Procrastination can be defined as wanting to do something (which in this article we will describe as the desired goal), but finding ourselves actually doing something different. Because we have not achieved what we thought we really wanted, the time spent doing other things is considered to be wasted.
Although it may have a similar structure, procrastination isn’t laziness: it seems to be just as prevalent amongst people who are naturally active and goal-focused. That makes sense because procrastination isn’t the absence of action, it’s the substitution of a desired action by other(s) that don’t move us towards our desired goal.
We think that because we are conscious creatures, our life is driven by what we think we want at a conscious level. We think of it as a linear process:
- decide to do A, then
- do A.
Much management training and practice relies on this simple, but unreliable, hypothesis. Sometimes it works just like that, but often it doesn’t. When we face up to it, we all know that we have deeper desires and motivations that drive what we really do – and they cause us to take actions that sometimes don’t match what we think we want. When we recognise these motivations, it’s easy to label them as weaknesses: they are not acceptable to our conscious minds.
Sometimes we don’t recognise our motivations at all, and find ourselves taking actions for reasons that we don’t comprehend. This subject is covered in greater depth in the chapter on value systems, which explains that our values systems are the primary driver of our behaviour – and often we aren’t aware of what our values really are.
Our values systems are an inherent part of who we are: they have evolved in response to our life experiences to make us fully effective (even if we disagree at a conscious level with what seems to be happening). And that spills over in to procrastination. When we procrastinate, we are tapping in to our deeper systems and beliefs to generate procrastination behaviours that are designed to serve us – even when we get frustrated by them.
To draw an obvious analogy, many overweight people would like to lose weight but consistently find themselves indulging in behaviours that contradict the conscious desire. That’s because the behaviours are driven by deeper motivations, many of which are rooted in the primeval need for survival: for example, eat as much as possible and don’t tax the body too much.
The mantra of eat less and exercise more looks like a rational solution to the problem of being overweight, but it is useless in dealing with core motivations when those motivations are driving in the opposite direction. Similarly the just do it! mantra for procrastination, while it sounds clever and macho, doesn’t deal with the deeper causes or genuine solutions for procrastination. This attempted denial of our deeper motivations stands as a criticism of who we are as people – and this will tend to generate resistance rather than positive motivation.