Is This Normal? 'I Absolutely Can't Work Until The Last Minute'
Procrastination is a routine experience for more than one in five people, research shows.
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
I have a habit I’m not too proud of: the tendency to delay tasks until the eleventh hour. What’s confounding is that this isn’t just how I behave when it comes to boring, mundane tasks, but even those I’m actually looking forward to. From packing for a long-overdue vacation to writing my wedding vows to checking everything off my to-do list, I absolutely cannot focus until the last minute. Naturally, this also means that whenever I work, I do so under stress, while hating myself, simultaneously, as I wonder if I could’ve done things better if only I’d started sooner. Yet, the rush of adrenaline as deadlines loom and the perpetual promise of 'I'll start tomorrow’ is a cycle that’s unfortunately as familiar to me as the feeling of my own hands.
Is this normal? There’s a saying, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” While it doesn’t answer my question, it makes it amply clear that I’m not alone in experiencing what I do. More interestingly, research indicates that 20-25% of adults are “chronic procrastinators.” Seemingly, procrastination is a routine experience for more than one in five people.
“We don’t view procrastination as a serious problem but as a common tendency to be lazy or dawdling. But… it is much, much more,” notes Joseph Ferrari, a distinguished professor of psychology at DePaul University and the American Psychological Association's main resource on procrastination.
Indeed, deeming procrastination as “laziness” is a highly inaccurate way of addressing the habit. Especially so, since many people procrastinate by doing other, less pressing tasks – like reorganizing their cupboard so it’s color-coordinated, deep-cleaning their office space on a whim, or simply doing the laundry they’d been putting off to keep themselves busy as they procrastinate, instead, on a report that’s due later in the week – than lying on the couch, eating popcorn, and watching television.
The laziness-rhetoric, however, is counterproductive for people already prone to procrastination. When one is conditioned to perceive procrastination as a sign of laziness or lack of discipline, they are likely to feel guilty and ashamed for procrastinating, despite not being able to help it. Incidentally, this shame can get in the way of them getting to the task they’ve been putting off. “[T]here is the idea that putting things off is laziness in our society. We tend to judge people who do that as sluggish, assuming they’re not productive. This perspective is problematic as it overlooks the emotional aspect of procrastination. It can make individuals feel bad about themselves, leading to even more delay… Shame tends to isolate us and make us feel like we are not like others but unproductive outliers,” explains Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at Durham University.
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And shame worsens procrastination because the act of putting things off is “often [and already] related to higher negative emotions and overall distress,” as a study from 2020 highlights. “[A]n individual who forgives [themselves] for [their] procrastination might be more motivated to accept responsibility, less motivated to avoid this behavior in the future, and therefore procrastinate less.”
Yet another reason why people procrastinate: impulsivity. Past research has shown that “impulsive people are more likely to procrastinate… because they are preoccupied with fulfilling their present desires and wants, and thus center their interests on satisfying their urges.”
Procrastination has indeed been linked to immediate gratification – but more often than not, the “gratification,” in question, simply refers to coping with the negative emotions that one is trying to allay by putting off tasks that can trigger them further. Reporting for The New York Times, journalist Charlotte Lieberman wrote, “Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”
But much like the shame one incurs when procrastinating, this sense of gratification, too, can spawn a vicious cycle. “The momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief… And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit,” Lieberman continues.
But shame and impulsivity aren’t the only banes of procrastinators. In fact, what makes someone more likely to procrastinate is a range of other negative emotions, too – like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, fear of failure, perfectionism, and lack of motivation. Picture this: a person who is anxious about a task may put it off because they are afraid of failing or making mistakes, which can be so overwhelming that it paralyzes them, demotivating them from starting the task lest it should turn out imperfect, hurting their self-esteem further. And so, they decide to wait until an arbitrary time when they hope they’ll be better equipped to handle the task – or, at least, in the right frame of mind to do justice to it.
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Executive dysfunction – a common feature of ADHD and autism – is another classic recipe for procrastination. Executive function refers to a set of cognitive processes that enable people to manage life by strategizing, organizing, making decisions, paying attention to the details, and exercising self-control – in short, everything that is required to help people get started on a task and see it through to completion. Executive dysfunction, on the other hand, can lead one to “experience a sense of ‘paralysis’” in the face of a task or project; that is, they want to get started, but are “unable to make progress forward in any manner.”
Procrastination can, unfortunately, be a learned behavior, too – either as a result of growing up in an environment where punctuality wasn’t enforced, or simply, being raised by overly controlling parents. “[Procrastination] frequently develops in reaction to a controlling family member in which the presence of an authoritative parent can impair a child's capacity to internalize their own goals for action and develop self-regulation skills,” notes an article. Interestingly, this also means that organizational structures that foster last-minute urgency or reward completing tasks under tight deadlines can inadvertently breed procrastination. Moreover, making a case against micromanaging, the article continues, “Procrastination can occasionally even appear as a subdued kind of revolt, acting as one of the few ways to assert autonomy in such a setting.”
The causes of procrastination are, evidently, many; it’s no wonder, then, that so many of us are chronic procrastinators. Remembering that can actually reduce our shame – slightly increasing our odds of beating procrastination. “ I’m not saying it’s a free pass for procrastination… [But i]t’s this understanding that I’m not the first person to procrastinate, nor will I be the last. Everyone struggles. That is part of the human condition,” notes Sirois. “You can still feel bad for procrastinating, but you don’t have to beat yourself up. It’s about accepting that you procrastinated, but guess what? Others have, too. Talking to others and seeking support can help you feel less alone.”
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.