What is science behind laziness

Procrastination: When to procrastinate becomes pathological

There are things in life that simply have to be done, even if they are not particularly fun: the tax return is pending, the submission for the written homework, an examination date is approaching or an important presentation has to be prepared on the job. But instead of sitting down at the desk and getting started, the bathroom is cleaned, the basement tidied up and the laundry washed. Those who procrastinate prefer to postpone things until tomorrow.

Such behavior is often downplayed as "procrastination". With a smile, the phenomenon of being able to do uncomfortable work “at the last minute” is justified by the fact that you can “only work under pressure”. What looks from the outside like laziness or weak will is usually anything but funny for the procrastinators. As the deadline approaches, the pressure of suffering increases and in the worst case there is a risk of negative (professional) consequences. Because this behavior is widespread, it has a name in psychology: procrastination. It is a serious problem of self-regulation for which there is professional help: In an interview, M. Sc. Psych. Laura Thomas from the procrastination clinic at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, why procrastination has nothing to do with laziness and what those affected can do.

Ms. Thomas, what is the difference between procrastination and laziness?

Procrastination is often viewed as laziness. If you take a closer look at the phenomenon of procrastination, however, it has nothing to do with laziness. In fact, it's the opposite, since procrastination is an active process. By laziness we might understand that someone is lazy in the sun doing nothing. Someone who suffers from procrastination is in an active phase. It does not do the job that needs to be done. But there is another task that is dealt with, which seems relatively more pleasant. A classic is that I have to finish a housework, but I can't manage to sit down and clean the shared kitchen instead. Most would probably say that cleaning is not their greatest passion. At that moment, however, it seems more pleasant in relation to text work. In addition, procrastinators usually have a guilty conscience when completing an alternative task and enjoy the time less or not at all. So it's the opposite of laziness.

Since when has procrastination been considered a mental disorder?

Procrastination as a disorder and the treatment have only been researched for some time. Procrastination is not part of the recognized diagnostic systems ICD-11 and DSM-5. The reasons are the young research area and the fairly high prevalence figures. In the literature one can find information that up to 20% of the population are affected. With these numbers, however, the criteria for procrastination are usually less strict than with us. So far, we have found a 10% prevalence in our own studies with students, which we also consider realistic in the general population.

Note: The Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster is based on the DKP criteria (diagnostic criteria procrastination, developed by the working group of the procrastination outpatient clinic at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster), which are stricter than other definitions: "Repeated (unnecessary) postponement is more necessary / important activities in the last six months on at least half of the days, although time would have been available for completion. Instead, substitute activities are carried out, but these do not always have to be more pleasant per se. This leads to severe impairment of personal goals and creates relevant suffering. It can lead to impairment of the performance potential, physical and psychological impairment, up to self-devaluation as well as personal and professional consequences. "

Doesn't everyone put off unpleasant tasks?

First of all, it is important to distinguish between everyday procrastination and pathological procrastination. Postponing initially only means that tasks that should be completed at a certain point in time are completed at a later point in time. Sporadic procrastination is normal and common. That is not bad per se. A study of our own showed that only two percent of the students do not know about procrastination as a behavior at all. Most people know how to behave when doing unpleasant tasks. Procrastination is different because it means the pathological form of procrastination. It is then a disorder of self-regulation that creates relevant suffering. We recommend getting help as soon as you notice that you are suffering from your own behavior and that there are consequences. It is important to get in touch early and not postpone this step for too long.

Are procrastinating behaviors learned? Do you already have suspensive behavior in childhood?

Basically, we assume that procrastination is learned behavior. So anyone can get it. The good news is that learned behavior can be unlearned again. Many students report that they put it off in school and learned for exams only at the last minute. However, our criteria for procrastination are not yet met, as the level of suffering is missing. In addition, school and university are structured completely differently and expect different skills in the area of ​​self-management.

How is treatment carried out?

We assume that procrastination is a learned behavior and can be forgotten again. Cognitive behavioral therapy approaches are best suited for treatment because that is exactly what they aim to do. In this context, our special outpatient department for procrastination at the University of Münster offers brief consultations in the form of training programs with five sessions, either individually or in groups.

Which methods does the treatment use?

On the one hand, we have developed a ritual technique: A specific point in time is determined when you want to start work. A signal reminds you that you want to start right away. You can use an alarm clock for this, for example. In the quarter of an hour before that, you prepare for the work unit - that's what we call ritual. So you can still ventilate, have a drink and prepare the work materials. In addition, we work with planning techniques, for example a very specific work unit: When do I want to start? How long do I want to work? What is my goal? What steps are necessary? The 50% rule plays a role here: We tend to overestimate ourselves. Therefore, it is advisable to delete half of my planned content for the work unit at the beginning.

Another effective, somewhat paradoxical method is the so-called “working time restriction”: The person concerned is only allowed to work in a previously determined, realistic time window. In addition, working is prohibited. The window can be extended if the person concerned manages to spend his time window effectively on work. This prevents you from undertaking too much and creates a sense of achievement. Learning new behaviors takes time and effort, but it is possible. We can already achieve very good results with our short-term interventions. The procrastination time usually decreases quickly and other symptoms associated with procrastination also decreased significantly. If procrastination occurs together with other disorders, such as depression, then it makes sense to go through psychotherapy. Procrastination treatment can often be easily integrated.

What positive changes can the procrastinator expect if he no longer procrastinates?

First and foremost, the reduced level of suffering should lead to an improvement in well-being. If the consequences of procrastination only become aware during the treatment, this will be discussed. If you apply the newly learned strategies, you will begin and follow through with the tasks. It is important that you can solve the task at the end and no longer have the work in the back of your mind. In this way you can create clear boundaries between work and leisure and enjoy leisure time more again.

Which first warning sign should I not ignore?

A general answer is difficult here. I think the strongest sign is psychological stress. Anyone who notices that they are increasingly suffering from being postponed and that there are consequences should seek support. If you are unsure whether you are suffering from pathological procrastination, I recommend our self-test. At the end, you get detailed feedback on procrastination and related areas such as depression or ADHD. In addition, the first contact points are named.

Are certain people or professions more affected than others? How widespread is procrastination?

The causes that lead to procrastination are very diverse, difficult to determine and not fully scientifically researched. There are different approaches in research: One approach is, for example, the investigation of connections with personality traits. We found in a study that perfectionism coupled with the fear of failure can lead to procrastination. In the USA there is a research group that also deals with genetic relationships. There it was found out, however, that it is more a connection with impulsivity. There are also indications that it may be due to the task to be completed itself, i.e. that certain predictors make the occurrence of procrastination more likely, such as a free and little pre-structured activity, unclear tasks, no existing deadline or a very aversive task.

Procrastination primarily affects people who have to work a lot independently, without fixed deadlines or pressure from the boss. These can be independent craftsmen, but also teachers. It is mostly students who come to us in the outpatient department. We are bound by confidentiality and lecturers or colleagues do not find out that someone has accepted an offer from us.

So can I use procrastination as an excuse, for example if I miss a deadline?

At the University of Münster, procrastination is not considered a reason for excuse if a deadline has been missed. If there is a mental illness and the person concerned is in therapy, support can be provided. However, this is not the case with procrastination. I suspect that is how it is done at most universities.