Back in my high school days, one of my favourite rituals was to sit down for hours at a time, mapping my life goals, visualising all the amazing things I needed to do to materialise my ultimate goal.
Often, I analysed my desires, values, passions and arrived at an impeccably sound-appealing list, crammed with arbitrary goals, such as; being a better version of myself, submitting assignments on time, or reading a book per week. Empowered and energised by these mind-boggling thoughts. Structurally, I was flawless.
Despite this, I would wake up the next day, I would trip, slip, and stumble. It would all commence well but drop gradually, as I decisively submitted assignments a little late with a shrug that it is a one off. By the fall of the week, I would have covered not even half of the book I set out to read. Burning with shame and self-loath, I would remark in anguish, “darn it, I am lazy!”
But over the years, I have come to realise that delaying and pushing things over to the next day did not mean I was lazy. Neither did it imply that I was a bad time manager as I always thought, while I somnolently sought definition for my vile and saddening behaviour. But no, all in vain. This was procrastination.
Procrastination is derived from the verb, “procrastinate”— to put off until tomorrow or later and this is an intentional, voluntary delaying. The absurd bit is that we procrastinate while we are aware, well informed of the bizarre and disheartening outcomes.
Definitely, it is a challenge we have all faced at one point or another. Throughout human history — even in ancient Egypt — humans have been characterised by traits of delaying, avoiding, and procrastinating on paramount issues that imperatively matter to them.
“It’s self-harm” says Dr Piers Steel, author of ‘The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done’.
This sort of trait depends much on the situation, something really awful about a specific task at hand — having to read a whole book on political developments, or doing an assignment where the likelihood of scoring worthwhile grades, in contrast to your efforts is prudently low. And sometimes it can be due to issues of low self-esteem, anxiety, or even self-doubt, where you have to write an essay of 2500 words, gazing at the blank page, more questions start lingering affirming your inadequacy: Am I really smart? But won’t I get it wrong? What if I wait on my classmates and learn (impolitely, cheat) from their work, then do mine?
Inevitably, you will put off a boring assignment and rather watch ‘The Daily Show’, ‘Money Heist’, or scroll through Instagram posts. Who cares! In a moment you feel a flicker of joy knowing that you are free from any tasks and that you will still have it done either way, for you have all the time in the world. Friends often say: “There is no hurry in Africa!” While others say that they will get it done just one to two hours before the submission deadline, for they are good when working under pressure.
After procrastinating, then later being able to accomplish the task, we tend to do it again and again. This confirms the precepts of behaviourism that when we are rewarded for something, we tend to do it again and again.
Over time this evolves into a habit. Piles into chronic stress and low productivity, depression, and we tend to deliver below our own abilities. We become slaves of micro-supervision and immense nerve-wracking pressure.
Realising that procrastination is about emotions, not that we are lazy or poor time managers, we must devise ways of investing more in the management of our own emotions.
Dr Hal Hershfield, a professor of Marketing at U.C.L.A School of Management, suggests that we were never truly designed to think ahead into the future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now.
While Dr Judson Brewer, a physiatrist and neuroscientist at Brown University, concludes that our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a loop around procrastination, but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is going to keep doing it until we get something better as an alternative.
With human brains that are wired to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards, we must consider offering better instant rewards to our brains. For instance; if you accomplish this task, you will have an hour on social media or set any other thing that you crave as a reward.
Next, to accept the previous behaviour, desisting from self-accusations and rather focusing and concentrating on the current task could certainly help. If you procrastinated on the last assignment, learn from its effects, and this time around, just get the task done. It sounds odd, right?
Or make a programme with friends that have gotten over procrastination and hold each other accountable. Once you’re amidst four non-procrastinators, you’ll definitely be the fifth.
James Clear’s ‘Atomic Habits’ suggests that focusing on systems, simple and basic steps, rather than end goals, could redefine the situation. We tend to carry many books that we intend to read, and even our brains get teased at the sight of the overwhelming task ahead.
Breaking the big task into tiny, feasible goals and focusing on one at a time. Instead of looking at the innumerable number of pages, countless words you’ve to type to make an essay of 2500 words, or even imagining the toughness of the task, just set all imaginations aside and do a small, tiny act towards achieving the big picture. Type a sentence, read a page, and keep going.
One beautiful thing that all great procrastinators share in common is that they are incredible visionaries. This is an achievement itself. They have big plans for getting everything done. They envision, they define and bask, wallow in a world of dreams. All they need is the nitty-gritty working and getting the work done.
Today, try to focus on the most important and inspiring activity as you arise, as the day starts, and that vigour, that momentum gained, will guide you through the rest of the day, intermittently doing the other activities.
The writer is a public speaking trainer, leadership coach, and student at the African Leadership University