I’ll do it later: why we procrastinate

RECENTLY I read that the root cause of procrastination for many people is, in actual fact, perfectionism. So the theory goes, people put off starting a task for fear of not being able to complete it absolutely perfectly. At first this made me laugh. But then I thought, yes, there’s something in this.

It made sense. When I think about starting to do something, I immediately think of absolutely every last element of the entire job, and how many of those elements have to go just right for the whole job to be completed properly. It’s instantly overwhelming, and it makes it extremely difficult to know where to start. And not knowing where to start seems to me to be a reason to not start at all. Then you end up in a situation with a deadline in three days’ time, sleepless nights, and a mounting sense of dread and hopelessness.

Anyway, I was just starting to feel better about why I can always find something to do other than the thing I’m supposed to do, when – for reasons I am still not completely sure about, but I suspect were rooted in self-justification – I decided to google “perfectionism” and “procrastination”. Big mistake. The second search result was an article from Psychology Today, by a chap named Piers Steel.

Apart from the fact that Piers Steel is precisely the sort of name you’d want your psychologist to have, the article was deeply disturbing. Does perfectionism really cause perfectionism?

“Lots of people think so,” Piers wrote.

“It’s a neat theory you’ll often hear repeated around the water cooler. There’s just one problem with it: it’s wrong. Research shows that perfectionists actually procrastinate less than other people, not more.” Thanks Piers.

‘Chronic procrastinators often can be paralysed by indecision. The usual sign that it’s happening [to a friend of mine] is when she disappears from social media for more than 48 hours.’

So naturally I raised the question with my own psychologist. And she told me that Piers is right. My procrastination problem isn’t due to perfectionism at all, it’s down mostly to impulsiveness. That’s deeply counter-intuitive, but it means I have a tendency to veer off into doing easier or more pleasurable tasks, instead of doing the important or pressing ones. I do what is pleasurable right now, instead of doing the difficult thing now to avoid discomfort and to enjoy pleasure later.

She pointed me towards a survey I could do online which, as if to prove her point, I started as soon as I got home but then found I had to create an online account to complete it, so I put it off until later and watched something on Netflix instead. And I still haven’t done the survey.

But my therapist did try to assure me I do not have too much to worry about, despite the stress that stems from my procrastination problem. Chronic procrastinators often can be paralysed by indecision, and while I often find it a difficult hurdle to clear, I’m not yet at that stage. It does happen to someone I know, so I understand the implications, and it is a serious issue. Luckily, she has friends who know all about it and can help when it gets particularly bad. The usual sign that it’s happening is when she disappears from social media for more than 48 hours.

The question for procrastinators is why the anxiety that often accompanies the condition isn’t more of a spur to action – you know, actually doing something about it, in a timely manner, to avoid the stress and anxiety that inevitably results. That’s something I have not yet got to the bottom of, but I’m working on it. Who knows, someday I might get around to writing about it.