The power of procrastination

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On Monday 28th of October, we got our first snow in Turku. First thought that came to my mind is that I had planned to put the winter tires onto my car on Sunday 27th, and didn’t do it. I spent the past week and that particular Sunday finding excuses not to do it yet. The weather has been crappy and that gave me a good excuse not to be outside under the rain to change the tires. Now that the snow is here, it feels urgent to do the job. Still, my car remains with its summer tires. All I did was to procrastinate changing the tires.

Today I want to talk about why we procrastinate, and how we can use procrastination to our own advantage. Today we are not gonna beat procrastination, but understand the roots of it.

What is procrastination

Procrastination is the act of putting a task aside even if we know it is important to do it, and to do it now. I have convinced myself that there could be a productive and healthy procrastination, like when some weeks I do not want to focus on my PhD tasks but instead will work on my blog OceanFact or write a self-development blog post (such as this one). But is it healthy, really? Working on my blog–considering that I want to promote science communication in the sciences–could be beneficial in the future. However, it doesn’t get me closer to the completion of my PhD if I put aside stats analysis and other PhD tasks at hand. I favor an exciting, rather easy task, over a boring, challenging and scary one. With the previous sentence, you might start to see what is going on here.

Why we procrastinate

Procrastination helps us avoid negative emotions: boredom, anxiety, fear, failure, doubts, and so on. Have you ever felt like an imposter? One of my biggest fears and doubts related to my work is to not be able to do stats properly, and make a fool of myself–the so-called ‘Imposter Syndrome’. By procrastinating and pushing the task away, I do not have to face the immediate failure and humiliation that could happen if I am incapable of pulling this statistical miracle. Procrastination acts along one of our primal instincts to push away negative experiences. If an animal feels fear, it can run away. We run away from our responsibilities as they might cause anxiety and fear of failure. However, unlike many other animals, we have the power to control our emotions and how we react to them. One of the best models that explains ‘why we do what we do‘ was brought to us by life coach Brooke Castillo.

Hawaiian Sea Turtle"Hawaiian Sea Turtle" by Edmund Garman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

She explains that to get to a specific result, we go through a four step process: our thoughts guide our emotions which bring us into action to get results [thoughts --> feelings --> action --> results]. On a nice sunny day, I would tell myself to relax. The warm feeling of the sun would make me feel happy and I would head to the beach to lie down on the sand like this sea turtle. If thoughts can push us to act, negative thinking can lead us into inaction. After years, I've convinced myself that I was bad at stats. I would constantly repeat myself that I am not skilled at statistics. It prevented me from learning properly and kept me in a loop of self-doubt. These were my thoughts. Each time I would need stats, I would feel like a failure and feel like I would not be able to do things properly–my emotions.

Naturally, I would try to push stats away until it is no longer possible–my actions, or in this case, my inactions. The end results would be that I would not give enough time to my stats analysis. I would do a fairly average to crappy last-minute job, stress about it and it would add up to the pool of negative emotions I would feel about stats. To sum up: I would beat myself up.

I always thought I would benefit from stress and deadlines to do the job. Sometimes, with the rush I would actually do a decent job. For example, I would procrastinate an entire week, and on a Sunday evening finally start working for a Monday morning meeting with my supervisors. To meet the deadline, my high expectations, and theirs, I would pull an all-nighter. The job was admittedly decent and done, but the experience was stressful and unhealthy. If procrastination helped those times, it does not need to always bring negative experiences. Indeed, procrastination is a natural process that helps us identify what we need, want, and maybe are lacking at the moment.

The Calculus Rig"The Calculus Rig" by maubrowncow is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The power of procrastination

If emotions drive us into actions, by acknowledging and identifying the right emotions, we can identify what needs to change. For instance, I would regularly say 'yes' to new projects, until I get stuck and overwhelmed by projects I do not care about (FOMO!) Obviously, I would procrastinate on those projects. One recent example is when we started a joint project with the other PhD students at the department. At first the idea seemed appealing: independent project, review involving our different thematics, with in the end a nice publication. I said 'yes!' It didn't take much time to realize how demanding and time-consuming this side project will be. It would have required to put OceanFact aside–my baby–even more. I soon started to put this side-project aside, and desperately lagged behind the others. Guess what? I never caught up. Reflecting on why I would procrastinate on this project, I realized I was not so excited by the project itself. My motivation would even reach rock bottom if I would need to put something I care about on the bench. What was exciting were the outcomes of the project, not the job itself. It would not be aligned with my values, nor what I care about. I quit. I feel guilty for not saying 'no' straight off the bat, or quitting that late (almost 2 years too late), but my life has been so much less stressful since then. Without this long procrastination, I would have never identifying that this project was not the right one for me. Maybe I would have dragged the others even more. Now, I make sure to dedicate the extra time to tasks I care about: my PhD, OceanFact, and blog posts. I do not need to beat myself up. Procrastination is a powerful indicator for a lack of interest in a task and motivation to do a task. If you take time to (1) realize when you procrastinate and (2) why you procrastinate (e.g. inadequacy with core values), you can improve your life drastically. Procrastination helped me make the right decision for myself, it can help you.

The last thing I want to say: procrastinate my friends! But like any good things, make procrastination a strength. Like any good things, use it with moderation.

Author of the article.

Pierre PhD student - CEO Ocean Fact
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