Have you thought about tackling your procrastination but, you know … dog videos, shopping lists, catching up on Twitter, the last-ever episode of Neighbours with Mike and “plain Jane superbrain”, apparently.
A Durham University professor and world-leading authority on procrastination is bidding to help. Fuschia Sirois has, over two decades of studying procrastination, heard so many heartbreaking stories that she is now publishing a research-based self-help guide offering insights and practical strategies to deal with it.
“I do a lot of public speaking and I get emails after the talks, people whose lives are just crippled by procrastination, they can’t move ahead with their goals, it’s taking a toll on their health and they are just desperate for any sort of advice.”
There is a lot of advice and opinion on the subject, which is not helpful, she added. “You’re lazy, go do a time-management course … show your self-discipline – ‘come on soldier!’”
Instead procrastinators need to better understand what the problem is in order to tackle it. They also need to stop beating themselves up about procrastinating and be kinder to themselves.
Sirois, a professor of psychology at Durham, said procrastination among students was worryingly high. “It’s estimated that anywhere between 80 and 95% of new students procrastinate at least once or more, but 50% of students procrastinate chronically and that is a real issue.”
In the wider adult population an estimated 15-25% of people frequently procrastinate.
Procrastination has never been a good thing despite some researchers arguing the benefits of “positive procrastination”. Sirois said: “Embedded in the definition of procrastination is that you unnecessarily and voluntarily delay an important intended task despite knowing that the consequences are harmful. How can that be positive?”
At its core is an irrational and emotional act, Sirois said. “Procrastination is a form of emotion regulation where sufferers avoid a task that might spark negative emotions, by disengaging with it or putting it off.”
Sirois said harsh judgment was not the solution and procrastinators needed to know they were not lazy – and they did not just need to work on their organisation or time management.
Procrastination, she said, is due to “not being able to manage our emotions internally. So we manage them externally. We take that task that is unpleasant or boring, or frustrating or stressful … and by putting it aside we get an immediate feeling of relief.
“But we’ve done it temporarily and we’ve done it externally so it is going to come back to haunt us.”
One of the reason Sirois said she wanted to write the book “was to help people recognise what was driving procrastination and find ways of helping them get out of that cycle”.
Chronic procrastination can have an impact on people’s health, wellbeing and career, resulting in stress, anxiety and shame.
Sufferers have been found to have less job security and more limited career progression. It can cause insomnia and headaches and bring on heart-related health problems.
“Procrastination is not a trivial issue,” said Sirois. “It can have substantial negative impacts on a person’s life. But it doesn’t have to be that way, there are ways to address it and there is hope for those caught in a pattern of chronic procrastination.
“My hope is that through sharing my expertise via a practical self-help book, procrastinators the world over can start to overcome the problem and fulfil their dreams and goals.”
Procrastination: What it is, why it’s a problem and what you can do about it is published by the American Psychological Association and is out now.
Victor Hugo agreed to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1829. A year later, after lots of entertaining and pursuing other projects, the book was still not completed. Given a new deadline Hugo came up with a plan in which he locked away all his formal clothes leaving himself with just a shawl to go out in. It was finished two weeks early.
Margaret Atwood has described herself as “a world-class” procrastinator, putting off writing The Handmaid’s Tale for three years. Her coping mechanism is to give herself a double identity so “Peggy does the laundry” and Peggy tells Margaret “to log off her damn Twitter account”.
Saint Augustine of Hippo lived in fourth-century north Africa and came up with what could be a motto for all procrastinators. In a prayer to God he said: “Give me chastity and temperance – but not yet!” He did give up his sexually hedonistic ways and Bob Dylan once dreamed he saw him.
Douglas Adams would do almost anything to avoid writing. “I love deadlines,” The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy author once said. “I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” One editor’s solution was to lock him in a hotel room for three weeks, sending up food and drink to him directly so he had no excuse not to finish writing his book.