I have over a hundred pages of reading to do, an essay to start, an email I really should have sent like five days ago and some dishes sitting on my dresser that I ought to wash. Yet, I’m in bed wearing a hoodie I’ve had since 8th grade watching Day Drinking With Seth Meyers. Why? I’m procrastinating. Procrastination hardly needs defining. It’s likely we all have our own version of putting off tasks. Heck, I put off writing this article and now it’s due in less than 24 hours. Not because I don’t want to write it, but because sometimes tasks just seem to demand a Herculean effort we can’t muster.
Avoidance is a well-known form of coping with anxiety and is associated with high levels of stress. Procrastination may belie a fear of failure, prompting people to put off this undesirable outcome. Self-described procrastinators often display self-defeat, which psychologists say can come from negative origins (fear of failure, perfectionism, etc.) or positive ones (joy in temptation). Procrastination plays into the complicated concept and detachment from the future self. By procrastinating, it has been posited, we comfort our present self by placing greater expectations on our future self. Procrastination is a way to avoid negative feelings, but we often end up feeling worse.
Procrastinating has etymology as far back as Ancient Roman times, and while it’s never been perceived as a positive trait, it’s fallen into our vernacular as college students with a vengeance and been pathologized in many ways. I’ve heard people refer to themselves as “chronic procrastinators.” And while attributing procrastination as a symptom of burnout may also be pathologizing in its own way, it’s also an important part of looking into why procrastination gets such a bad rep. American culture is strongly based on the concept of earning merit through our achievements, the “pursuit of happiness” and the mindset that ultimate fulfillment is a product of racking up enough achievements. Procrastination doesn’t have a place in that model. Watching YouTube is not an achievement.
I’ve found it helpful to view my procrastination as a breakdown in self-care. When taught to work, work, work without leaving clear pockets and permission for downtime, there reaches a point when we inevitably can work no longer. Then it becomes downtime, downtime, downtime. The pendulum swings too far. We must realize that, at its core, procrastination is about emotions, not productivity. It’s about motivation to an extent, which can be hard to muster when experiencing burnout. But what exactly is a burnout?
Burnout is defined as a state of chronic stress and frustration. Burnout results in physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. It can interfere with concentration and can cause work to take longer and more effort, begin to pile up and cause yet more stress. Positive feedback loop much?
Making room in my schedule and giving myself permission to do the things I usually do when I procrastinate has really helped. Of course, sometimes this backfires, and I end up taking a YouTube deep dive. And yes, of course sometimes I just have to force myself to do an assignment I simply don’t want to do. Creating a divide between where I do work and where I do other things is a somewhat stereotypical but very effective way to fight the urge to procrastinate. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m far too self-conscious to start watching YouTube in Uris. It holds me accountable for the block of time I’ve chosen to be there, especially since I know once I leave, I’m done.
Procrastination is not simply a sign of laziness. –– calling yourself lazy or beating yourself up for procrastinating won’t get you anywhere. Taking a closer look at other possible causes, being kind to yourself and making a plan for how to deal with the negative emotions and feelings that arise when it comes to doing work you don’t want to are a good start.
Emma Smith is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Emmpathy runs every other Wednesday this semester.