Procrastination – why do we keep doing it?

I don’t know about you but since I’ve been in elementary school, my preparation process for any kind of test, exam or paper has always been the same – no matter how important it was or how much time I had to prepare it. I always went through the same phases:

  1. The “I’ve got soooo much time left, no need to stress about it now” phase
    For me, this always was the most relaxing phase where you could basically do whatever you feel like without even thinking of the task at hand. “There is no point in starting this early” is always a really relaxing thought for me. In this phase, the Task is probably written somewhere on a random piece of paper with the date when it’s due and as soon as it’s written down, I can calmly forget about it.
  2. The “I should start immediately” phase
    At some point in time a more organized student will inevitably remind me that this task exist which always triggers this uncomfortable moment when all the work I put into trying to suppress and forget this thought, gets destroyed and there it is, back from the coma I forced it into by categorically ignoring it: My conscience.
    “Once again you are going to start too late.”
    “Everyone else already is miles ahead of you.”
    “There is so much to do and you wasted all that free time!”
    “Why do you always do this to yourself?”
  3. The panic phase
    After another couple of days where I’m usually really busy trying to make my conscience leave me alone by trying to sleep through it, I finally accept my defeat after waking up and realizing that it’s still there, louder and meaner every day.
    The following process is always the same circle:panic-spiral-001
  4. The aftermath
    After mostly having spiraled through this circle of guilt and effort for the remaining time, I usually make up my deficit and sometimes I even exaggerate it and work too much. In the end, the last couple of days are incredibly stressful, unhealthy and make me really nervous for the exam, I’m always disappointed in myself because I know that I could have done better and I start so find excuses to justify my laziness.

I genuinely believe that this process has not changed a bit since my first exam in elementary school, rather than change anything about it (and believe me I tried), I mostly just got used to it and learned to accept that this apparently is the way I’m going to get work done for the rest of my life.

After this depressing realization, I decided to dedicate some of my seemingly infinite free time in between my procrastination cycles into trying to find out what this illogical and definitely harmful behavior is all about. I kind of had a breakthrough when I realized what we all are actually doing when we are procrastinating.

First of all, there always is a task which requires a lot of energy and time. Then, we usually are forced to complete the task and we don’t have a choice as of whether we actually want to do it or not. So effectively, we have to force ourselves to do something we really don’t want to do. But that really is rather difficult, getting our brain to make us do something it really doesn’t want to do. This is the same for working out, leaving the house on a lazy day, writing that essay that you’re supposed to hand in next week or doing the dishes that you have been ignoring for the past days. What we use to solve that problem is what we call motivation. That thought, Idea or reason that finally makes you do what you avoided all the time.
As we grow up, the amount of these tasks rises exponentially. So how do we meet this growing demand for motivation? Well..we don’t. And why? Because in the end, problems have a way of solving themselves, at least it sometimes seems that way. Let’s look at what I mean by that: When we are procrastinating to study for an exam, for example, all we really do is sit through the first phase, knowing that we are going to get overwhelmed and afraid, that we are not going to make in time.
When that point comes and we enter Phase 2, all we really did was to wait for our growing fear of failing the exam, disappointing our parents or being worse than our friends or any other fear that comes in handy. When that fear has grown enough, we automatically have our perfect motivation that suddenly can make the lazy idiot we were a couple of days ago work all day and night without thinking about a pause. That tactic really does the job for most people, without realizing, we just wait until our fear has grown to overpower our laziness and then we ride that wave into moderate but usually relatively certain success.

So what does that mean in conclusion?
Well first of all, we have to understand that it is okay and natural to procrastinate. We have to stop picturing it as our ultimate downfall, weakness and a certain reason for our failures. I personally think it is a result of the educational systems that we grew up in since we never got a chance to develop any other form of motivation and we should not blame ourselves for this since that usually just makes it worse.
But now that we actually know what we are doing, we can look at the downsides of procrastination: We never work to our full potential, always fight this internal fight between laziness and conscience and most importantly, you can’t use your fears as motivation without feeding your fears, making them inevitably grow out of control. Because that’s the problem with fears, they never just affect you in one aspect of your life, they root deeply in your personality, behavior, relationships and if you are trying to use them as your motivation, those areas are certainly sooner or later going to be affected as well. Adding to that the usual self-hatred because part of this mechanism is to purposefully keep ourselves from doing what needs to be done so that the fears can actually grow to be strong enough to motivate, so we actually have to watch ourselves lean back and relax for far more than we should, to be able to make ourselves go to work, is very unhealthy for our self-confidence.

Regarding all these downsides that most of us usually are already aware of, I think there might be an interesting approach to resolving this whole problem by targeting the root of all this: The Motivation
But that’s going to be the topic of one of my next entries.

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