In the past two articles of this series, we have looked over surprising aspects of procrastination, how it can have vastly different manifestations and motives in different people and overall tried to highlight the PRO in procrastination. This third article takes a different approach to the subject. We are going to start on a journey of figuring out if procrastination can be overcome. Since procrastination is my choice of self-destructive behaviour, and I have yet to cure it over the course of the first two articles, I have no choice but to subject the reader to another incursion into the research on procrastination and my biased commentary on the findings in the literature.
A plague of the mind?
To come to a conclusion on whether people can overcome procrastination, we must first understand the root cause of it. Is procrastination simply a bad habit, or does it have to do with our decision-making process?
Well… yes. Both. And more! Scientists Norman Milgram, Gila Batori and Doron Mowrer determine five categories of procrastination behaviour: life routine procrastination, decisional procrastination, neurotic procrastination, compulsive procrastination, and academic procrastination. The first category refers to having trouble scheduling and sticking to a schedule for repeating chores, such as vacuuming; the second is the inability to make timely decisions, like deciding what your thesis subject is going to be; neurotic procrastination is postponing major life decisions such as changing your major; compulsive procrastination is the convergence of both decisional and life routine procrastination; and lastly, the one we are most familiar with – academic procrastination.
Procrastination goes beyond efficient time management, as procrastinators have a hard time being certain about their priorities, goals and long-term objectives.
While there is some overlap between these categories, and one person could engage in more than one type of procrastination, this goes to show the severity of the issue. Procrastination goes beyond efficient time management, as procrastinators have a hard time being certain about their priorities, goals and long-term objectives.
And the cause is way deeper in the way we see ourselves and the world around us. It all comes down to a low level of self-worth that creates negative self-talk, frustration and hostility. Seeing that procrastination is only the surface level result of such embedded negative cognitive styles, it feels unlikely to be shaken off.
Wendelien van Eerdea and Katrin Klingsieck set out to find out whether procrastination is escapable by comparing 24 procrastination interventions, and their research is enlightening. It appears that all procrastination interventions can be classified as having one of the following three strategies: they either aim to train self-regulatory skills, to improve self-efficacy or by organizing social support.
The first strategic approach leans into the realm of productivity self-help books. The focus is not on curing procrastination, but on preventing it from happening. Learning and applying time management, goal definition and focus techniques will achieve that.
The second one is more on the slogan side of things. Think “You can do it” but more academic. It might sound silly, but as a procrastinator myself, I can admit that I find some tasks daunting and lose all hope that I could ever see those through. So, self-efficacy is a big component of procrastination: if you don’t believe you can do it, you simply won’t.
The most efficient ones, though, were those that aimed to treat the core of procrastination as mentioned in the beginning: negative cognitive styles.
The third one is by far the most obvious. Both in its implementation and in its results. It is based on external factors (such as feeling understood, or ashamed of your behaviour) and seeing the way out. More than that, though this method, procrastination is given the gravitas it deserves. Organizing support groups for chronic procrastinators sets this less as slacking on your duties and more as a disorder people need help for.
All in all, the meta-analysis conducted by Wendelien van Eerdea and Katrin Klingsieck shows that all interventions worked. The most efficient ones, though, were those that aimed to treat the core of procrastination as mentioned in the beginning: negative cognitive styles. In other words, the participants were asked to look within and observe their thoughts surrounding their inability to perform tasks. Which ones are functional or dysfunctional? How can our dysfunctional thoughts be corrected? Lastly, how can those corrected thoughts be translated into action?
To answer all those questions without waiting to be recruited for an intervention, I highly recommend the Skillshare course by Ali Abdaal: Productivity Masterclass. Beyond the productivity-driven narrative, the course also challenges you to do some healthy introspection. Finding out what you are trying to avoid with the phrase “I don’t have time”, or encouraging you to pinpoint the habits that keep you from achieving your goals, makes this course a good alternative to interventions as those discussed above.
The fact that you know you are not alone in watching the course and seeing other people’s reflections is an added bonus since it creates this sense of community. A feeling proved to help with procrastination issues.
Cover: Ali Kazal
Edited by: Carolina Alves