When I was younger, I used to joke all the time about what a huge procrastinator I was. “You think you procrastinate?” I would say. “I was supposed to have written the book on procrastination.” As an adult who sometimes struggles very badly with executive function and time management, this seems less funny.
Procrastination is among the least helpful of my habits, though I’m leery of calling it a habit. Procrastination can be a decision or a behavior, but once you’ve done it enough times, it becomes more a way of seeing the world, a way of life. It’s a coping mechanism, a pressure-relief valve, a method of dealing with problems.
It isn’t a good way of doing so, mind you. The word that springs to mind is “maladaptive” — behaviors or traits that emerge in response to a form of environmental pressure that is ultimately detrimental, either because of a change in the environment or because of unforeseen consequences. We pick up habits like these as defense mechanisms in specific situations, but they stay with us long after they have ceased to make any sense.
I can’t tell you why I started procrastinating in terms of an exact origin story, not how I started making the decisions that became a habit that became a perspective that became a lifestyle. I can tell you what it does for me, though, or at least the need that I’m scrambling to address when I do it: it reduces uncertainty to a more manageable level.
What procrastination did for me when I started doing it was removing a step from the decision-making process. For everything I had to do during the hardest, most stressful years of my childhood, I could offload the all-important decision of when to do it (and related decisions about the order and prioritization of assignments) by deferring to the deadline.
“When should I do this thing?” is a small thing to worry about, but it is a thing, and when you’re drowning in things, the small things add up. If you have a one-hour assignment that is due in seventy-two hours, there are an almost infinite number of times in which you could start it, but only one point at which you must start it.
Which moment is the right moment? If you wait, something magical happens: the possible answers to that question shrinks. Uncertainty becomes certainty. When you have only one hour left in which you could possibly do the one-hour assignment, you know—you know, with all your heart—that the moment to do it is OMG RIGHT NOW.
There’s not a lot of margin for error in that kind of operation, and the stakes are actually much higher—in the sense that they actually exist—than if you make an error in choosing an earlier moment.
So why did I do this often enough for it to become a habit, and more than a habit? At a guess I would say that I (along with many other people who fall into the same trap) had far more confidence in my ability to turn something out in the minimum time than I had in my judgment about how things should be done. In the absence of a scheduled start time, the act of procrastination creates a start time. What from the outside seems to be—and in fact, is—a manufactured crisis brought about by dancing with deadlines is instead experienced by the procrastinator as the imposition of structure, the creation of order within a disorderly process.
This behavior reaches its destructive apex when dealing with tasks that most definitely and certainly must be done, but for which there is neither a clearly stated start time or end time. If the task is not seen to, bad things will definitely happen. It might be a disaster. It might be expensive in terms of actual or opportunity cost. It’s something you definitely want to do, need to do.
But in terms of actual deadline pressure?
It’s more like a sword hanging over your head than a ticking clock.
You not only don’t know when you’re supposed to start, but you don’t know when you have to finish.
Faced with this, the procrastinator’s habitual response becomes an even worse coping mechanism than normal. We wait for the moment that feels right to arrive, because that’s what we’re really doing in our minds when we procrastinate, but that moment is always the last possible one, but we can’t discern when that is, so the moment never arrives.
As time wears on, the procrastinator begins to suspect that the moment already came and left, that things are already too far gone to be salvaged.
When this happens, the procrastination shifts into an even higher gear. How do you confirm that it’s too late to fix something? By letting it ride. Wait for something to happen, some further development that tells you either yes, you are still in the game, you still have a chance to make things right, or no, the whole thing is falling apart.
It’s like not being sure if you left the stove on or not, but instead of going down and checking, you lie in bed until the house catches fire.
None of this is rational in the sense of being objectively logical or making a lick of sense when viewed from the outside, through the cold lens of distance. All of it is rational in the horrible, horrifying sense that a human brain can produce this kind of thinking through a reproducible process of cause and effect, with decisions that not only make sense to the person making them at the time, but in many cases seem essential to psychological survival at the time they are made.
As I said above, procrastination starts (or started for me, at least) with greater confidence in one’s ability to get things done than in one’s ability to structure things “properly”. So what does this mean for an inveterate procrastinator who suffers a crisis of confidence?
Nothing good, I can tell you that.
At least in the short term.
The whole system—insofar as it is a system—stops working. (Insofar as it ever worked.) You miss deadlines, break commitments, sit on opportunities… all of which, of course, only does more to erode your confidence.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Because it means the structure that was originally built to support yourself, and which became a prison in which you were trapped, is crumbling around you. It might take you down with it if you don’t move, but you do have that opportunity to move. The walls are coming down.
Change is hard. Change is scary. But change happens, things change whether or not you change with them. I think when you actually change with the times, you don’t notice it as much. I mean, no one notices that they’re becoming a procrastinator, right? And procrastination is, as I said, an adaptation to circumstances, which means that anyone who starts doing it is therefore capable of adapting to changing circumstances. All it takes is the right impetus.