Everybody has some experience putting off for later an important chore that can easily be finished today. People often cite procrastination as a save in these circumstances. But what exactly does Procrastination mean?
Oxford definition of the word is – the action of delaying or postponing something. That sounds apt given the fact that procrastination by default is a choice. People choose to put off boring work that they don’t find rewarding or stimulating for as long as possible, cleaning or organizing for instance. But we also have had experience delaying the work that we find stressful, like starting an assignment that is due or putting off studying till the day before exam. Are we similarly procrastinating there?
Putting off doing stressful work for later is our way of safeguarding ourselves from the unpleasantness associated with the task at hand. In stressful situations we may sometimes find ourselves acting in a way that could further sabotage the outcome that we long for. This is where ‘Reaction Formation’ kicks in. Reaction Formation is one among the lesser known defense mechanisms that Anna Freud posits.
Reaction Formation is the transformation of an unacceptable feeling or desire into its opposite in order to make it more acceptable. Sula Wolff in her work ‘Children under Stress’ (1969) talks about how children adapt and respond to various stressors. Diabetic children, she writes, become acutely aware of the implications of their illness and what it means for their future when they hit puberty. ‘The more anxious the child is about his illness and his future and the more guilty he feels, the more he is likely to throw caution to the winds, to flaunt all dietary restrictions and to be aggressively obstinate with his parents and the doctor when they remonstrate with him.’
This is precisely what we go through when we experience stress and guilt from the task that we are meant to do. We behave in counter intuitive ways to avoid stress. The longer we put off work the harder it gets to approach it. The solution is obviously to not stress about anything. But tests, assignments or important work obligations are bound to invoke stressful feelings. So instead of putting off stressful things for later, diving head first into work as soon as it is assigned helps. It could be overwhelming in the beginning but as you stick with it through the anxiety you’d recognize that you are getting better equipped to deal with the stress as time passes.
It’s easier to get started once big tasks have been broken into small steps. It’s important to keep track of these small tangible milestones instead of focusing on the intimidating weight of the big project that needs to be completed. Aim to reduce the stress surrounding tasks and chores that need to be done. The less you worry about them, the easier it becomes to do it.
Putting things off for later can be very rewarding in the short term but it directs the stress you are meant to feel today to the day before the work is due. Getting stuck in a cycle like this can make doable tasks seem overwhelming because of our previous unsuccessful attempts at working within time constraints. Be mindful of your defenses and work ahead of them, the more you exercise these mechanisms to avoid stress, the more infantile and underdeveloped your approach would be to coping with problems.
By Clarin George