“I’m not a procrastinator. I’m just extremely productive at unimportant things”.

BY NATASHA RASARATNAM

There is nothing more satisfying than binging a TV show with a deadline looming. It’s funny how in the face of exams or an assignment due date, everything, and anything but the task at hand becomes a thousand times more appealing. After all, “I’m not a procrastinator. I’m just extremely productive at unimportant things”. It’s within a generic line straight from Pinterest, that I find comfort towards my procrastinating tendencies.

It’s a process many of us are familiar with; procrastinating an assessment by pretending it doesn’t exist until we realise it’s too late and pull an all-nighter to make the deadline. We regret and vow to never do this again only for the cycle to repeat. We all know that procrastination is the bane of every student’s existence, so why is it so appealing despite the onset of stress that it inevitably brings on?

A common misconception surrounding procrastination is that it’s driven by laziness and poor time management. In fact, procrastination is the manifestation of a complex psychological process that has been unravelled and examined within a whole body of research. The key to procrastination is that we are aware of the consequences that come from delaying the task at hand. So, if we know it’s bad, why do we still procrastinate?

Procrastination is driven by negative emotions of anxiety, frustration, or self-doubt about the task at hand. These emotions have been exacerbated during the pandemic where loss of routine and our usual coping mechanisms has sent procrastination to an all new high. Driven by an instinct akin to “flight or fight”, we seek to combat the negative emotions associated with the task rather than the task itself. These feelings of anxiety and frustration cloud our judgement and leave us more vulnerable to impulsive commands.  The result is mindless scrolling through Facebook or binging a TV show to secure short-term happiness, and offset the discomfort associated with the assignment. This moment of relief is perceived as a reward for procrastinating and is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to break the cycle.

Eventually, when the deadline is looming, we return to the task at hand. Except our initial anxiety and stress is even greater than before due to the time lost whilst procrastinating. These feelings are often accompanied by self-blame and regret which further exacerbate the initial distress we were trying to avoid in the first place. Over time as this cycle continues to repeat, it not only affects overall productivity but has a damaging impact on mental and physical health.

So how do we break the cycle of procrastination? There are many self-help books that talk about starting tasks early, setting goals, and removing distractions. Solutions I’m sure we have all heard of before. The one solution that I was surprised to read about was the importance of self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Much of the stress that results from procrastination is the guilt and shame of having wasted time, for not starting earlier, for sabotaging yourself. This negativity we direct toward ourselves is the most harmful.

A study following over 100 first year University students found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating on the first exam, were less likely to engage in procrastination on subsequent exams during the assessment period. The researchers postulated self-forgiveness increased student motivation due to a drive for self-improvement, in turn increasing productivity.

The benefits of self-forgiveness and self-compassion extend beyond procrastination and have been associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. Of course, these two concepts are easier said than done. It can be easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves, after all we are often our harshest critics. At the end of the day, it’s important to recognise that there are many people who procrastinate (I say this as a self-confessed master of procrastination) and it’s not something to bash oneself about. I’m sure you wouldn’t be so hard on a friend who procrastinates as you are on yourself. So as the dreaded end of year exam season approaches, please remember to be kind to yourself.

Helpful links:

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion: https://melbournecentreforwomensmentalhealth.com.au/articles/179

General tips to prevent procrastination: https://time.com/5322514/stop-procrastinating-tips/

References:

Sirois, Fuschia, Kitner, Ryan, Hirsch, Jameson. Self-Compassion, Affect, and Health-Promoting Behaviors. Health Psychol. 2015;34(6):661-669. doi:10.1037/hea0000158.

Wohl MJA, Pychyl TA, Bennett SH. I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences. 2010;48(7):803-8.

Haupt A. Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop? Experts have answers. [Internet]. The Washington Post; 2021 Jul 09 [cited 2021 Sep 17]. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/procrastinate-why-stop-advice/2021/07/09/13b7dc2c-e00e-11eb-9f54-7eee10b5fcd2_story.html

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