Procrastinators are people too (and they actually get things done)

Procrastination. It's the butt of jokes, it's a source of shame, and, according to psychologist Mary Lamia, it's been treated as a pathology for too long.
All-around genius, famous doodler, procrastinator? A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, on display in Venice, Italy, in 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

Mary Lamia is a psychologist whose main interest is the study of emotions. But she couldn't resist the curiosity she felt about the procrastinators she's met. So she started to explore what makes them tick, why they work the way they do, and why so many of them are successful in their endeavours.

The result of her explorations is a book called What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.

Instead of seeing procrastination as a problem that needs to be dealt with, or worse, as a pathology that must be 'cured', Lamia began to understand procrastination as a valid strategy for getting things done. And this attitude was new territory in the field. 

We really should stop shaming procrastinators. It is a valid motivational style. They have been pegged with having self-regulation issues or as slackers, as avoidant personalities, depressed, they must have ADHD, it must be genetic, all kinds of things like that. You know, we used to do that to people who were left-handed.- Mary Lamia

As she studied procrastination, Lamia found herself back in the territory of emotion.

She says our emotions are what motivate our behaviour, and that procrastinators are motivated by their own particular emotional history.

But what about procrastinators who don't get the job done?

Lamia says these cases need to be recognized as something other than deadline-driven procrastination. And the emotion that plays a big role here is shame.

"Many people who delay and don't get the job done - they delay and fail - often say 'my problem is that I'm a procrastinator'. We have to remember that failure creates shame, and people who continuously fail have a lot of shame. They're not motivated by emotional responses at a deadline, but rather they're inhibited by them. So when a deadline passes, they blame it on procrastination in order to save face… what's better than blaming it on procrastinating, rather than look at the emotional issues that are really interfering with you doing the work?"

Deadline-driven procrastinators do get the job done, and they almost always do it well.

This kind of behaviour does tend to upset people who get things done ahead of time -- people Lamia calls 'task-driven'. These could be co-workers or even spouses and children. And the difference in styles can cause tension in relationships.

I've actually seen couples where the party who is task-driven wants to get a divorce because they're married to somebody who procrastinates and they don't understand them. And the person who procrastinates is baffled and says 'I always get things done'...- Mary Lamia

Lamia recommends acceptance and understanding of emotional motivations and effects on the part of both parties in the conflict. The task-driven person is encouraged to trust the procrastinator will get things done, and the procrastinator is encouraged to be understanding of the anxiety experienced by their task-oriented partner. 

Lamia says the most important aspect of our emotions is what they motivate us to do. And our emotions run deep. Which is why we have so much trouble trying to change others.

"It's unfair for us to pathologize someone's lifetime of emotional memories. [It's the same as] a lot of political beliefs, religious practices, convictions we have…[they're] based on our lifetime of emotional memories. We may not like somebody from another political party. But their belief system is based on all of their experiences when emotions were activated and cognitions were assigned to those. People are different because of the emotions they've experienced, and what memories are stored in their brains."

Click LISTEN to hear the full interview with Mary Lamia, including how perfectionism affects us, and why you might want to give a procrastinator a little bit of space at deadline time.