If you’re feeling stuck in procrastination, there is reason for hope!
The growing burden of things that remain undone, perhaps not even started, can weigh us down. We all fall behind from time to time. It never feels good, but when it’s occasional, caught early enough, and corrected, we can more easily attribute it to circumstances beyond our control. However, when it persists and produces feelings of dread and a pattern of avoidance, it can shake our confidence, leaving us feeling destined to fail.
When procrastination manifests in this way, it can feel like a character flaw, that something fundamental and internal to our being is at issue. But recent research suggests a different root cause and avenues of action that can set us free. I shall summarize some of this research and suggest a few simple ways in which you can begin taking corrective action to remedy vulnerabilities to procrastination.
Historically, we can trace use of the word procrastination to the 16th century. According to Merriam-Webster it’s composed of the prefix pro-, meaning "forward," and crastinus, meaning "of tomorrow. But others have found much earlier references to this vulnerability in Hesiod (700 BC), when he admonishes his brother Perses to stop avoiding his duties:
Do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.
Notice how pejorative, even morally loaded, the meaning of procrastination is in the Merriam-Webster definition below. The allusions to laziness in this definition and to ruin in Hesiod indicate just how deeply rooted this negative connotation is. No wonder, then, that those wrestling with issues of procrastination can easily see it as something endemic, characterological, and resistant to change.
Procrastinate - to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done; to move or act slowly so as to fall behind. It typically implies blameworthy delay especially through laziness or apathy.
But we know better based on learning theory and clinical research. We know that procrastinators “tend to prioritize mood regulation over long-term goal pursuits…[they] avoid working on actual unpleasant tasks to feel better in the present moment.” They’re feeling down and overwhelmed. And experimental research has shown that self-forgiveness (see below) helps us improve our mood and procrastinate less.
What is self-forgiveness? It’s a restorative process in which we, the procrastinator: 1) accept responsibility for our actions; 2) express remorse while reducing shame; 3) commit to changing our behaviors and affirming related values; and 4) achieve renewed self-respect, self-acceptance and moral growth. Notice that self-forgiveness is not about excusing one’s actions or avoiding responsibility.
The aim here is to forgive oneself for previous procrastinating behavior in order to get to higher ground, to a state of self-acceptance that acknowledges that we did not act properly or effectively, and that it is time for change. We thereby see our procrastination as a correctable problem. Nevertheless, our mistakes may have caused others to lose trust and confidence in us, even lose respect for us.
But that can change when we accept responsibility, express remorse, initiate change in behavior, and learn and grow from our failures. We rebuild trust and confidence in others as we act on changes in behavior. The restorative process addresses internal and external dimensions of development. To quote research psychologist, Carrol Izard, “The individual learns to act his way into a new way of feeling.”
I have drawn upon several sources for this article:
Self-Forgiveness, Self-Acceptance or Intrapersonal Restoration? Open Issues in the Psychology of Forgiveness. By Maria Prieta-Ursua & Ignacio Echegoyen. In Papeles del Psicologo, 2015, Vol. 36 (3).
Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. Eric Jaffe. In Association for Psychological Science, April 2013.
Procrastination and Stress: Exploring The Role of Self-Compassion. Fuschia Sirois. In Self and Identity, March 2014.