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Procrastinators' double-edged sword

Postponing work is perfectly human, but engaging in substitute activities at the expense of an important task can end up costing you dearly.

Submitting written assignments, preparing presentations, paying bills – these are all activities with a deadline stamped on them. At school and university, we are required to complete homework, exams and assessments and read books and articles by the due time.

The tendency to put off unavoidable work is described by the tongue-twisting words procrastination and precrastination. In simple terms, the former means putting things off, getting things done late, while the latter means getting things done as soon as possible, perhaps even 'somehow getting things done', or concentrating on things that are not really urgent.

In Estonian, procrastination can be described by words such as venitama, viivitama, aega viitma and even lorutama. Also, the word aeglema has been suggested, for example, in the works of Oskar Luts and Marie Under.

Kairi Kreegipuu, Head of the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology, finds the latter to sound overly romantic considering the content. "An Estonian term would, of course, be very welcome. I would add the options stardiaeglustus, teoviivis or also viivlemine to the list," she says.

Double-edged sword

The poetic aeglemine may give the impression that there is nothing wrong with postponing things. This, however, Kreegipuu says, is more to do with prioritising, good planning or scheduling activities. Procrastination, on the other hand, is a recurring problematic behaviour that leads to undesirable consequences: stress, anxiety and health problems, or in the worst case, burnout. Procrastinators are unproductive and are criticised by their peers for appearing irresponsible. 

Fast action and substitute activities may also have some benefits. "Precrastination, especially doing a bunch of smaller tasks instead of the main one, can give a sense of peace of mind: at the very least, one does not feel bad about not having completed them. Similarly, socialising or watching a film instead of studying can be much needed to maintain relationships in some cases. Maximum effort and results are not always and in every case necessary. Even higher education is not necessarily valuable if it comes at the cost of giving up everything else," says Kreegipuu. 

In a positive scenario, a skilful pre- or procrastinator can achieve both. However, to feel good, it is important not to focus too much on the result and not to worry. 

In this aspect, pre- and procrastination can be like a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you can get a lot of other good things done; on the other, postponing can backfire big time. Moreover, a clever many-headed dragon may come into play: often, to avoid the main task, more and more substitute activities are found. 

So why do people postpone doing things at all? Several studies have shown that this behaviour is not a sign of laziness, but may be a subconscious strategy to avoid those dreaded negative emotions: the feeling of failure, ineptitude or incompetence. People also tend to procrastinate when faced with tedious, emotionally draining or unclear tasks. 

"Some procrastinate because they can, some because the tasks are boring and the other things that pop up are more attractive, some find it difficult to handle routine. In addition, it has been observed that procrastinators tend to be good social loafers, i.e. they put in less effort when working in a group than when working alone," explains Kreegipuu. 

There is a lot of information circulating on social media claiming that procrastination is often a sign of depression or (undiagnosed) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to Kreegipuu, procrastination itself is usually not a medical problem. This would require identifying certain symptoms and even a diagnosis, but seemingly similar behaviour may in fact have completely different developmental pathways. 

For example, procrastination may be caused by features that are characteristic of some disorders: impulsivity, lack of self-control, being easily distracted, arousal-seeking tendency, perfectionism, etc. 

"Procrastination is not a clinical symptom of ADHD, but several features of ADHD, such as inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity, are associated with it," says Kreegipuu. "In clinically diagnosed ADHD, there is a link with procrastination – people with this diagnosis are more likely to postpone doing things compared to other people." 

Anxiety or excitement 

Procrastination is quite a multi-faceted phenomenon. Passive and active procrastination are most commonly talked about. 

In the case of the passive form, the main reason for procrastination is worry, fear or anxiety related to performance and the work process. For example, a person may be unconsciously afraid of not being fit for their job, and, as a result, their self-esteem may be damaged. Some people, also unconsciously, fear success and the extra stress that comes with it. 

Active procrastinators, on the other hand, rely on the excitement from time pressure, giving them the energy to finish tasks quickly and on time. Such people often say that their work progresses better under pressure because the adrenaline rush helps them complete tasks more efficiently. According to some studies, this approach indeed improves learning performance. 

However, even active procrastination should be used with caution. Research so far confirms that procrastination is still bad for people in the long run. Even if the end result is successful, procrastination causes excessive anxiety and stress, which is not good for health. 

Clever self-deception 

John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing and Professor emeritus at Stanford University, offers a structured procrastination strategy. According to him, it converts procrastinators from couch potatoes to useful citizens. 

Structured procrastination cleverly exploits the principles of precrastination. Tasks are ranked in such a way that the most important is at the top of the list, but there are other, also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. As a result, a number of useful things get done as a substitute. 

"The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things /.../ seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks," explains the professor. 

He gives the example of a task currently at the top of his list: to finish an essay, which was due 11 months ago. As a way of not working on it, he has accomplished an enormous number of important things, and finally, when speaking to the editor, it turned out that he was not much further behind schedule than anyone else. 

"And how important is this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that seems more important won't come along. Then I'll get to work on it," Perry says humorously. "Structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, /.../ but virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deception skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?" 

Research shows that procrastination is a widespread phenomenon at all ages: up to 95% of students and successful adult professionals have done it at some point. 

A master's thesis defended at the University of Tartu in 2014 confirmed, based on a wide range of sources, that the most common form is academic procrastination. According to the author of the thesis Annaliis Tiidus, research shows that the academic environment can also foster the tendency to procrastinate in people who do not normally postpone their duties. 

"Because it is possible here," admits Kairi Kreegipuu. "A bus driver cannot take a smoke break every five minutes or check the phone to see what has happened in the world in the meantime. We quite often can. Of course, when studying and doing research, one often needs an incubation period, to let the solution settle or mature. The problem is, however, that pleasant side activities tend to affect our time perception – we are not objectively able to monitor how much time they take up," she explains. 

With all this in mind, it is no wonder that a low level of procrastination is considered psychologically normal. But when procrastination starts to cause problems and disrupt life, it needs to be addressed. In any case, it is important that people understand the need to manage themselves and are able to plan their activities. 



5 Ways to Actually Move Forward on That Task You've Been Avoiding (Harvard Business Review) 


The article was originally published in the magazine Universitas Tartuensis

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