How people rationalize procrastination

Article and visual by Sarah Augustine. Edited by Laramie Cowan

Human beings are not rational beings, but, rather, rationalizing beings and we strive to maintain our ideal self-image. When we act in ways that contradict the concept of our ideal selves, we undergo a kind of mental tension called cognitive dissonance. When we are experiencing cognitive dissonance, we feel uncomfortable and upset. In order to decrease these bad feelings, we explain our actions that go against our idea of our ideal selves, giving reason and excuse to why we did the things that we did. A common bad behavior we rationalize for ourselves is procrastination, or the action of delaying or putting off doing something. Procrastination is a bad behavior regarding work ethic that is often rationalized by people to relieve cognitive dissonance; it is problematic to justify our bad behaviors because regardless of giving reason, the behavior isn’t any less reprehensible.

Cognitive dissonance is a stressful psychological process in which the brain is conflicted about your actions because whatever you’re doing is going against your beliefs. A common example of cognitive dissonance is smoking tobacco. People understand that tobacco is unhealthy because it causes a multitude of diseases (i.e. various forms cancer), but there are still people that smoke. They are aware that smoking is physically harmful to their bodies, which is bad, but they continue to choose to smoke. The mind gets conflicted because people want to be rational beings that make good decisions and are, simply, “good” people. When you behave in a way that goes against that ideal, you experience cognitive dissonance, and so you must either change your behavior or change your stance on the behavior so you can get rid of the unease that goes with the incongruent behavior you’re demonstrating.

The simplest thing to do would be to change the behavior (in the smoking example, to quit smoking), but sometimes changing the behavior is a less viable option (smoking creates an addiction, which is difficult to break) and so our brains start to work for us and rationalize our behavior (“if smoking is so bad, the government would outlaw it”). More relatable, applies not only to smoking, but to something that we all do: procrastinate.

Procrastination is a problem behavior because it’s emphasized that we should do our work on time and not push things off to the last minute, but even though we are aware that it is a problematic behavior we still do it. We rationalize procrastination by saying things like, “other things are more important than this,” or, “it’ll get done, it’s okay if I don’t do it right this minute, I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Even though we’re justifying our behavior and it makes us feel better, it doesn’t make the behavior any better. It’s just important to realize what we’re doing, because that’s the first step to correcting our behavior and becoming more like that ideal self that we strive to be.

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