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Is stress at the root of procrastination?

Is stress at the root of procrastination?

Does a person delay doing tasks because of stress? Or does one get stressed out because of procrastinating? HAPPIEST HEALTH gets experts to demystify the link between the two vicious cycles and ways to break it
time procrastination
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Based in Bengaluru, engineering student Zia Ansari describes himself as punctual and being good at managing time. “But when it comes to important things like [preparing for] exams or meeting deadlines, I always start at the last moment and perform poorly.” The 23-year-old Ansari may not be the only procrastinator.  

Staring at a pile of sheets for the past hour, one’s heart turns heavy. `Let me start with this later,’ tempts the voice in the head. One starts looking for distractions to keep the mind off pending work, either through binge eating or watching a series, playing a video game, taking a nap, or scrolling through social media – anything but the task in hand. This is procrastination when one consciously puts off what is to be done.  

To others it may look like mere laziness, but it can be because of stress and anxiety caused by idling. 

Is time management the answer 

 It is a misconception that only those cannot manage time well tend to procrastinate. In fact, even disciplined ones often struggle with the issue. Organising one’s time can improve one’s productivity, but the problem is not solved until one finds the reason for it.  

Once the person understands that they are stalling the task at hand, they look for ‘hacks’ or quick fixes.  

Aishwariya Rao, a finance student, shares her experience with Happiest Health. “At the beginning of every project and assignment I tell myself I won’t procrastinate and that I will begin my work well ahead. But that does not happen.”  

Dr Timothy Pychyll, associate professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, explains the root cause of procrastination in his book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. He says it stems from the discomfort one feels before doing any work. He says that people choose to indulge in things that give comfort in the time being rather than addressing the issue at hand. 

Dr Prerna Kohli, clinical psychologist and founder of MindTribe.in, elucidates certain reasons behind it:  

  • Performers under pressure: Procrastinators believe that they perform well under pressure and intentionally delay a task when they put it off. 
  • Trouble focussing:  There is a strong link between difficulty concentrating and procrastinating. 
  • Resisting challenges: Intentional delaying of a task usually happens when it seems strenuous or challenging. One may even develop anxiety or guilt about it.

Dr Kohli says that procrastinators are often plagued by thoughts such as `What if I fail?’ or `I don’t feel like it.’ 

Arouba Kabir, founder of Enso Wellness, Bengaluru, agrees with this view. Kabir says, “Procrastination is a form of a coping mechanism possibly because of the negative feelings revolving around a task. When one [must do] something they don’t like, the brain keeps delaying the task.” 

  • Another reason could be the fear of failure or the fear of outcomes. A study by Adam McCaffrey identifies the relationship between procrastination and fear. The study conducted on 300 college students concluded that students with higher fear of failure procrastinated to a greater extent. Such people presume that the effort they are putting into any task may not yield a matching outcome. And to shield them from perceived failure, their brain delays the assignment as much as possible. 
  • Dr Kohli and Kabir agree on the plight of a perfectionist. People with this trait strive to be the best at everything. It even sets unrealistic expectations and a fear of failure.

“I started procrastinating during the first lockdown when I used to delay even making the bed. It progressively got worse as I would watch movies instead of studying and choose to nap over pending work.” — Zia Ansari, engineering student. 

Dr Kohli elaborates on how stress triggers procrastination in an individual. External or internal stress with the goal of perfection can cause one to delay things. Some may experience stress because of an intentional delay – or the other way around – while some may experience it as a vicious cycle which gets increasingly intense.  

It may sound trivial, but Dr Pychyll firmly advocates his mantra – “Just get started – you can delegate the activity but not the responsibility.”  

  • Do it today: Darius Foroux, entrepreneur, author, podcaster and blogger, says in his book Do It Today, “Procrastination is an inner battle. For one to fight it and emerge successful one must do it today, not tomorrow.” No matter how large or small the task may be, just take the first step and start.  
  • Make a schedule: Dr Kohli says, “Most of us need to remember this simple technique to boost productivity and avoid delaying the work in hand. Open a digital calendar and write down everything you need to do for that day, putting the most critical tasks down first.” 
  • The toughest first: Dr Kohli says, “We often put off harder, more cognitively demanding tasks and relegate them to the end of the day. This makes it all the more challenging to complete them because we are run down and have no energy by the end of the day.” 
  • A consistent effort: “We cannot break free from the habit in a day or two,” says Kabir. Exercising and meditating help one to relax and practising them consistently helps in reducing the stress hormone cortisol. A clear mind can help one to focus on getting the work done easier. 
  • Recoup with other tasks:  Rao says whenever she gets stuck on a problem, she stops and turns to her comfort activity of watching animal videos. “I do so until I can gather the strength to pick up my assignment and try again. I always lose an hour in the process,” Rao.  
  • Chasing perfectionism: One should remember that there is nothing called perfect.

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