Rethinking Procrastination: A symptom not a cause

Procrastination seems to be a staple of the PhD experience. It’s a part of that experience which I’ve shown a great proclivity for, making me a bit of an expert. I’ve even been thinking of changing my thesis because I’m currently working on some advanced topics in the field, particularly, practicing some reflexivity methods on the analyses of my procrastination techniques. So yes, I’m procrastinating by thinking about procrastinating in an odd procrastination inception of sorts. I know it truly boggles the mind.


I joke, but honestly, I find this new-found talent or expertise in procrastination incredibly frustrating. However, all the thinking that frustration has produced may have led me to an interesting and possibly helpful thought: procrastination is a symptom not a cause.


When I struggled with procrastination in the past I saw it as a thing in itself and never thought to look behind or under it. I’ve been trying to fight and struggle with procrastination by sheer strength of will and more than a healthy dose of self-deprecating guilt. It’s felt like trying to bail water out of a sinking boat instead of just plugging the hole. The question then is what is the hole or holes that need to be plugged?


After some self-reflection I found that these holes fit into two categories: one being the nature of the task and the other being my own general wellbeing. When it comes to the task, I find that they are either things that I find boring or cause me anxiety. The boring ones do seem to just require some will power and focusing on the desired result of accomplishing them, but those that cause me anxiety take a little more self-reflection. I find that when I recognise that I’m using procrastination to run from things out of fear of unknown future consequences or my own self-doubt I can more readily deal with the problem and short-circuit the procrastination cycle.


However, even in the task-based procrastination I find my own wellbeing plays a role. Reflecting on my past there have been times that I have been far better at just getting things done whether I found them boring or they triggered my anxiety. The better my wellbeing was and the better I was caring for and viewing myself the better able I was to deal with these tasks and my anxiety. I found my procrastination in general worsened even with tasks I enjoyed like research, writing, or even planning holidays, when I wasn’t doing well in general; when I wasn’t doing a good job of fulfilling my needs as a human being.


I think it’s this underlying wellbeing, for lack of a better term, that is really the cause of my procrastination. In part this would explain why banging my head against the wall trying to force myself to focus more and work harder didn’t really work. I was trying to hammer in a nail with a screw driver. If my wellbeing and not a lack of will-power is the cause than the solution would look differently. And I think that solution starts with asking some questions:


What are my needs?

Am I meeting them?

If not which ones am I not meeting?

What can I do to better meet those needs?


Personally, I’m an extrovert and so some of the important needs for me are time with friends and just people generally. This means that for the sake of myself and my work I need to prioritise time with my friends and the health of my social network in general. Also, physical exercise is important for me, but I often sacrifice it, thinking I don’t have the time. Really though, I’m starting to think I don’t have the time not to go to the gym or practice a whole host of other self-care behaviours. At the moment these ideas are untested and this could all be an elaborate ruse by my subconscious to justify that holiday or simply taking a break, but as they say the proof is in the pudding and so I guess we’ll see! Although, I think this paradigm shift in thinking about procrastination just makes more sense to me, and more importantly looks a lot healthier. So what do you think? How do you deal with procrastination? Feel free to comment below or on twitter!


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