All jobs have some tasks associated with them that we would consider unpleasant or “not fun.” (The same holds true in our personal lives as well.) It might be working on a budget, preparing monthly performance reports, doing performance appraisals or maybe it’s getting up each morning and heading to the gym. We all have things that we would sometimes like to put off.
American writer and philosopher Mark Twain is one of my favorite observers of the human condition. He once offered this bit of wisdom as a cure for our common procrastination conundrum: “If your job is to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And, if your job is to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
So there’s a metaphor for you, eating frogs (yuck!) representing those dreaded life assignments. Isn’t it better to get our unpleasant tasks out of the way?
In an article from Psychology Today called “Why Do We Procrastinate,” author Hara Estroff-Marano cites one study suggesting that a full 20 percent of us are “chronic procrastinators.” That means that it is so ingrained in our nature that putting off doing things has become a matter of lifestyle.
From what I have been reading, procrastination is a learned behavior not something inherent in our makeup. The reasons are psychological or emotional. One researcher found a correlation between people who grew up in homes with controlling parents and becoming procrastinators as adults. The idea is that we all need self-discipline and self-regulation skills. If we grew up in a home where our lives were micro-managed, then we are less likely to learn these skills on our own.
There is also evidence that procrastinators are also prone to over consumption of alcohol or food. This tends to reinforce the notion that it has to do with an underdeveloped ability to self-regulate.
How serious can this affliction become? Another study suggests that serious procrastinators may also experience detrimental health consequences. Looking at a population of college students, the ones who habitually put things off experienced more frequent and prolonged episodes of colds and flu, more insomnia and more cases of gastrointestinal ailments. I am not sure I understand the causal links here but the findings seem pretty interesting.
Dr. Joseph Ferrarri, author of the book Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done believes there are three main categories of procrastinators:
- Thrill-seekers who wait to the last-minute for the euphoric rush.
- Avoiders who maybe fearful of failure or even of success. These people are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
- Decisionals who cannot make a decision because not making one absolves them of responsibility for the outcome of events.
Are you a procrastinator? Here is a test from Dr. Pamela Weigartz, from her article “In the Age of Anxiety” from Psychology Today. Please answer the following questions:
1. When faced with a task, do you think of all the ways it could go wrong?
2. Do you picture how important people in your life might react if you failed?
3. Do you believe it’s better to not try at all than to try your best and fail?
4. Are you overwhelmed by the possibility of new responsibilities if you are successful?
5. Do you subscribe to the idea “If I do well, then others will expect more of me”?
6. Do you feel your success will lead to other people finding out the “real you”?
7. Do you believe that if you’re going to do something, you should try to do it perfectly?
8. Do you find it difficult to persist when things aren’t going just right?
9. Would you rather avoid doing something than do it imperfectly?
What kind of procrastinator are you? According to Weigartz, if you answered “Yes” to questions 1-3, you may have a fear of failure. The thought of attacking some tasks causes anxiety about the possible outcome so you put them off.
If you answered “Yes” to questions 4-6, this might suggest a fear of success. If you were successful, you might be assigned more work or people would begin to hold you to a higher standard. So you would like to postpone these tasks too.
If your answered “Yes” to questions 7-9, then you may be fearful of achieving the incredibly high standards you set for yourself. Perfectionism may be what plagues you.
So if you wish to manage your procrastinating tendencies, start with self-awareness and self-reflection based on some of your underlying causes. Then, you need to decide that it is time to do something about it–mainly exert a higher level of self-control.
So eat your frogs . . . earlier and more often. Develop your self-regulation muscles.