Why procrastination is a form of self-harm

[Note: remember to fill in the subheadline later.]

  • We typically think of procrastinators as having poor time management skills, but research suggests they actually have poor self-regulation.
  • This causes procrastinators to prioritize the wellbeing of their present selves over that of their future selves, ultimately causing way more stress and harm to themselves in the long run.
  • Fortunately, there are a few strategies that chronic procrastinators can try to help manage their bad habit.

Few words conjure up as much dread as deadline. Originally, it referred to a line drawn on the ground at prisons — should a prisoner cross this line, they'd be shot dead. Eventually, its meaning transitioned to a point in time by which you must have something done, but it still retains a sense of mortality to it: "If I don't have this done by tomorrow, I'm dead."

Despite the amount of dread a deadline induces, we still find ourselves putting the work off, day after day, hour by hour, until the pressure mounts to the point where we're up at midnight, chugging coffee, and frantically typing that essay due the next day. We procrastinate.

More specifically, we voluntarily delay an intended action despite understanding that the delay will put us in a worse position than before. At least, that's how psychologist Piers Steel at the University of Calgary put it in his 2002 dissertation, "The Measurement and Nature of Procrastination." However, there's a more succinct way to describe procrastination. "It's self-harm," said Steel to The New York Times.

How procrastination hurts

The harm of procrastination doesn't just lie in shoddy work and missed deadlines (although procrastinators do perform more poorly). Chronic procrastination is associated with a slew of negative health outcomes. As one would expect, procrastinators tend to be more stressed. As a result, they also tend to have more heart complications. Procrastination can also extend to all of the little things we do to maintain our health. One study found that procrastinators went to the doctor and the dentist less frequently, and another found that they didn't seek help for mental health issues. This is unfortunate since procrastination is also associated with depression and lower self-esteem.

Why procrastinators procrastinate

Photo credit: Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres on Unsplash

Chronic procrastination is clearly harmful behavior, but we continue to engage in it. Why? Part of it is that we mistakenly believe procrastination has to do with time management, when it really has more to do with how we handle our emotions.

Nobody likes performing difficult tasks, but how we handle the stress and adversity of performing a task differs. Chronic procrastinators have a poor capability for self-regulation; in other words, they're impulsive. In response to the negative feelings associated with having a task to do, procrastinators prioritize repairing their mood in the present over completing the task.

Researchers argue that procrastinators consider their present self to be more important than their future self. To avoid the negative experience that comes from beginning a difficult task, procrastinators simply avoid it to improve their mood in the short term, passing the buck to somebody else: their future selves. This, of course, ignores the fact that the future self isn't any different from the present self.

That's not to say that procrastinators don't know this on an intellectual level. In fact, being aware of this future stress can perversely encourage procrastination. Once a procrastinator has begun procrastinating, they might continue to do nothing in order to avoid the feeling of regret that arises by starting the task and being reminded of their failure to begin their work earlier.

In this sense, seeking to feel good in the short term via procrastination acts like a form of self-harm, a bomb of stress and anxiety that's been left to tick away rather than defused immediately. In her study on the temporal sense of procrastinators, Dr. Fuschia Sirois wrote, "Prioritizing the mood of the present self over a consideration of the future self means that there is no reason to engage in behaviors that will improve the well-being of the future self. In short, tasks that are key for the maintenance of good health may be put off if they are viewed as difficult or unpleasant."

Coupled with the direct impact of the stress from procrastination, this mismatch between the perceived importance of the present and future selves explains why procrastinators experience poor mental and physical health.

What can be done

Fortunately, there's hope out there for chronic procrastinators. Here's a few methods that can help mitigate the downward spiral that procrastination can be:

  • Practice self-compassion. Dr. Sirois conducted a study on over 700 people from different walks of life and found that the level of compassion an individual had for themselves could explain their levels of stress and procrastination. In essence, being kind and understanding rather than critical can act as a buffer against the negative emotions that drive a procrastinator to procrastinate when faced with a difficult task.
  • Forgive yourself for procrastinating. When you reread the terrible essay you wrote at midnight the other night and realize you could have done so much better had you just started earlier, don't beat yourself up. Research has shown that students who procrastinated when studying for one exam and then forgave themselves were less likely to procrastinate on ensuing exams.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness — or, as Dr. Sirois writes "a present-centered, non-reactive self-awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of thoughts and feelings as they occur" — is negatively associated with procrastination. Since procrastinators are already focused on the present self anyhow, this might seem counter-intuitive. However, mindfulness has been found to enable an awareness of one's current thoughts and feelings, to reduce stress, and to improve persistence, all of which are qualities that chronic procrastinators desperately need.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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