does nothing. He might lose jobs, endanger his health and have trouble in relationships.
The hyperactive. He is always busy and on the run. But he does not do the necessary or what is asked of him. More importantly: He does not do what he asks from himself. The hyperactive procrastinator often seems to be successful and have a great career. But his whole career might be just a distraction from his real and hidden goal.
Mañana means tomorrow. But it also stands for a principle or a way of life. It is a vague, non-binding way of putting off tasks until the next day. Or the day after that. Or forever.
Contingency mañana ploy
Here the person makes the fulfillment of the task dependent on other actions. Just like the Sales Manager from the foreword who first needed a perfect project management software before doing his report.
Or someone who wants to write a book but instead of writing feels he first has to learn graphic design for the illustration. It can also be someone who wants to propose but makes it contingent of first saving up amount xy.
Catch 22 trap
This term goes back to William J. Knaus. It is similar to the contingency manana ploy only the procrastinator makes doing his task contingent on unaccomplishable preconditions.
Personality profiles of procrastinators
The fun procrastinator
You know this type back from the days at school. He always comes across as if he had a clown for breakfast. You also find him on parties and other festivities.
They cover up their terrible experience with procrastination behind a funny story and flirt with the fact that it was so embarrassing and funny to miss an important appointment. Or show up late at a wedding.
Playing this role assures a certain image and procrastination does not seem like a character flaw but more like a part of their acting performance.
The social procrastinator
This type is very worried about the problems of others. He cares and looks after those who are stuck or struggling. That makes them feel great about himself and frees him from the need to take care of his habit of putting things off.
The all-round genius procrastinator
They try to embody the Renaissance ideal of a universal genius. This type of procrastinator wants to be an expert in multiple different areas. Obviously that is an unaccomplishable goal in our times that scream for specialization.
The amount of knowledge needed to excel in several areas is too large to master. The person cannot realize his ideas in the available time and perceives his whole trade as procrastination.
The “sort things out” procrastinator
You find them in any company. I myself am not free of this type of procrastination (occasionally (: ). They seem to be miracle workers. They save a project in the last hour before the deadline ends. They do what it takes to make it work. Long hours, lots of energy.
That said, they caused the critical situation through procrastinating at the start and in the middle of the project.
Procrastination in Business and Politics
Procrastination is not just limited to individuals. It hits groups, companies, and even whole societies. Companies might miss to break into new markets or change their products according to customer demand.
Laws are enacted too late; sports clubs put off acquiring new young talents too long. You will find lots of examples if you look into any newspaper.
Reasons for procrastination
There is not one general cause. Here are some of the most common reasons:
Idols and warning examples
Idols or anti-idols can often be found in the closest family. They can also be friends.
One example would be a father that has a great and successful career but neglects his family. A kid of such a “perfect” father can come to the conclusion that it´s better not to be as successful. Therefore, he focuses on friends and family more than on his studies.
This person will also have a hard time in their jobs. They are not willing to work overtime but are a perfect friend and father. He will act just as he wishes his father would have acted.
In most cases, perfection cannot be achieved. An excessive pursuit of perfection will lead to problems. There is always something that could have been better. The perfectionist sets goals for himself too high to reach them.
The need for perfection leads to delivering subpar work that is way below his possibilities.
This type of procrastinator is never born. He is made. Most of the time parents or grandparents are guilty of conditional love*. The kid learned that to be loved it has to be flawless and perfect.
This type of procrastination can often be found in artists, top athletes. Opposite to what one might think the “perfectionist procrastinator” does not deliver results that are over average.
The readiness to be distracted results from scientific curiosity and interest in new tasks and topics. These procrastinators generally have a lot of interests. Boredom can be another reason why these people are easily distracted.
Some cannot identify with the tasks set for them by others. These tasks then get put off because of the inner resistance.
Or they see the task as irrelevant and cannot motivate themselves.
If somebody does not fully understand what is asked of him, he has a hard time working on a task. The same applies when priorities are not clearly defined.
Lack of skills
The person does not possess the skills necessary to do the task. It would potentially possible to acquire the missing skills but for fear the procrastinator puts the task off. A lot of times these people do even have the necessary skills but their insecurity (fear) suggests otherwise.
Fear of change
Tasks require new skills and additional knowledge. The fear of failure adds to the fear of letting go of the tried.
Related article: Neuroscience and Fear
Also, fear of making decisions is a common reason.
Most of the time, the root of the problem can be found in the earliest childhood. Very often disorders were built within the family.
There is a direct connection between pain and procrastination. I recommend this article to you: Mark Waldman is a leading neuroscientist who has developed a fabulous program for healing and regaining back control over your mind.
Let´s say you are not used to manual work. You work in your garden with a tool you are not used to and get a blister. You will try to not put any more pressure on that spot. More pressure would make the blister worse and harm underlying skin layers. It makes sense that someone would stop the garden work for that day if a plaster or glove does not cut it.
That is an instinct. Our brain is wired to protect us from pain to ensure our survival. Our brain is “programmed” to optimize actions for pain avoidance. You probably burnt yourself at least once as a kid before you learned that you cannot put your hand on a candle.
Even though intellectual work does not cause blisters, the same mechanism applies. For instance, someone works in an office and has some nasty work ahead of him.
To avoid the task, or better to avoid the pain, that person might take longer breaks, more cigarette breaks or surfs the internet more. In this case, there are two reasons for procrastination. Pain avoidance, even though the pain is just psychological, and an early reward to achieve a feeling of well-being and happiness.
Related article: Emotional Intelligence and Success
Stress at the workplace
Inability to say “no.”
One of the many reasons for procrastination is that some people lack the ability to say “no.” These people accept invitations for events they do not want to go to.
They do not complain when the boss hands in new tasks that mean overtime – even when the procrastinator has private plans.
The vicious game of procrastination
The procrastinator has a new goal or task. He has a good feeling and is convinced that this time he will go about the job systematically and promptly.
Depending on the previous history the procrastinator might or might not be a little bit insecure at this early stage. It can be a project at work or a simple task like garden work.
Now would be the chance to get an early start but there is also enough time to wait a little longer.
The procrastinator decides to wait a bit longer but with the clear mindset that he will start soon.
The procrastinator already lost a substantial amount of time, but nothing is lost yet. But he gets a bad feeling that scares him. He is starting to get afraid that as before he might continue to put things off.
The ideal point in time to start has passed. But the procrastinator hopes that everything could still work out according to the plan. He is correct. If he would not procrastinate there would still be enough time. But he doubts that he can make it and continues to put the task off.
The trap snaps. The procrastinator feels that he is losing ground. He realizes that the chances to finish the project on time are minimal. At the same time, he starts to feel guilty which further paralyzes him.
It is time for the final decision. Either he has to give up the project and accept his failure or he has to put up the energy to make the best of a bad job. In any way, it is too late already to produce a great result.
Regrets. The procrastinator feels remorse and says to himself that he will not fail next time. At the same time, he has doubts. He forefeels that it will be the same next time.
The more times the procrastinator failed in the past, the stronger the feeling of doubt.
Consequences of procrastination
Negative effects can manifest in the personal life, career or at school.
The speeding ticket costs double because it has not been paid in time. Or maybe a job was taken because the resume has been sent too late.
Loss of reputation
Missed deadlines, promises that have been broken lead to a loss of reputation. People will lose confidence in the person who fails to deliver on his promises and tasks.
Financial disadvantages, career interruption
The flight is more expensive because it was booked last minute. A promotion goes to someone else. Overdue fines for bills paid too late. In more extreme cases, people ruin their credit scores because they just do not react to bill reminders and even debt collectors.
In severe cases, procrastinators have lost their jobs or their businesses.
Symptoms are being ignored, and doctor visits get put off.
In the beginning, the person is a little bit dissatisfied. That feeling grows stronger and can over time lead to depression. Losing touch with reality is another danger. The person might not be aware anymore of the connection between his behavior and his environment.
Isolation after a job loss, loss of friends, partner or divorce.
Generally speaking, the procrastinator tends to be dishonest. He will start to make excuses, keep things secret, tell white lies … the web of excuses and lies is becoming denser over time.
Treatment of procrastination
The treatment of procrastination is as difficult as healing depression. Professor Ferrari (De Paul University, Chicago) put it like this:
“Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up,”
There is not a single person who is not procrastinating to a certain degree. In minor cases, the procrastinator can get rid of the habit just with discipline. Brain Retraining can work sheer miracles. But it requires a minor time investment daily for at least 90 days.
In severe cases (analyze yourself. Do you have disadvantages through procrastination and have you tried several times to change?), professional help is necessary. I would send you to a neuroscientist with deep understanding of the human brain.
Every failed attempt makes things worse. In severe cases reading a motivational book will not do the trick.
In these cases, procrastination is not laziness but a disorder, a disease that has to be taken serious and needs professional attention.
There are three possible scenarios:
- One manages to do what one used to put off just by discipline
- One does not change but accepts the procrastination with its negative consequences
- One can change the goal. That could be the decision to not renovate the garage or in more severe cases it can mean to change the employer or even industry
As mentioned earlier, if procrastination is an issue in your life you will have to analyze the severeness. You would have to be honest with yourself and admit in which cases (relationships, friendship, career and so forth) you had disadvantages through putting things off.
If you are sure that you can handle the situation yourself (which applies to many people) here are the 3 steps to take:
Awareness – Action – Accountability
- Awareness – Analyzing the TRUE (hidden) reasons for procrastination
- Action – Defining steps and measures to change the situation
- Accountability – Steps have to be verifiable. A diary works for many
- Which activities took longer than they should? When did I waste too much time?
- What was really necessary, what could have been skipped
- What did I not do even though it was necessary? Reasons?
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