Recently, there have been these theories going around about procrastination being linked to perfectionism and self-esteem. Allegedly, people who procrastinate are the types that tend to set too high standards for themselves so they are not even motivated to begin because the likelihood of falling short of perfect is high. And it’s generally demotivating to contemplate doing things under such pressure to perform perfectly. It is also linked to one’s sense of self-worth. Procrastinators, like defensive pessimists, use procrastination as a coping strategy to deal with failure. The defensive pessimist will imagine everything that can go wrong. When it doesn’t, they feel a sense of accomplishment. When it does, well, they expected this anyway. For procrastinators, the focus is slightly different, it’s on maintaining a positive sense of self-esteem. So, when putting off studying for an exam until the last minute, and then failing, the procrastinator failed not because of their lack of ability, but because they did not prepare properly. The latter is a lot easier to accept, no ego bruise will follow. You got the ability, you were just lazy. If, however, the exam turns out a success, more reason to be proud of oneself for making it even under such circumstances. Such ideas are summarized here, for example: Warning: extremely clickbait title.
So yes, these ideas seem to dominate the popular science psychology articles. I don’t know if they are equally dominant in the less popularly accessible segment of psychology. I hope they are not, because reading these explanations for procrastination was very eye-brow-raising for me.
First: don’t these people with such hypotheses consider putting off doing the dishes as a form of procrastination? If they do – and I would – then how can one possibly fit perfectionism and self-esteem into it? Perhaps an obsessive-compulsive person with a cleanliness fetish might be daunted by the thought of not getting the dishes absolutely spotless, but surely this is not the case for the average procrastinator. Maybe I miss something. These articles always talk of deadlines, essays, work-related procrastination etc., but what of cleaning the bathroom, weeding the flower beds, mowing the grass and other such activities. I would be very interested to know how does one fit “putting off going to the supermarket for milk” style of procrastination into the self-esteem and perfectionism explanation.
I do think I am missing some vital piece of information when reading such articles, because researchers cannot be so blind to ignore these forms of procrastination also happening.
Yes, I think perfectionism can be demotivating and make it hard to begin on something. But I don’t think it’s the universal key to unlock the mysteries of procrastination.
Some alternative hypotheses:
- Evolutionary psychology may not be my favourite branch as it is often too reductionist and dismissive of potential for change, but sometimes it can work for explaining things better than many other theories. It’s certainly very intuitive. So I’d intuitively hypothesise that evolutionally, human beings have not been accustomed to much consistent, regulated effort and the time management required of us now is very new to our brains. Rather, in humanity’s long infant stage, we did things in short intensive bursts, followed by periods of rest/doing nothing much. Most procrastinators are similar, are they not? They can get it done, they can work hard when required, but most of the time they spend in some sort of energy conservation mode. Such as: you go hunt that mammoth, then you eat it and stay put and don’t do a great deal. Maybe you pick your teeth with the bones. Even the division of the day into work and leisure time is a relatively new invention in the context of how long the human race has been around. So the short energy burst theory is one hypothesis.
- Second: similar difference as between extroverts and introverts when it comes to social energy. Procrastinators have less motivational energy, they prefer to conserve the little they do have and do things that are easy and undemanding most of the time and only to activate their motivational energy when it is unavoidable. I wonder if there is a concept of motivational energy in existence? I hope there is. That could also explain why people are super motivated on the first few days and lose it along the way. It just runs out. Most of us are not blessed with a lot of it so consistency in attaining one’s goals is hard for us.
- The negative impact of the must. Most people don’t like doing things they have to do. If phrased like that, this is demotivating. It seems almost hard-wired into a lot of people that whatever is a must is an unpleasant duty, even if it wouldn’t be in essence (like going for a run or gym). I’m definitely like this, perhaps to the extreme: make something a thing I MUST do instead of CAN do and I feel its oppressive weight descend on me and kill off all motivation.
- Points 2 and 3 stem from this evolutionary tendency and help to explain variation. Not everyone is a procrastinator, so the evolutionary theory cannot explain why some are classified as procrastinators and others not. Unless. One adds the component of other personality traits that can either neutralize (very high discipline and motivational energy, very high ability to accept authority) the general human tendency to do things in short intense efforts or cancel it out from manifesting.
It’s all rather vague and hardly more than a mind game, but it makes more intuitive sense to me than the perfectionism and self-esteem theories that strangely ignore aspects of procrastination where it is hard to imagine those forces being at play. I hope someone comes up with a more plausible theory.
Also, perhaps this perfectionism theory at least is yet another ‘saving of face’ strategy of the procrastinators themselves – being a perfectionist makes for a good, comfortable excuse. One can be proud of being a perfectionist. But admitting you procrastinate because you lack discipline and motivational energy is not so nice. I certainly procrastinate for those reasons.