Are you a chronic procrastinator?

Illustration: Sam Bennett
Illustration: Sam Bennett

Charles Darwin has a city named after him. Why? He developed the astoundingly valuable theory of evolution by natural selection. He is widely hailed as the greatest biologist of all time. Did you know that Darwin remained silent about his theory for 20 years? Maybe we ought to call him the greatest procrastinator of all time.

He delayed in publishing his theory because he feared negative reactions from religious individuals, particularly his wife. Only when Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin a manuscript stating the same theory did Darwin decide to publish. If Darwin had procrastinated any longer, we might now travel to a city called Wallace, rather than Darwin. 

Darwin has competition for persistent procrastination. Leonardo da Vinci often procrastinated on projects and failed to finish them. His problem was high perfectionism. Hired to paint a wealthy man’s wife, Leonardo worked on the painting, always trying to improve it, for 14 years – until Leonardo died. We now call the painting the Mona Lisa.

Fear of negative reactions and perfectionism are not the only reasons for procrastinating. I put off work that is hard or unpleasant.  But I meet deadlines. 

Meeting deadlines separates me from some of my students, who are paralysed by fear of a bad mark or who cannot exert the level of self-control necessary to make progress. Some students submit every assignment late, incurring daily penalties for late submission. Other students submit on time, but their work is poor because they started on the due day.

Outside universities, people procrastinate on all kinds of tasks: saving money for retirement, throwing out useless shoes, seeking professional help.

So what is the solution for chronic procrastinators? It helps to think of goals and consequences. Do I want my car seat to get wet every time it rains because the window won’t stay up? Setting a goal of timely completion rather than achieving perfection and acclaim can help.

If you want to consider yourself a highly functioning person, you push yourself to do what is unpleasant but important. Getting started on a task makes completion much more likely – making the first step is crucial. After making the first step, momentum may build. Steps 2 and 3 and so on may seem not so hard.

What task have you been putting off?

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.