But for the real procrastinators amongst us, that habitual delay is both a symptom and a cause of serious life-affecting anxiety.
It’s a relatively simple cycle:
- You’re anxious about a task so you put it off in preference of an activity which might make you feel better in the short term.
- But that original task is still there to be done and the awareness of that sits in your mind as a source of long-term anxiety.
- As the deadline for the task approaches, so the anxiety builds and you have to find alternative short-term activities to dull the worry.
- The anxiety about the approaching deadline itself becomes the focus of your anxiety because it prevents you from completing the task to the best of your abilities. (Is that last-minute university essay, report for work, or tax return going to cost you a grade/a raise/a rebate?)
- The eventual completion of the task results in short-term relief to the extent that you see the procrastination as having a successful end-point. This means you don’t learn from the experience and are likely to repeat the cycle again.
Chronic procrastination is a form of avoidance – a classic signpost for social anxiety as it is used as a coping mechanism for emotionally tough tasks but still creates the shame and guilt which feeds into that original anxiety.
Studies by the Procrastination Research Group’s Tim Pychyl, associate professor at the department of psychology in Carleton University, Ottawa, have revealed that procrastination is not an issue of time-management, willpower or laziness. Rather, people who procrastinate are often governed by a misplaced coping mechanism tied to their (often unconscious) emotions.
In other words, they’re choosing short-term pleasurable gains rather than tackling tasks which might involve facing longer-term emotional pain.
In terms of how the brain works, studies in the US have tied procrastination to an area at the front of the brain which is concerned with self-regulation and have shown a correlation between procrastination and all nine subsets of what’s known as “executive functioning” namely:
- Planning and organization
- Activity shifting
- Task initiation
- Task monitoring
- Emotional control
- Working memory
- General orderliness
This has led researchers to investigate how procrastinators view themselves both in the present and in the future – leading to results which tend to show those who delay carrying out tasks are more likely to see their “future self” as a stranger.
This is key to seeing how avoidance and procrastination can manifest themselves as harmful behaviour for people living with social anxiety – quite simply, not being able to project to future events keeps people trapped in that short-term cycle of quick, baseless reward.
Recognising chronic procrastination as a symptom of anxiety is a first step towards controlling that anxiety – and it can provide a base from which to tackle those underlying causes of the anxiety. It’ not enough – and can be counter-productive – to keep on telling yourself to “just do it” because it’s often the idea of completion which is the cause of the anxiety and the underlying reason behind the delaying tactics.
Rather, once that procrastination is recognized, it can be enough to say “well, let’s get started then” because that initial progress is enough to play into an inner reward system and make it easier to stay on course with the task at hand.
If you recognize procrastination as having a detrimental effect on your life, Robert Street Clinic has a wide range of psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psychologists who can work with you to help tackle its causes. For more information, call us on 09 973 5950, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us via the website.