We all have times in our lives when we have a task to do, yet find ourselves busily engaging in anything but that task. This is not always a negative thing. When compared to pre-crastination (compulsively completing tasks as soon as possible) procrastination can sometimes be a positive process, slowing us down and allowing more creative ideas to emerge and flow.
Interestingly, procrastination tends to be endorsed in popular culture. It’s almost a badge of honour to present oneself as someone who dallies over tasks. After all, who wants to be labelled as the ‘goody two-shoes’ who virtuously completes everything on time? But underneath this benign perspective of procrastination lurks a different view. For some people, dallying over tasks can be a stuck pattern of avoidance, having a very negative impact on their ability to engage in relationships, learning, work, and to achieve life goals.
In a recent column, Oliver Burkeman contended that the root cause of all procrastination is perfectionism. The argument here is that we avoid certain tasks because we prefer to maintain some ideal or ‘perfect’ imaginative version of whatever we are avoiding doing. Rather than gritting our teeth and producing something that might be flawed we remain in thrall to this fantastical notion of perfection.
The theory that procrastination can be traced to perfectionism tells us something important – that that settling for ‘good enough’ as a goal that is more likely to spur us to begin to undertake a task that we have been avoiding. But it’s not the whole picture, because although most of us will be able to tell tales of dallying over certain tasks, procrastination comes in all different shapes and sizes: Not only do we engage in different avoidant activities, but the things we procrastinate about differ markedly.
For some people the task of making a phone call to a colleague or a friend is one that sends them to the kitchen for endless snacks and cups of tea. For others, an advancing assignment deadline can be a trigger for cleaning the house from top to bottom.
Rather than simply labelling these behaviours as ‘procrastination’ and stopping there, it can be very helpful to think carefully about the kinds of tasks that we find ourselves habitually avoiding, as well as what we find ourselves doing instead. For example, it could be that an ongoing pattern of avoiding meeting up with friends by spending hours shopping on the internet is linked to fear about how we appear to others, and the activity of shopping could be a kind of search for products to bolster this lack of self-worth.
We can gain important insight into our inner world if we become more curious about what we habitually put off, and how we do that. This exploration of the roots of our avoidant patterns can help us begin to understand how we might make changes to these habits.