by Ellen Hendriksen: Like forms of procrastination—binge-watching “GLOW,” shopping for dog raincoats online, or stalking your middle school friends on social media…
procrastinators themselves come in many shapes and sizes. Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen profiles 3 classic types of procrastinators and offers 5 ways to change today! (Or tomorrow…)
There are a million ways to procrastinate. Instead of doing our work, we might find ourselves practicing our favorite Fortnite dance, shopping online for the perfect mullet wig, or scrolling through baby back rib recipes before remembering we’re vegetarian. Procrastination might even disguise itself as productivity, like cleaning our desk or making a healthy (yet perhaps unnecessarily elaborate) snack.
Procrastination is tricky to overcome because it involves a certain amount of self-deception. It makes us say, “I’ll do it later.” “I’m tired—I need to take a break.” “I got some stuff done—this is my reward.” “I have plenty of time.”
On a deeper level, we know exactly what we’re doing, but trying to motivate ourlseves to do our taxes or write that term paper doesn’t stand a chance against the seemingly reasonable justifications procrastination loves to whisper in our ear.
But if procrastinating is getting you in trouble—you’re missing deadlines, irritating those around you, or just feeling guilty about wasting your time—the first step to addressing the situation is discerning what you get out of it. What type of procrastinator are you? This week, we’ll cover the three most common procrastination profiles, plus five ways to secede from the land of Procrasti-Nation.
Type #1: The Avoider
“I procrastinate to avoid unpleasant emotion, like stress, uncertainty, or feeling overwhelmed.”
This is classic procrastination. We’re not necessarily avoiding the task, we’re avoiding the negative emotion that goes along with that task.
For example, we may avoid an overtly stressful or high-stakes chore, like studying for exams or writing our best man speech. This makes sense—it’s unpleasant to feel the pressure or worry we’re going to bomb, so instead we blissfully watch the entire “Star Wars” series and are rewarded with not feeling bad.
But we may also procrastinate on tasks where we simply don’t know what to do next. Here, we avoid the negative emotions of doubt, uncertainty, or simply feeling stupid. I once had a client who accumulated a huge pile of hazardous items in his garage for years—including leftover firecrackers, gasoline, and fertilizer—simply because he didn’t know how to get rid of them. A simple online search for how to dispose of each item got him on his way.
Like my client’s, avoidance can be small scale: we might avoid writing a sympathy note because we don’t know what to say, don’t know their ZIP code, or can’t find the stamps. But it can also be large scale: we might aspire to grad school, but let years go by because we’re not exactly sure what we want to do, how to start the process, or if we can hack it. We might want to break up with our partner, but can’t bring ourselves to do it or never find the right time.
But in truth, if you’re an Avoider, procrastination doesn’t fully let you avoid feeling bad. On some level, we feel guilty, pressured, or anxious. We’re not fully able to enjoy “The Force Awakens,” or several slices of banana bread, or DoNothingFor2Minutes.com, which apparently is an actual thing. All in all, Avoiders stretch the negative emotion they would feel (or think they would feel) facing their task into a long, low-grade feeling of negative emotion while they procrastinate.
Type #2: The Optimist
“I procrastinate because I think things won’t take that long, or that I have more time than I really do.”
“It’ll just take a few minutes.” “No worries, I’ll get it done.” “I just have to do one more thing—I won’t be late.” Optimists chronically underestimate their timeframe or overestimate their abilities.
Viewed through a charitable lens, this is overconfidence. But for those left hanging or let down by this type of procrastinator, it may seem more like delusion. In the moment, we feel sure we can leave all our holiday shopping to a few days before Christmas, or squeeze in three errands in three different towns while our kid is at her half-hour piano lesson. But inevitably, time wins out and we find ourselves late, unprepared, and overcommitted.
In this type of procrastination, there is a bright spot. Active procrastinators know they work better under pressure, have a realistic sense of how long a task will take (even if it involves a pot of coffee and an all-nighter), and therefore procrastinate deliberately. If you truly know thyself, active procrastination can be a form of coping that actually works.
Type #3: The Pleasure-Seeker
“I procrastinate because I just don’t want to do what I’m supposed to be doing.”
If you think of yourself as lazy, this is probably you. And in general, it’s perfectly permissible to be a little lazy. Who among us has never drunk milk straight from the carton, watched a lame TV show because it was too much work to get the remote, or let toilet paper tube after toilet paper tube collect because it’s too much work to actually change the roll.
But sometimes it gets out of hand. The Pleasure-Seeker plays, relaxes, or basically does whatever they’re not supposed to be doing. They wait until they feel like doing their work to start, which sometimes never happens.
Pleasure Seeking often gets reinforced because at some point, someone else may jump in and do your task for you—your partner may get fed up and wash the dishes, your group project partners may pick up your slack, or your coworkers might cover your butt. It seems like you get away with it. But in the long run, the Pleasure Seeker breeds resentment and a reputation for being unreliable or a slacker. Other people work around your procrastination, so it seems like there are no consequences, but they’re actually hidden, and come at the expense of your good name.
Tip #4: Do something easy but productive.
It’s almost impossible to shift instantly from full-on procrastination to full-on productivity. To transition, you need an on-ramp. Therefore, choose a task that’s easy but moves you ahead rather than continues to spin your wheels. The quickest, easiest thing on your to-do list is often a good bet—call the optometrist, start the laundry, or pay one bill.
Everyone procrastinates differently and everyone pulls themselves out of the mud differently, so be honest with yourself. Choose a transition task that actually moves you forward, not just a different form of procrastination, like checking your email or rewriting your to-do list.
Tip #5: Limit your to-do list.
Speaking of your to-do list, consider giving it the equivalent of a buzz cut. This sounds counterintuitive, especially when procrastination is the reason for your backlog.
But a mile-long to-do list has an effect on your psyche; first, it’s overwhelming, which can trigger more procrastination. And second, it’s unrealistic, which can amplify the Optimist’s “this will just take two minutes” mindset.
So consider limiting your to-do list to three items, or five items, or one major and two minor. You can keep a mile-long shadow to-do list in the background, but for any given day, be realistic about what you can get done today. And then? You can play Super Hexagon to your heart’s content.