Procrastination – and Overcoming It
The Oxford Dictionary defines procrastination as “to put off until some future time”, i.e. to deliberately delay or, if a future time has been specified, take no action until that time arrives.
To put it more succinctly: it involves putting off doing what your better judgement or conscience tells you should do done now. Sometimes procrastination is accompanied by self-condemnation e.g.: “I want to buckle down, but for some reason I won’t”.
The latter point – and procrastinating generally – both apply for me as a person with Asperger syndrome (AS): I believe that I have often procrastinated too much about tasks at work. In particular, those that either don’t interest me, take a long time or which involve significant mental concentration and exertion. These reasons apply despite me knowing what I need to do, yet often I simply can’t get on with it.
According to Hauck (1982) poor self-discipline is an unsurprising human trait as “avoiding difficult situations seems natural because we are tempted by immediate satisfactions”. Yet for me, poor self-discipline doesn’t really apply; I do work hard and do want to do things!
Procrastination & Aspergers
Consensus suggests that certain personality types tend to be procrastinators. According to Dryden, procrastination is a behavioural way of protecting oneself from experiencing an unpleasant, emotional state.
Looked at it this way, there are a number of Asperger related factors that can come into play in a workplace setting. Anxiety in general is one, avoiding difficult people another; but perhaps the one that affects me the most is cognitive exertion and the tiredness associated with it.
These factors make actually settling down and starting a task the hardest part for me. When I do so, I am often distracted by non-priorities, (i.e. talking to people). Once I get distracted, or put things off, it becomes even harder to start again. If I leave a task for time, or until I know a deadline is pending, I find that it becomes mentally harder to return.
This procrastination is called the “comfort of discomfort” paradox: one seeks a non-productive state because it is familiar and safe because of the feared consequences associated with change and possible failure. From a managerial or professional perspective this prevents personal development and can be potentially highly damaging.
Causes of Procrastination
Dryden & Gordon (1993) identify three typical causes of procrastination:
This emanates from perceived threats to ones self-esteem if engaged in a task normally avoided. For someone with AS, this could be managing people. Not being natural man managers, or lacking innate inter-personal or communication skills, results in the fear of being unable to manage people effectively.
Taking on the task implies possible difficulty or potential failure which confirms initial thoughts of inability and avoiding assuming responsibility.
The fear then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and avoidance keeps the attendant anxiety under control. In the longer term however, the problem is perpetuated and development as a manager or professional hindered.
• Low Frustration Levels & Tolerance
There may also be a perceived inability to endure frustration, boredom, difficult work, uncomfortable feelings, setbacks, etc, meaning that unpleasant tasks are avoided or quickly given up when started: “I can’t stand present pain for future gain!”
This situation is deceptive because it leads one to think one is succeeding by avoiding unpleasant tasks or situations when, in actual fact, it is stifling personal growth and development and results in unresolved problems mount up.
This is used as a way of expressing dissatisfaction or even anger towards others by delaying or avoiding important tasks. Your boss tells you to do something that involves additional – to you unnecessary – work, meaning its done either reluctantly or incompletely. This then rebounds unfavourably personally later.
According to Kanus (1993) people who procrastinate experience delay in two key personal areas: self-development and personal maintenance. The former prevents realisation of personal goals; the latter, not undertaking tasks which makes life easier. Both can cause immense personal frustration.
Why I Procrastinate or Put Things Off
Having Asperger has meant experiencing and instigating avoidance behaviours – albeit at times unconsciously – to evade certain issues in a work context. These include:
• Contemplating a task but not engaging in it
Basically, not making a start! An example here would be thinking about starting to write a report, but delaying to get a full understanding to produce something that is “perfect”.
I have often been told that I produce work that is either too detailed or that I try to produce the perfect solution. This is due I believe to being overly concerned about getting it – too – “right” to avoid potential criticism.
• Leaving tasks until the last minute
At times I have not felt the need commence work unless there is some urgency. Delaying though can lead to pressure via the rush to complete on time. The work may then be imperfect as I cannot gather required information in time (by myself or, perhaps more commonly, from others) or there is insufficient time to review.
This is completely at odds with the key AS requirement of avoiding anxiety by not working wherever possible under pressure.
• Future action is contingent on current feelings or circumstances
“I’ll do something when I have the necessary support from higher up or feel I am qualified to do it”.
This results from a fear of rejection or feeling that I viewed as incapable in some way. The feeling of “differentness” or inadequacy that emanates from having AS can come into play here.
• Previously unimportant tasks suddenly become so and push priorities into the background.
What this actually often means is that a priority, or something I feel less than confident dealing with, is pushed to one side and an easier task undertaken to deliver the conscious feeling of having actually “done something”.
I am personally highly prone to this. It usually involves doing short tasks that don’t require significant cognitive resource in order to say I have “delivered” something such as paperwork, rather than preparing a presentation on an issue I know insufficient about.
• Being susceptible to delay
“I can’t let somebody down”, or doing something to distract myself to avoid the task.
My AS, and lower levels of motivation towards things that do not interest me, mean I sometimes look for diversions to delay.
Budgeting is a subject I find tedious for example; ascertaining the views of others via discussion something which is easy and I enjoy.
• Creating an illusion of tackling a task
This could involve perpetually preparing for a task yet not actually doing it (i.e. report preparation and writing). Illusions are comforting but they do not get the task done.
I tend to over research issues or seek excessive approval or support from others before submitting a view or proposal. This may be due to my need to “be liked” or to cover every angle to avoid possible personal criticism which is anxiety provoking. The net effect is that my work output has, at times, declined.
I have used self criticism at times to justify procrastination and deflect (at least mentally internally) attention from others away from me. For example, saying that I need to learn more before taking on a task.
Though it has never been levelled at me personally, I am aware of other people diagnosed with Asperger having been confronted with the “You can’t renege on your responsibility by hiding behind your disability”. Though not actually the case, it has been viewed as an excuse for procrastination or not doing things by others.
• Waiting for motivation
According to Burns (1989) “motivation doesn’t come first; productive action does!
It necessitates “priming the pump” to get started whether one feels like it or not. Once a start is made to accomplish something, it often provides the spur to keep going.
I can resonate with this point greatly. For me, making a start is the hardest thing of all, and not doing so is a result of various traits associated with my AS!
• Refusing to address “unacceptable” behaviour in others
To confront behaviour you believe is unacceptable in others means not being fearful of the possible consequences. Instead of doing this I have sometimes procrastinated or delayed asserting myself by waiting for “the right moment to arrive” to address the problem which – in reality – never does.
I often have avoided confrontation because of self doubts or the discomfort it involves due to my feeling “different” and therefore to be partly – incorrectly – to blame. The issue of assertiveness is addressed elsewhere in Asperger Management.
Dealing with Procrastination
Most of the above issues apply to me as a person with AS to some degree. In the workplace and as a manager they have all exerted negative influence and have inhibited my potential and performance.
There are certain elements which have caused this, and which I have sought to address, to overcome the procrastination that has resulted.
I have been prone to – excessive – perfectionism. Starting or finishing tasks has meant compromising my “standards”. Doing so however, has been more of a way of explaining less than perfect or slower performance to avoid self-condemnation or the criticism of others.
Generally, my perfectionism has been excessive. In the main, my work has been entirely acceptable and I now try to focus more on producing work on time, rather than, constantly refining or seeking incremental improvement.
I have tended to be theoretical in my arguments or advocate actions which to a degree, has displaced realism.
This is not because my ideas have been grandiose, but because I have insufficiently explained my – unique – thought processes and insight and translated them into achievable goals, a common trait of someone with Asperger syndrome.
In some contexts this has prevented me from making a real and decisive contribution. What I now do is openly state what I feel to ensure that others fully understand my thinking – and also ensure that I ask for their views also to gain potential benefit from alternative insight. This also helps to keep work colleagues “on board”.
I have at times a fear that things will go automatically wrong and that I could be overwhelmed by events. Consequently, I have avoided risk or change which has resulted in lower self-confidence in my ability or personal willingness to make decisions such as undergoing required change.
Instead of prevaricating, I now confront change or accept that sometimes I will get something wrong or not deliver entirely perfect solutions. The key going forward is to accept this and acknowledge both to myself – and others – that there are lessons to be learnt from the experience and that I will incorporate them next time round. By avoiding delay I avoid unnecessary anxiety.
• Crisis Making
For me, delaying or “living on the edge” can provide an adrenaline rush by leaving things until the last moment.
Because I at times lack motivation, or view some tasks as boring, I will leave them until the last minute so that a spur via a sense of urgency. This is, of course, contrary to doing things early in order to avoid stress.
The problem I have experienced however, is that by leaving something it has then, at times, put me under the wrong type of pressure for previously aforementioned reasons – being unable to access required information or other priorities or tasks becoming urgent. This is how the stress and anxiety then develops.
Now I force myself to be proactive during quiet periods; to, at the very least, make a start to reduce the subsequent workload. If I do feel the urge to leave something, I ensure that it is a task that I know I can do and not something that my lack of understanding of will induce anxiety. Effective work planning also plays an important part – I inform others early of what I require from them for example.
• Excessive Workload
This involves always asking for and doing things that create extra work, and which deflect focus on other mainstream responsibilities or important issues that need to be tackled. There is also often a difficulty saying no or delegating work effectively.
I have often been guilty of this. I have tended to take on more tasks than I can realistically cope with which has caused me to lose focus.
Among the reasons for doing so are my short attention span and motivational levels. Switching between the – numerously – available projects overcomes this in the short term, but also leads to procrastination over which task to concentrate on!
Now I ensure that my workload does not become excessive by taking on unnecessary tasks, and focusing only on those which are entirely relevant to my job role and required responsibilities.
However, fundamentally with regard to procrastination, I have tried to address what Dryden and Gordon identify is the common denominator in relation to procrastination for everyone, but particularly for someone with Asperger: the “clear cut emotional problem”.
The root cause of much of my procrastination previously has been doubts about my ability to perform certain tasks or roles effectively due to internal negative thought processes that result from having AS. This has caused “signal anxiety” and led to me developing avoidance behaviours.
The best way to reduce this emotion is by identifying the right kind of job, company, and work tasks to avoid the type of situation in which the beliefs and thoughts that maintain the procrastination occur in the first place.
In addition, slowly and gradually exposing myself to tasks that I would normally avoid means that I can reduce levels of procrastination, work more efficiently and not experience the attendant anxiety that can result.
Tackling Procrastination – Key Requirements & Actions
To overcome procrastination I have developed other techniques and implemented changes into my working practices.
1. Making a start
I force myself to make a start. Sometimes this involves doing what Grieger & Boyd call “staying in there” i.e. staying in an aversive situation, rather than avoiding it, to work through – and gradually reduce – any feelings of discomfort.
To do/achieve this, I try to commence work when settled and not anxious. One technique I have instigated to ensure this is to divide tasks into high, medium and low categories (which require effective time management and priority planning) and allotting specific periods to them. Typically, this means taking on cognitively demanding tasks early in the day when I am fresh.
This way I can undertake cognitively more challenging projects when I am not under pressure. To assist with this, I avoid distractions such as long phone calls, talking too much with colleagues, handling paperwork more than once.
Action is more important than motivation; so I get on and do it!
2. “I’ve started so I’ll finish”
Once I start a task I try, wherever possible, to force myself to complete it there and then. When I do, the feeling of satisfaction is often great and provides the motivation previously lacking to move on and address other issues.
Achieving this means overcoming a discomfort phase that I typically go through initially, and which acts as a deterrent to initiating commencement of the task in the first place. AS factors such as lower motivation, shorter attention span and cognitive exertion all temp me to stop and move onto other tasks, but I force myself to continue with a task until I have eased my way into it.
3. Avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Reducing potential anxiety by only undertaking required tasks and focusing on them reduces potential cognitive pressure and overload. Working effectively and efficiently when emotionally unsettled is for me usually difficult. By limiting my workload to necessary and achievable tasks reduces the likelihood of procrastinating over other issues.
4. Accepting that I cannot do everything perfectly
Worrying that I may not be able to do everything perfectly has caused emotional disquiet and an inability to “get on with it” or face a problem. Removing this doubt prevents procrastination becoming a safety mechanism for me to protect myself from undertaking issues that may cause anxiety.
5. Accepting that I can take on difficult tasks
Changing my perception by believing I can do things – or that I will learn and benefit from doing so – has reduced my tendency to procrastinate. I may not like experiencing the uncomfortable feelings that sometimes accompany the management of others, but I can face, and so learn to accommodate them, to help me to become a more effective man manager.
Changing the set behavioural patterns which usually accompany procrastination is difficult for anybody. For someone with Asperger it can be additionally hard.
However, it can be done, and once it is, it can be pleasingly satisfying to know how easy it was – albeit often only with hindsight – and how irreversible the lesson once learnt is. Moreover, nothing “breeds success like success”. Having applied the principle once, it can then be readily applied again.