Procrastination vs. Energy Budgeting: What’s the Difference?

post-it notes saying "do it"
Vic, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Prioritization

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.

Energy budgeting

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?

Resources

References

30 thoughts on “Procrastination vs. Energy Budgeting: What’s the Difference?”

  1. I absolutely procrastinate and am pretty avoidant in general. I’ve never heard it put as energy budgeting, but I like that! I think it’s kind of like we talked about in therapy recently, you have to adjust your “good enough” line.
    What’s good enough for today might be less than what’s good enough tomorrow, and that’s okay. Like you said, resisting it doesn’t help anything.

  2. I do all three, and much like you I procrastinate only up to a point. Then I grit my teeth and do the thing, knowing how much better I’ll feel psychologically when it’s done. I saw first-hand with my ex how destructive chronic procrastination can be, so that motivates me too. With spoons/budgeting, that’s self-preservation ~ ie, a GOOD thing! And definitely I prioritize my fucks 😂

  3. I really enjoyed this essay. I’m not a huge procrastinator, unless I drift into being unorganized. If I’m not keeping up with lists and “assignments,” I can spin my wheels with mental stuff. But mostly, I get stuff done in an energy-budgetting kind of way. That part has really become second-nature now.

  4. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned how much i love the spoon analogy 🥄
    I also dislike the way I feel when I procrastinate. I’m ridiculously self-aware, and I realized a while ago that thinking of something I need to/don’t want to do stresses me TF out! But taking action, even if it’s a tiny step, makes me feel better.

    As far as energy budgeting goes, I try to be reasonable with the amount of work or tasks I ask myself to do any given day. When I’m depressed I know I’ll probably run out of steam at some point, so I’ll strive to get one thing done early in the day. It’s frustrating to run out of energy but you’re right about practicing self acceptance. I’ve learned to tell myself there’s nothing wrong with doing it tomorrow morning. If there’s a deadline, I’ll plan for the possibility that I may only work on it a couple hours a day.

  5. I love hearing about energy budgeting. I have a similar concept I call “buffer” management. I am not much of a proscrastinator. In fact I tend to be one of those people who feels better about getting stuff done early. But energy budgeting makes total sense to me. I tend to frontload my calendar with alot of things that could be done but don’t have to be done in the timeframe I originally set out. Using energy budgeting I can delay or postpone those items that are not time-bound and thereby reduce my stress levels by clearing some space on my upcoming calendar. In addition over the years I have come up with a concept I call my “energy buffer.” It is like having an extra quarter of a tank of gas in the car on-hand for emergencies. This extra surplus means I am able to manage tasks on my plate without a lot of extra stress. I am careful not to go below a quarter of a tank as that level alone is too stressful not even including the things that are needing to be done on that quarter tank. The buffer allows me to manage stress better. If I am operating without a buffer, I am for sure experiencing anxiety that I do not need.

  6. Fascinating topic Ashley 🙂

    I no longer have the time to procrastinate and yet HAVING said that, there are times when l deliberately do so. Well l call it that, Suze informs me that my ‘quickie moments’ are not procrastination but attempts at being lazy to try and calm my mind down and take a breather.

    I had always been more of an outdoorsy person from around the age of five until my mid forties ro my early fifties or 46 – 53 l became more of an indoorsy person and l worked in front of a computer more, but in the last few years or more so since turning 56 l have been on the go. Now at 59, l am probably more active than ever before, and yet l still feel guilty when l take a lazy twenty minutes or so in the evening gaming or a quickie gaming moment of ten minutes during the day – l call these moments procrastination … because l feel guilty that l am not busier.

  7. I keep telling myself I’m going to make a commitment to overcome my procrastination, but I keep postponing making that commitment because I’m a procrastinator.

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