Procrastination can be seen as both a behavior and the lack of a behavior. The behavior is the act of turning away and doing something else in place of what the procrastinator should be doing. The lacking behavior is of course the task or activity that the procrastinator should be working on, such as homework. There are three ways to procrastinate: skip it, do it last, and escape.
- Skipping it: here, even though the task is foregone forever, it is the program that is being put off. When a person skips brushing their teeth, they are putting off their whole "keep the teeth clean so they won't get cavities" program. It's like they are saying "I'll start brushing my teeth tomorrow."
- Doing it last: easiest / most pleasant tasks tend to be done first. When there's a big job to do, and a long list of things to accomplish in order for that job to be completed, the tendency is to work on the simplest tasks. As long as the items on the list are getting done, the job feels like it is being completed, and the procrastinator lulls themself into a false sense of security. This approach becomes a problem when all the easy chores are done but there isn't enough time left to complete the hardest tasks because they were put off until last! Also, new alternative tasks may come up again and again, so that the main task is never started.
- Escape: the procrastinator instead does something they enjoy doing, choosing short-term gratification over long-term gain, at the cost of the benefits that they would receive from doing the task they put off. This takes their mind off the (stressful) task that they should be doing, or the situation they should be dealing with. This can lead to a pattern of addiction, where the more the procrastinator escapes, the more guilty they feel about not doing what they are supposed to be doing, creating more stress to escape from, leading them to continue the alternate activity so they don't have to think about it.
But procrastination isn't necessarily the mere lack of doing something, it is something that is causing the procrastinator not to do it. In this sense procrastination isn't the behaviors done or not done, but is a behavior unto itself. As a distinct behavior, procrastination can be characterized in several ways...
Procrastination as poor judgement
At the core of procrastination is a faulty decision. Either the decision is made not to do something that should be done, or the decision is made to do something else. Since that is the wrong decision, and the person is aware of it but follows it anyway, that is poor judgment. A term for acting against one’s better judgement is akrasia. If the person makes the decision out of course with no thought to the outcome, then they are acting without thinking, and that too is poor judgement.
- Poor judgement and laziness
- Rest and relaxation is important to maintain health and to occasionally distance oneself from one's work so it can be seen more clearly or from a different perspective. But relaxation can be taken too far, and when it is, it's called laziness. When resting beyond the need to maintain health interferes with responsibilities or life dreams, that is another example of poor judgement. There is much debate as to whether a value judgement such as laziness can be attributed to the procrastinator, since in many cases the procrastinator wishes to be active and productive but is held back by an inability to follow through.
- Poor judgement and leisure
- While leisure and recreation go hand-in-hand with rest and relaxation, and can provide therapeutic refreshment of body and mind, it becomes too much of a good thing when it interferes with what a person should be doing. Playing is useful for learning and can provide exposure to new things, and is an important component of open-mindedness, but when it is engaged in to the detriment of things needing to get done, it is yet another manifestation of poor judgement. The procrastinator has chosen doing what they want to do over what they have to do. It is often necessary to let work come before play. But leisure doesn't have to be sacrificed completely: there's a section about scheduling fun breaks below.
Procrastination as being distracted
When something isn't enjoyable, it is very easy for a person to get distracted from a pending task. In this case, a procrastinator may feel blameless. The more susceptible a person is to distraction, the more prone the conditions are for procrastination.
If a person allows himself or herself to be distracted, and the distraction is not warranted (that is, it isn't more important than what what was being done), then that person has implicitly made the decision to procrastinate by choosing to do something other than what was intended.
The less thought that goes into making choices, the harder it is for a person to avoid the consequences of procrastinating. The more distracting elements (people, toys, etc.) there are in a person's immediate environment, the more opportunity there is for poor choices to occur.
Procrastination as a phobia
An irrational aversion to something is a phobia. Not only can phobias cause procrastination, a phobia can be a component of procrastination itself and therefore go unnoticed as a phobia. A strong and irrational aversion to something is usually a sign of a phobia.
Procrastination as bad habit
When the decision to avoid a task is repeated automatically—even when it is the wrong decision—making the wrong decision becomes habit; the decision maker has acquired a habit of making bad decisions. Keep in mind that a decision is implicit to every action taken, even if the person taking the action did not consciously decide anything.
Since habits are repetitive in nature, a habit cannot usually be overridden by a single decision: it takes a new habit to do this. A simple decision could easily be overwhelmed by the force of habit and therefore may need to be implemented as a habit itself before it can compete effectively with the old habit.
Procrastination as a complex
Unfortunately, procrastination isn't simply a habit, it is a complex pattern of recurring behaviors including emotions, thoughts, and actions. Many of these are habitual, and in order to get rid of them, each one needs to be replaced, circumvented, or deactivated by new habits; though not necessarily on a one-to-one ratio: sometimes a single habit can replace several others.