Energy budgeting and procrastination both involve putting tasks off until later, but one is healthy and the other isn’t. So what’s the difference? That’s what we’ll explore in this post.
What is procrastination?
I like Wikipedia‘s definition of procrastination – it is “the action of unnecessarily and voluntarily delaying or postponing something despite knowing that there will be negative consequences for doing so.” Sometimes the term “procrasticlearing” is used to refer to decluttering or organizing that people do to put off starting to tackle the actual task.
While most people procrastinate sometimes, research has found that about 20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators. Researcher Joseph Ferrari says, “For those chronic procrastinators, it is not a time management issue – it is a maladaptive lifestyle” (American Psychological Association).
There seems to be a strong emotional regulation component to procrastination – the pull of doing something that feels better now can outweigh the desire to act in a way that will help with feeling better later. Then people feel guilty for procrastinating, and in an attempt to temporarily manage those feelings, they procrastinate more. It’s a form of avoidance, yet people who procrastinate end up spending more time thinking about the problem/task than people who don’t.
When do people procrastinate?
The aversiveness of the task itself is part of the issue – we don’t procrastinate when it comes to doing fun things. For perfectionists and people with impostor syndrome, procrastination can be a way to try to make other people think that perceived underperformance is due to a lack of effort rather than a lack of ability. Procrastination can also be a form of self-sabotage.
Personal characteristics can also come into play, including self-efficacy, conscientiousness, self-control, impulsivity, and distractibility. In terms of demographics, a German study found that procrastination was most likely in the 14-29 age group, and within that group, males were more likely than females to procrastinate. Being single, unemployed, or a student was associated with increased procrastination.
Problems associated with procrastination
While procrastination can decrease stress in the short term, in the longer term, it increases stress and reduces the quality of the output. For people who chronically procrastinate, it tends to be a self-defeating behaviour.
Other negative consequences include:
- Lower grades at school
- More physical health problems and fewer wellness-/health-protecting behaviours (including seeking medical treatment)
- Increased depression, anxiety, and fatigue
- Reduced life satisfaction and satisfaction with work
- Employment-related outcomes like lower income, shorter duration of employment, and greater unemployment
Putting things off without adding stress
While procrastination can cause problems, I don’t think putting off tasks is necessarily a bad thing. The key difference I see between procrastination and being flexible is that procrastination increases total stress, whereas flexibility is likely to decrease stress. For anyone dealing with a chronic illness, energy budgeting is likely to be an important reason for putting things off, but we’ll cover a few other things before we get to that.
If you have 20 things to do today and only have the time or resources to do 10, trying to do all 20 will probably make it harder to get things done. Prioritizing can help you focus on getting things checked off your list. Maybe that will mean getting the most important things done first, or it might mean getting the hardest things done and out of the way, or it could mean doing the easiest tasks first to make a solid dent in your list.
Rescheduling for convenience
Let’s say there’s something you need to pick up from a store. You could do it today, but in a couple of days you’re heading to that part of town anyway for an appointment of some sort, so it’s more efficient to put off your store trip until appointment day. Putting things off for this reason can reduce the total amount of effort required to get a set of tasks done.
Things that are unimportant or not time-bound
When my guinea pigs run around in their cages, they kick up hay, so there is always hay on the floor in my home unless I’ve just vacuumed/swept within the last 5 minutes. There’s no set time when the next round of vacuuming/sweeping needs to happen, and as long as the hay on the floor remains unimportant (i.e. doesn’t bug me), I don’t consider waiting to vacuum/sweep to be procrastination. Once it starts to bug me every time I look at the floor, putting off the vacuuming/sweeping veers into procrastination territory.
Mental illness or other chronic conditions can limit the amount of mental and/or physical energy available to get things done (spoons if we’re talking spoon theory). You can’t magic more spoons into existence, and while you might try to borrow spoons from tomorrow to use today, that’s likely to just knock you on your ass tomorrow.
Trying to do too much and running up a spoon deficit may exacerbate your condition or otherwise negatively impact your well-being, so pacing yourself, energy budgeting, spoon management, or whatever you want to call it can help you find balance. It may cause stress that you can’t do as much as you want to do, but I think this is where acceptance and self-compassion/kindness can come into play. If your illness currently limits what you can do right now, that is what it is, and resistance is likely to just increase suffering. Self-compassion is about being kind to yourself despite those limitations.
While being short on spoons can be stressful, I think a key factor that differentiates energy budgeting from procrastination is self-regulation. Energy budgeting is a self-regulatory process that involves balancing what’s going on now and what will be going on later, and not doing things now that will only make you feel worse later. Procrastination, on the other hand, is a way of avoiding self-regulation and making things worse later.
Procrastination vs. energy budgeting – what do you do?
Basically, the difference comes down to the why, not the what. I suspect that everyone does the what (i.e. putting off tasks sometimes), but the typical why can vary from person to person and over time.
I’m generally not a procrastinator. For me, non-procrastination isn’t something I choose because it’s healthy; it’s something I do because procrastinating really stresses me out, and I’d rather get whatever it is out of the way and not have to think about it anymore.
That’s not to say that I’m always on top of things; there are plenty of things that I’m in no rush to do because they’re not important or time-bound, and therefore there isn’t stress associated with them. I’m also careful about managing my spoons, and I usually don’t even try to push beyond what I estimate that I have the capacity for in a given day. I also tend to be short on fucks to give, so sometimes things will be left unattended to until I have a few spare fucks to throw their way.
What about you? Do you tend to use procrastination, energy budgeting, or perhaps some of both? How about fucks-based budgeting?
- Alison.com: Procrastination Solution – Beat Procrastination free course
- Centre for Clinical Interventions: Put Off Procrastinating workbook
- First Psychology Scotland: Understand & Beating Procrastination: A Workbook & Guide
- Udemy: Beating Procrastination Once And For All free tutorial
- American Psychological Association. (2010). Psychology of Procrastination: Why People Put Off Important Tasks Until the Last Minute.
- Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Aufenanger, S., Brähler, E., Dreier, M., Müller, K. W., … & Wölfling, K. (2016). Procrastination, distress and life satisfaction across the age range–a German representative community study. PloS One, 11(2), e0148054.
- Jaffe, E. (2013). Why wait? The science behind procrastination. Association for Psychological Science.
- Sirois, F. M. (2007). “I’ll look after my health, later”: A replication and extension of the procrastination–health model with community-dwelling adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(1), 15-26.