I have written previously about my view that one rarely-considered
motivation for procrastination is the desire to avoid obligation. I have found
that any time I feel required, locked in, or enslaved by expectations or rules,
the less likely I am to want to complete the task. Depending upon the
consequences for not completing the task, I may ultimately do the work, but will avoid doing it as long as possible.
Even pleasant tasks can become unpleasant if rules or
expectations become attached to them. For example, I enjoy checking Facebook
regularly to see what my friends are up to. However, as soon as I feel someone
expects me to read their status and comment on their schedule, checking
Facebook becomes the last thing I want to do. Why do we behave in such an
One reason we resist obligation-laden tasks is a desire to
avoid a poor evaluation. I love to sing. But I would never try out for American
Idol (even if the age range were increased) because I don’t relish having Simon
tell me what an atrocious waste of time I am. In the same way, I know if
someone expects me to check and comment on her Facebook status every day, I
know I will one day let her down and fail. This desire to avoid a negative
evaluation applies even when we give ourselves the rule. I would rather avoid
the “audition” of even trying to keep up with unrealistic expectations, whether
they’re my own or another’s expectations.
A second reason I suspect that feeling obligated can lead to
procrastination is the assumption that anything that must be enforced by rule
or stigma must not be desirable. Children who hear, “Eat your vegetables and
then you can be excused,” may assume that vegetables are not good to eat.
Otherwise, why would pressure be required? The opposite assumption also
operates here. If we are given rules restricting access to something, then we
will likely consider it something very valuable. So hearing “You can have candy
for special occasions” may prompt the child to think candy is something very
If I am right about the role of obligation in
procrastination, how then might we avoid unnecessary rebellion in getting
First, you might try some reverse psychology. If your habit
is to wait until the last possible time to complete a project, give yourself a
rule that you cannot work on the project before that time. Write out your
reverse rules, share them with others, and earnestly try to adhere to them
simply to see what happens. If you are spending two hours a day online and you’d
ultimately like to spend less time that way, see how many days in a row that you can spend at least
two hours a day online. Do you have a snack or dessert every day that you think
you’d be better off without? Make it a rule to eat the same dessert every day.
Second, avoid negative evaluation. Spend as little time as
possible with people who criticize and demean you. If you have to interact with
them, try to get encouragement before and after you do so. If you have a really
critical boss, show your work to a sympathetic coworker before turning it in,
and get a pat on the back after you’ve been subject to a scathing. The easiest
way to avoid negative evaluation, though, is to stifle your inner critic.
Allowing internal dialogue like, “You’re such a slacker. You’re online again,”
will only throw fuel on the fire of procrastination. Better to say, “When I’m
ready to logoff, I will.”
An excellent way to avoid negative evaluation is to get things done early. Before anyone can ask you about a task, you'll have it done! No nagging and critical comments will be coming your way, but only surprised praise. You can enjoy your own praise for being on top of things, too. Of course, you don't have to get things done early, but you might want to.
Third, avoid rules altogether. Even adopting a rule of using
reverse psychology may be something you rebel against. Giving yourself complete
freedom to do whatever you wish may diminish obligation-based procrastination
significantly. What that means for me is not having time management rules. I
feel free to use a list or not. An iPhone app or not. A schedule or not. Avoiding rules is easier said than done. We’re
constantly being bombarded with rules for living. When someone says something
that makes you feel required to do something, you can dismiss it from your mind
with the truth that you have a choice. Even if you are the one piling on the
guilt, you will have to rethink your requirement of yourself in light of the
freedom you have. One way of doing that is reframing your tasks as something
you want or choose to do, rather than something you must do.
I am on a tennis team right now and am very motivated to
practice regularly and improve. The coaches for the team have never suggested
that I put in extra practice time. If they did make that suggestion, my initial
reaction would be to procrastinate. How could I get around that? I would ask
myself if the reasons I wanted to put in extra practice before their request
were still valid. If so, I would choose to dismiss their expectation of me,
knowing that practicing was still my choice.
While I was composing this post, my husband presented me
with an obligation-laden request for help with the computer. Too bad he hadn’t
read my blog first! We’re more likely to gain others’ cooperation if we keep these
principles in mind. Friends can get more Facebook feedback from me by thanking me for posting, no strings attached. Of course, my initial reaction to my husband’s request was
to resist, but the intensity of my resistance is much less than had I been
permitting superfluous obligation to rule the day. I’m going to reframe his
request as something I want to do now that I’m finished with this post. The
reality is we all have to deal with a certain amount of obligation. But the
more of it we reverse or avoid, the more productive and happy we’ll be.