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Procrastination: A Rite of Passage in Understanding Ourselves

I’m supposed to be planning the next step of my career. It’s time consuming, arduous and at times daunting. It’s easy to try and put this off for another evening. After all, there’s blogging to be done, and soon, I’ll be doing the washing up.  Logically, we should focus on priorities, however, procrastination ignores logic. For something so unproductive, how did we evolve to procrastinate?  I was surprised to find very little material on the evolutionary origins of procrastination so I have my own theory. After all, it must have served us well at some point to survive as a trait. I firmly believe it still does, and there’s alot we can learn about ourselves.

Procrastination doesn’t always make us feel good. The anxiety you get from it co-exists with guilt. Unfortunately, it is self perpetuating. You feel uncomfortable at the thought of completing a task, so you delay having to do it which makes you feel worse. We cushion this guilt with excuses and turn a blind eye. Anxiety can be the cause of procrastination or the result of it. By trying to understand what is making us procrastinate and restructuring our thinking to consider procrastination as in fact a positive experience, a “side effect” of mindful pausing, we can work on reducing the anxiety.

We all have different coping mechanisms to stressful or mentally taxing situations. Exam time was interesting. Trying to understand certain aspects of maths and biomechanics made me cry so I zoned out and drew, wrote poems and even learned the Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony scene in bid to distract myself from practicing long division. 15 years later, I still can recite the scene but I sure can’t do long division! Procrastination is often a coping mechanism by large. For me, it’s a mind space where my best ideas come from and my creativity blooms.

Doodles - Animals overlooking the dreamy landscape of Procrasti Nation

Animal behaviourists have documented ‘displacement behaviours’ where animals have conflicting drives like the desire to approach an object but also having a fear of that object so engage in redundant behaviours like scratching or grooming. It’s an energy outlet when you come across this conflict and cant do / wont do what you need to do. Can we not apply this to procrastination?! When we’re faced with that conflict of having to complete a task we really don’t want to do, we opt to do something else completely unrelated. We doodle, or leave our desks bathroom bound on an empty bladder rather than tackle that to-do list. Try to explain this this theory of displacement behaviour to your boss when you’re sprung surfing the net “it’s my evolutionary prerogative!”.

It’s what you choose to do when you procrastinate that can be insightful. Think about what is holding you back in completing those tasks you want to avoid. Delaying decisions you may have to make or task you have to complete may be alerting you to there being bigger things at play that you’re unable to consciously acknowledge. Procrastination can be healthy – a mental ‘time out’ and it gives us a little snippet into your ‘ideal’, our inspired space, the place we run to when things get alittle tough. It can be a fantastic way of finding out where you true desires are. On that note, blog completed, I’m going to do the washing up to ponder what exactly is stopping me in writing that cover letter for that dream job!



1 Tim { 06.08.11 at 5:59 pm }

Interesting how you couldn’t find much on the evolutionary origins of procrastination. Makes me think that it’s possible this is a modern luxury. I mean early man would have been fairly preoccupied with survival and in a constant uphill battle just to put food on the table……or cave floor, so there wouldn’t have been time to evolve [the art of?] procrastination. If I had to guess I’d say that it’s only since to occurrence of wealth that man has had the ability to procrastinate. Because with wealth came the ability to assign the more basic tasks necessary to survive (hunt & gather or for want of a better word ‘work’) to others and allow time for pursuits of the mind. We really only procrastinate on tasks that wont have a catastrophic life and death impact, or we at least explain the task away by applying that criteria. It seems that procrastination is using borrowed time (from ourselves) to ponder and evolve our thinking, but does this mean I’m saying that from the outset, the wealthy (or time rich) are more evolved/evolving in their minds?

2 annie { 06.11.11 at 7:23 pm }

Great thoughts, it really could be a modern luxury.

Here’s another thought – it may have evolved as an energy saving and resource saving function. Mr Caveman learned to not waste resources ie over picking the berry bush because it would have to last a season, or killing more animals than needed. He would start picking and choosing when to gather and how often to gather, even wait for the right time to do this. This would see cognitive abilities like problem solving, logic and decision making develop in early man. Point is, to delay doing something could have been a beneficial trait to have. Mixed with your thinking of people having more time on their hands, beneficial delay could have evolved to procrastination using, as you say, borrowed time. I’m no expert, these are just thoughts.

With your last point – time rich people being more evolved – well, if procrastination sees you thinking more, then I believe you’re evolving 🙂

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