The 3 Types of Procrastination (And What to Do About Each)

Last Updated Sep 29, 2011 6:36 AM EDT

If you have a headache, there could be a variety of causes for the symptom -- dehydration, the neighbor's unbearable music, migraine or, in rare and terrible cases, something more serious. And what's true of physical symptoms is also often true of behavioral ones. You're snapping at your partner? Maybe you have unresolved anger issues or maybe you're just hungry.

We often view procrastination as a problem in itself, but according to PsyBlog we might do better to think of it as a symptom that can tell us something about our underlying mental state. Not everyone procrastinates for the same reason, and if you can get at the underlying reason for your time wasting and delay then you're more likely to be able to fight it. So what are the common causes of procrastination, according to the blog?

Low task value. The value of the goal naturally affects our procrastination, for example we procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks.

The procrastinator's personality. Some people are born procrastinators. They have low self-control, are easily distracted and impulsive.

Expecting success? If you expect to complete a task easily, then you are less likely to procrastinate.

Each of these causes suggests a different course of action, so suppose you've discovered your procrastinating on a task because it's incredible boring. "Tasks that are unpleasant because they're boring can be made more difficult artificially to help us avoid procrastination, say by using time limits or unusual conditions," says PsyBlog. If you hate the work but enjoy being social, try tackling the task in a group. Making the task into a game or race of some sort might also help.

If the problem is your personality and low self-control, in one way you're lucky -- right now, with the publication of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, willpower is in vogue with media outlets scrambling to cover the authors' take on how we deplete and reinvigorate our self-control. The bottom line from both PsyBlog and the Willpower guys is self-control is more about environment than inherent will. If you need to hide your phone or unplug the internet to concentrate, go ahead, says PsyBlog. Baumeister agrees, according to the NY Times:

Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it's always there. It's a state that fluctuates." His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don't schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend.
And finally, what if it's fear of failure that's holding you back? PsyBlog concedes this is the trickiest cause to handle, noting how hard it is to remodel our perceptions of our abilities. Penelope Trunk has some ideas though. She's written here on BNET about how perfectionism can paralyze us with fear and recommends allowing yourself to be wrong among other solutions. Other experts suggest imagining how much a failure will matter in ten years, forcing yourself to begin with a tiny first step or working on your ability to be authentic in front of others.

Perhaps the easiest and most important cure for all these types of procrastination is to forgive yourself for past slacking and wipe the slate clean of guilt. Research shows that a little compassion for your earlier issues results in less anxiety and less future procrastination.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user LadyDayDream, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.