Jacob Burak on procrastination

I have been meaning to write this article for the past two months. Am I doing so now, at last, because I finally managed to find the time? Absolutely not. I am preoccupied with a book proposal I am preparing, a lecture to be presented at a conference overseas and a host of other less interesting chores. In fact, I am writing this article as a way of avoiding doing all those other things.

If the only thing a procrastinator has to do is sharpen a pencil, he will find a way not to do it. Procrastinators only carry out important tasks if doing so helps them avoid carrying out other tasks. But seriously, procrastination – the tendency to postpone action or completion of a task until later – is a complex psychological behavior that characterizes every one of us at some level or another.

Studies show that one-fourth of the population consider themselves to be chronic procrastinators. But this number is not a measure of the true proportions of the phenomenon if you consider that the results are based solely on those people who actually managed to complete the questionnaire on time. Whatever the real percentage is, there is no doubt that procrastination is a serious problem that causes people not to pay their bills until long after they are due, to be tardy in submitting forms to workplaces and institutions of authority, and to fail to prepare for exams or interviews.

The sources of procrastination can be found in our particular fears. In some form or another we all fear having to face reality: life’s challenges, hard work, the frustrations that await us. Psychologist and author Linda Sapadin labels the different types of procrastinators: the Perfectionist is afraid of doing something that will turn out less than perfect; the Dreamer has big ideas but hates having to deal with the details; the Worrier fears that things are not being carried out as they should but that any change will only make matters worse; the Defier refuses to do anything proposed by others; the Crisismaker manages to find a major problem in every undertaking (usually due to a late start); and the Overdoer takes too much on himself.

Psychologists have not yet discovered the sources of the phenomenon: Does it have to do with a system for coping with the fear of failure embodied in starting or finishing a task? Or perhaps a fear of making mistakes? Some researchers are convinced the problem stems from a rebelliousness formed by procrastinators raised by strict, demanding parents. Since procrastinators claim that they actually perform well under pressure, another hypothesis proposes that the desire for excitement is a possible explanation.

From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, our brains developed in a world in which there was no place for procrastination. Our earliest ancestors lived in a world in which food was rare – meat kept for only three days at best – and danger was lurking in every corner. In this atmosphere of immediacy we learned to appreciate immediate gratification over future reward for very simple reasons of survival. According to this approach, procrastination reflects the difficulty in dealing with several aspects of modern life. Our brains find it hard to imagine how we will feel in the future, where most of our goals will be realized. We prefer an additional slice of cake today over a more complimentary figure one year from now; furthermore, the immediate payoff provided by email, web surfing and other modern temptations is the main enemy of action taken for a future that our primitive brains have trouble picturing as anything but dim. Indeed, research repeatedly shows that 50% of the time that people spend surfing the web is based on procrastinating from doing some task.

The way to treat procrastination is by treating the fears that lie at the base of this phenomenon. But the chance meeting of a creative psychologist offers hope from an unexpected place: Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who made major contributions to the gestalt theory of psychology, noticed that a waiter in a Viennese café in the 1920s was able to recall endless details about orders placed by patrons of the café, but once the orders had been filled they disappeared entirely from his memory.

Intrigued, Zeigarnik returned to her lab and discovered that unfinished tasks tend to remain in our minds so they are easier to remember. According to Zeigarnik, the start of any kind of activity causes our brains to tense up or even experience real anxiety. The moment this activity ends our brains sigh an unconscious sigh of relief and all is forgotten. But if we are kept from completing the task for any reason, our fervent brains ’nag‘ us to finish what we have begun.

If only we can persuade procrastinators to work for ‚just a few minutes‘ on the task at hand we will manage to leave their brains in a state of alertness that prevents them from relaxing until the task is completed. That is also how we will change the disturbing fact that 70% of the New Year’s resolutions we take upon ourselves are discarded within a single month.

About author Jacob Burak:

Jacob Burak writes on procrastinationJacob Burak (b. 1948) founded Evergreen Ventures in 1987 and became one of the founding fathers of the Israeli venture capital community. Five years ago he took a step back from the business world and now devotes his time to social activism and writing.

He has written two bestsellers: Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement?, which deals with the encounter between business, psychology and evolution; and Noise, which maps the „noises“ in our lives – external but mainly internal. Jacob also lectures on these topics.