by Inger Sjogren, LPC, NCC
If these words are being hurled at you day in and day out, you probably feel pretty lousy about yourself. The incessant reminders that you are not living up to your potential frustrate you. You want to do better. You know you can do better.
Self-recrimination and endless criticism create a vortex that sucks you into a bog of self-doubt and negativity. You are stuck and don’t know how to get unstuck. You are mired in a cycle of failing-to-get-things-done and feeling bad about it.
Parents, teachers, and others who want you to succeed express disappointment at your lack of motivation, difficulty focusing, absence of inspiration, and apparent disregard to consequences. They have difficulty refraining from criticism. Their statements convey disappointment, frustration, and anger. Do threats and badgering inspire you to put forth your best effort? Probably not.
Surely there is a better way to motivate you. Like other behavioral issues, doesn’t it make sense to address the cause of the symptoms?
Laziness and procrastination share many of the same symptoms: lack of motivation, difficulty focusing, absence of inspiration, and apparent disregard to consequences. Although they can look the same, there is actually a big difference between laziness and procrastination: the element of willingness.
A procrastinator is someone who is willing to do the task and intends to get started but puts it off despite knowing that they will be worse off for doing so. For example, you have a significant social studies project due in three weeks. Despite having every intention of completing and handing in the project, you delay starting the project until the day before it is due. You will now suffer the consequence of turning in a sub par, last minute attempt or losing points for being late - or both. You may feel shame, embarrassment, or self-directed anger at your failure to do your best. You have the sense of letting down both yourself and the people rooting for you.
On the other hand, if you are lazy you had no intention of doing the project in the first place. You are unwilling to exert the effort. And the negative consequences are inconsequential to you.
Why do you procrastinate and how can you fix this behavior?
The tendency to procrastinate is often blamed on poor time management and organization skills. Frustrated parents and teachers try to help by providing executive function support and visual planners. If those steps have curtailed your struggle with procrastination - great! Problem solved.
However, being told that better planning and time management will fix the issue is a frustrating message to receive if you procrastinate for other reasons - reasons that you may not be aware of or are unable to express. There is not a one-size-fits-all remedy for procrastination. Telling a procrastinator “you should just do it now” or “you should plan better” is pretty much the same as telling someone who is depressed “be happy.” It’s ineffective. And annoying. And dismissive of the underlying condition. The end result is to exacerbate the symptoms.
Research indicates that deficient self-regulation - not time management skills - is the primary cause of procrastination. Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions and behaviors in accordance with the demands of a given situation. Certainly poor time management and paucity of executive function skills may compound the problem, but the inability to manage emotions is the foundation of procrastination.
In other words, all the time management skills in the world won’t help you stop procrastinating if an emotional issue is at the crux of the problem.
How do emotional issues cause procrastination?
Think about this: you probably don’t enjoy feeling anxious, resentful, frustrated, bored or fearful. These are uncomfortable emotions that people in general try to avoid. These are aversive emotions; they drive us to avoid whatever stimulus triggers these emotions. Here are a few examples of how aversive emotions can affect your behavior:
If you have anxiety about walking into a party alone, then you will probably arrange to go with friends to avoid feeling anxious.
If your coach constantly accuses you of putting forth poor effort when you are actually playing your heart out, then you may begin to put forth poor effort to ease your resentment - or quit the team to avoid bad feelings altogether.
If trying to reason with your parents about curfew (or any other rules) gives you frustration, then you may not bother broaching the subject - you will just face the consequences later.
If you find playing Monopoly with your younger siblings boring, then you will go to great lengths to persuade them to do something else.
If you are fearful about inviting a certain person to be your prom date, then you may choose to invite someone you know will accept even though you might face regrets later.
When the task at hand elicits an aversive emotion, you are tempted to put off the task in order to avoid feeling the uncomfortable emotion. If working on a science project makes you feel anxious, resentful, frustrated, bored, or fearful of failure, then you are likely to put off working on the project. Procrastination is an avoidance strategy: watching youtube, checking instagram, texting friends, going to parties...doing anything to avoid those negative emotions while still intending to complete the task.
On the flip side, although it enables you to avoid the uncomfortable feelings temporarily, the act of procrastinating actually intensifies those negative feelings as the science project’s due date approaches. You know this. But, since you are a teen, what is happening right now is more significant to you than what will happen at a later time. Procrastination is a maladaptive coping mechanism. It makes you worse off in the long run.
Another emotion that manifests in procrastination is depression. Depression is accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, difficulty focusing, and a lack energy. If you are wrestling with these symptoms you will find it very difficult to start and complete that dreaded science project - and almost any other project. The sense of failure you might get by not turning in the project or by being called “lazy” is likely to deepen your depression. You may react with anger or you may create a facade of not caring in a subconscious reaction to the pain of not being understood or not feeling supported: your failure is not because you don’t want to do something, it’s because you can’t. You are not lazy, you are depressed.
So with the understanding that procrastination is not laziness but a symptom of something else, we know that the underlying cause must be addressed in order to remediate its expression. It is possible that your procrastination may be caused solely by poor executive function and time management skills. However, it is more likely that your procrastination is rooted in something deeper.
Here are a few tips to get you started on your way to ending procrastination:
Start your day with an actionable plan. List your top 3 priorities and make a commitment to completing them before moving on to something else.
Don’t multitask - break projects down into small pieces and work on a piece from start to finish with no interruption. You are more likely to resist interruption when you are close to finishing a task.
Goals are not actions. Make sure your to-do-list is not a list of goals. Move items from your to-do-list to your calendar. Schedule set times to get key work done.
Be aware of aversive emotions and remind yourself that you can curtail their discomfort by digging in and starting the dreaded task. Tolerating uncomfortable feelings is a valuable life skill.
Just get started - once you begin a task, no matter how dreaded, your perception of the task changes. You will view the task as less stressful or difficult once you get started.
Increase your willpower by structuring your environment - find a place and surround yourself with people who motivate you.
Forgive yourself - when you are forgiven - or when you manage to forgive yourself, as in the case of procrastination - you are more willing to get up and try again.
Acknowledging that procrastination is a maladaptive behavior that is symptomatic of an emotional-based issue is a start. There is a reason that you procrastinate. Let’s figure it out. Refocus your energy from beating yourself up to solving the problem.
I help teens identify the underlying issue and replace procrastination with healthy coping strategies.
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