Mentioned earlier that I have a penchant for procrastination. Not that I particularly like procrastinating. It’s just that it comes with the territory as far as some aspects of my life are concerned. I know it’s a trait I share with Scarlett O’Hara (“I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day!”). But apparently it’s a trait I share with many of my fellow Americans.
My name is Terrance. I’m a procrastinator, and I’m not alone.
Overall, more than a quarter of Americans say they procrastinate. Men are worse than women (about 54 out of 100 chronic procrastinators are men) and the young are more like to procrastinate than the old, Steel said. Three out of four college students consider themselves procrastinators.
… The causes of procrastination combine temptation, sense of immediacy, the value of doing the job, and whether you believe you can get the work done, Steel found. He even created a complicated mathematical formula, complete with Greek letters, to figure out when a person is likely to procrastinate.
Temptation is the biggest factor. And it’s why procrastination is getting worse, Steel said, citing technology.
Far be it from me to argue with science, but I think I’ll have to disagree with the guy who did the study, as far as the why of procrastination. At least in my own case.
I don’t think he’s entirely off the mark, but I sort of part ways with him about why people procrastinate, based on my own experience.
The same with the flattering idea that procrastinators are also perfectionists, people who care so much about doing it right that they can’t bear to get started. Again, Steel found no correlation.
What he did find is that procrastinators are less confident that they can handle a given task. They’re also more impulsive and less conscientious overall.
“Whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right,” Steel says.”Some of these old wives’ tales bear out. People who believe they can are less likely to procrastinate.” [emphasis added]
It’s that second paragraph the jumps out at me, and it’s probably due to my experience with ADD, something I’ve written from the the beginning of this blog. It occurred to me again when I read this over at Web Worker Daily.
Is procrastination an issue for you, too? For me, I find that I have absolutely no trouble with doing the important things in a timely manner. Give me a deadline, and I’ll stick to the schedule without fail. It’s the less important items with open deadlines that I struggle with.
What do you think is the root cause of procrastination? Too much tech? Willpower? Genetics?
It wasn’t part of the study as far as I know, so participants probably weren’t screened for it, but I’m willing to bet that a big chunk of the procrastinators that turned up in this study are adults with ADD.
It’s, pardon the pun, a “no brainer” when you think about it. When I read the passage above, I immediately thought of this chart from Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults, detailing how executive function is impaired in people with ADD.
Organizing, prioritizing, focus, sustaining effort, memory, etc. Seems like pretty much all of them would come into play when around procrastination. Live long enough with those (and other) difficulties from untreated ADD and, yes, you’ll very likely end up feeling less confident about your ability to do pretty much anything.
Chances are you’ve watched other people seem to sail right up the ladder while you struggled just to hold on and not fall off entirely. You probably wondered why you were so different from them, and why your brain didn’t work like (as well as) theirs. Chances are, you’ve had a long and intimate relationship with failure and can rattle off a long list of your fuck-ups and their consequences. You probably have a boatload of regrets as a result, and a dose of depression to go along with them. And you know down to the marrow of your bones that there are penalties for failure, which include shame, embarrassment, and loss. We live in a culture that despises failure except in the context of a prelude to present success.
Which is why the article reminded me of something that was an unwritten rule for me during most of the time I lived with untreated ADD, and that still surfaces as a fall-back position:
If I don’t do anything, then I can’t do anything wrong, and I won’t get blamed or punished for failing.
In my case, before getting treatment, that belief stemmed from experiencing the real-world results of the “impairments” of executive function mentioned in the chart above
- Activation? Yeah. I was often terrified of beginning a new project or assignment. Why?
- Focus. There was a time when I could sit through an entire meeting and walk out not having heard a thing, including the assignment I was just given. My choices at that point were to either (a) wait until someone asked me about the task and see if I could get more details on it or (b) ask for the details of the task I was just given in the meeting I just attended. Neither were good choices, because I could either (a) already be behind when I was told again what the assignment was, or (b) risk irritating or even angering a boss or co-worker by asking them to repeat what was just said five minutes ago, and have them wondering what was wrong with me. (Something I wondered myself.)
- Emotion. Well, can you imagine?
- Effort. Assuming I managed to get some to tell me again what I was supposed to do, I’d probably mess up the details no matter how hard I tried not to. And trying to get it right would mean extra effort, which usually meant it took me longer to get it done than anyone thought it should.
- Memory. Even if I managed to get the details of the assignment, chances were I’d forget some crucial step or information, and not discover it until far, far too late.
- Action. Again, if I don’t do anything, then I can’t do anything wrong.
Of course, it doesn’t make sense, does it? After all, if something has to get done, and I have to do it, it doesn’t matter that I won’t get it wrong if I don’t do it. Because there’s also a penalty for not getting it done. So, in the context of the above, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as someone with ADD (treated or not, actually, because some symptoms persist regardless). If you do it, you have more of a likelihood than most people to muck it up, and you’ll pay for it when you do. If you don’t do it, you’ll pay the price for not getting it done.
Procrastination has less to do with being a perfectionist than it does coping with demand for or expectation of perfection, or near-perfection, and the very real penalties for falling short perfection.
And in the middle of all of that, you’ll have to deal with the assumption that all of the above is only in your head, and failure in any of the “executive functions” mentioned above is really a failure of character. (In other words, “If you were a better person, you’d do better.”) What you’re dealing with isn’t “real.” That’s what’s embodied in Steel’s last statement about “whether you believe you can or believe you can’t.”
It’s based in the whole “argue for your limitations, and they’re yours” ideology. It sounds good. But does it make sense? After all, if I’m tone deaf and thus make the case that I can’t sing an operatic aria, does is my tone-deafness a result of my argument? Am I tone deaf because I believe I’m tone deaf? If most people can at least carry a tune, is the reason I can’t just because I’m not trying hard enough? Am I just too lazy to learn how to sing? After all, I’m more than willing to work at other things that interest me, and I don’t have any trouble remembering to do them, or remembering how to do them.
What if it’s that my body doesn’t make enough insulin? Or that my blood won’t clot? Or I’m allergic to wheat, or nuts, or soy, or something else?
Back to the author of the book I mentioned before, for the point I’m trying to make.
Everyone has occasional impairments in their executive functions, individuals with ADD Syndrome experience much more difficulty in development and use of these functions than do most others of the same age and developmental level. Yet even those with severe ADHD usually have some activities where their executive functions work very well.
They may have chronic difficulty with ADHD symptoms in most areas of life, but when it comes to a few special interests like playing sports or video games, doing art or building lego constructions, their ADHD symptoms are absent. This phenomenon of “can do it here, but not most anyplace else” makes it appear it that ADHD is a simple problem of lacking willpower; it isn’t. These impairments of executive functions are usually due to inherited problems in the chemistry of the brain’s management system.
I’m not saying that everyone who procrastinates has ADD, or everyone who has ADD procrastinates, but I’m willing to bet it figures heavily into the reason why some of the people in the study procrastinate. But the researcher seems to go straight for the “moral failure” meme, without taking into consideration other possible explanations.
I guess I can cut him some slack, since he took five years longer than he was supposed to with his research and report. I’m sure he’ll follow-up and include all the stuff I’ve mentioned.
As soon as he gets around to it.