The Dark Side of Procrastination

Procrastination & Positive Reinforcement

Procrastination is a behaviour associated with anxiety and in my last post Procrastination & Perfectionism, I talked about how certain perspectives, whether formed by a learning disorder or anxiety disorder, where perfectionism creates and causes anxiety. Procrastination for the perfectionist is caused by the perception that we are unable to take the steps necessary to achieve perfection. In those situations, anxiety is present both before and after the behaviour. 


But, procrastination is not just for perfectionists, we all procrastinate!

There are some obvious downsides to it too:

  • missing deadlines and opportunities
  • loss of confidence in abilities and work
  • feeling unreliable to self and others
  • acute stress from rushed work
  • anxiety about not starting or finishing

Thre is one additional downside that I want to focus on and that is:

Procrastination breeds procrastination. Why?


Operant Conditioning

Just to give you an idea of what these terms mean:

Operant Conditioning is the changing of behaviour by reinforcement. The term was coined by B.F. Skinner when he conducted these experiments in the 1930s.  He used 3 types of operants:

The neutral operant is where the behaviour is unaffected by external stimuli; Reinforcers stimuli that increase the probability of repeated behaviour; and Punishment is an external stimulus that decreases the probability of repeating a behaviour.

The two types of reinforcement that were used were:

Negative Reinforcement is where the subject’s behaviour leads to an unfavourable outcome or punishment and the subject responds by avoiding that particular behaviour.

Positive Reinforcement is where the subject’s behaviour leads to a favourable outcome or reward, and in turn, that particular response or behaviour is strengthened in the subject.  They are more likely to repeat the behaviour that yielded the reward in the future, particularly if the positive reinforcement is consistent.


Put the Two Together…

Imagine you could take away that anxious feeling by ignoring the project. Avoidance or denial becomes the central behaviour.

Avoidance leaves you feeling less anxious, but only temporarily because you still know, on some level, that there is an unfinished project out there.

If avoidance is motivated by an underlying anxiety or panic disorder, we can begin to feel that that temporary relief outweighs the consequences of missed deadlines or unfinished work and ignore the long term consequences.

And that’s how procrastination breeds procrastination, but it doesn’t just reproduce itself, over the long term with a repetition of the behaviour, procrastination gives birth to its own set of coping mechanisms: Procrastination Skills and Avoidance Habits

If the project involves a deadline or accountability to someone other than ourselves and we still have to get it done! That last minute rush to the deadline can teach you one of two things:

  1. Not wanting to repeat the behaviour because the project did not get done on time, or there were negative consequences, etc…
  2. The development of procrastination skills

Procrastination Skills

Basically, procrastination skills are the skills we need to get work done quickly. They may include things like endurance from working for hours on end without stopping, often without proper sleep or nourishment.

Though endurance is not bad in itself, the mind can become accustomed to the repetition of this short period of heightened activity and over time, creative writers will sometimes call this a lack of inspiration not realising that they have conditioned their minds to strictly operate that way. 

Meaning, that later on if we want to be more consistent, we actually have to retrain the way we think. Which is way more work than the original project!


Avoidance Habits

You know when you are supposed to be doing anything and you do everything else first?

We develop certain go-to habits when avoiding what we are supposed to be doing.

Instead of writing an essay, or finishing that paperwork, you clean and organise your entire kitchen including the Tupperware cupboard and then systematically make your way through that Baking Pinterest board you have been adding to for months (probably as a way of avoiding cleaning your kitchen)? 

Avoidance habits give us the feeling of productivity and accomplishment.  We don’t get those feelings from the what we are supposed to be doing so we find other ways of creating a similar feeling.

The downside is that we end up adding those habits to the list of things we put off like in the kitchen scenario above. We end up procrastinating on tasks at home until we have a project to get done for school or work. Which means that if you change jobs, graduate, or no longer have that work to do, you no longer have something to avoid in order to do the other.

Welcome to the vicious cycle! 

My next two articles with delve a bit deeper into procrastination skills and avoidance habits and offer some suggestions on how we might be able to use them as tools to break ourselves free from the cycle of procrastination and avoidance.

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