Why We Procrastinate and What To Do About It
Procrastination is associated with a long list of negative traits, such as laziness, lacking motivation or focus, having a poor attention span and so forth. Is it really all of these negatives and then some? Is it a matter of laziness or lack of care? The answers may lie in the abundant research that focuses on procrastination, decision-making and risk.
Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it’s more than just voluntarily delaying. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgment.
Procrastination can be defined as “the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished.” It could be also be described as “a habitual or intentional delay of starting or finishing a task despite its negative consequences.” Piers Steel, the author of the book The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, defines procrastination a “voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.” In other words, he says, procrastination is doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones.
Most of us have procrastinated about something at some time, and that is not abnormal. In contrast, habitual procrastinators repeatedly avoid doing things — particularly difficult things — and actively look for distractions.According to research from the American Psychological Association, nearly 20% of US men and women are chronic procrastinators.
Believe it or not, the Internet did not give rise to procrastination. People have struggled with habitual hesitation going back to ancient civilizations. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing around 800 B.C., cautioned not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” The Roman consul Cicero called procrastination “hateful” in the conduct of affairs. (He was looking at you, Marcus Antonius.) And those are just examples from recorded history. For all we know, the dinosaurs saw the meteorite coming and went back to their game of Angry Pterodactyls.
Perfectionists are often procrastinators; it is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of not completing a task or achieving a goal successfully. The research shows that procrastination can have a major negative impact on your personal life and your job. In the more serious forms, procrastination can have a detrimental effect on their mental health.
There’s no single type of procrastinator, but several general impressions have emerged over years of research. Chronic procrastinators have perpetual problems finishing tasks, while situational ones delay based on the task itself. A perfect storm of procrastination occurs when an unpleasant task meets a person who’s high in impulsivity and low in self-discipline. Most delayers betray a tendency for self-defeat, but they can arrive at this point from either a negative state (fear of failure, for instance, or perfectionism) or a positive one (the joy of temptation). All told, these qualities have led researchers to call procrastination the “quintessential” breakdown of self-control.
For most people procrastination, irrespective of what they say, is NOT about being lazy. In fact, when we procrastinate we often work intensely for long stretches just before our deadlines. Working long and hard is the opposite of lazy, so that can’t be the reason we do it. So, why do we procrastinate and, more importantly, what can we do about it?
As suggested above, some say they procrastinate because they are lazy. Others claim they “do better” when they procrastinate and “work best” under pressure. I encourage you to be critical and reflective of these explanations. Virtually everyone who says this habitually procrastinates and has not completed an important academic task in which they made a plan, implemented it, had time to review, etc. before their deadline. So, in reality, they can’t make a comparison about the circumstances they work best under. If you pretty much always procrastinate, and never really approach your tasks systematically, then you can’t accurately say that you know you “do better” under pressure.
Still other people say they like the “rush” of leaving things to the end and meeting a deadline. But they usually say this when they are NOT working under that deadline. They say this works before or after cramming when they have forgotten the negative consequences of procrastinating such as feelings of anxiety and stress, fatigue, and disappointment from falling below their own standards and having to put their life on hold for chunks of time. Not to mention, leaving things to the end dramatically increases the chances something will go wrong — like getting sick or a computer problem — and you not being able to pull off the desired grade. So, procrastination can be hard on us and actually increase our chances of failing, but we do it anyway. How come?
Procrastination is not a matter, solely, of having poor time management skills, either, but rather can be traced to underlying and more complex psychological reasons. These dynamics are often made worse by schools where students are constantly being evaluated, and especially in college where the pressure for grades is high and a lot can be riding on students’ performance. In reality, procrastination is often a self-protection strategy for students. For example, if you procrastinate, then you always have the excuse of “not having enough” time in the event that you fail, so your sense of your ability is never threatened. When there is so much pressure on getting a good grade on, say, a paper, it’s no wonder that students want to avoid it and so put off their work. For the most part, our reasons for delaying and avoiding are rooted in fear and anxiety-about doing poorly, of doing too well, of losing control, of looking stupid, of having one’s sense of self or self-concept challenged. We avoid doing work to avoid our abilities being judged. And, if we happened to succeed, we feel that much “smarter.”
Characteristics of Procrastination
- Avoidance: Avoiding the location, situation or person associated with the expected task.
- Denial: Pretending that the behavior is not actually procrastinating, but rather doing something else which is more important; or that the essential task is not that important.
- Distraction: Engaging in activities of the task — usually pleasurable — that provides instant gratification or success. This weakens will power and perseverance.
- Comparing oneself to someone worse: Comparing consequences of one’s “procrastinatory” behavior with others’ worse situations (e.g. “Yes, I procrastinated but so did ______ or a lot of people)
- Rationalization: Pointing in satisfaction to what one achieved in the meantime while one should have been doing something else.
- Blaming: Delusional attributions to external factors, such as rationalizing that the procrastination is due to external forces beyond one’s control (e.g. “I’m not procrastinating, but this assignment is tough.”)
- Trivializing: Using humor to validate one’s procrastination. The person uses slapstick or slipshod methods to criticize and ridicule others’ striving towards the goal.
Research on Procrastination
Over time, chronic procrastination has not only productivity costs, but measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress, general psychological distress and low life satisfaction, symptoms of depressionand anxiety, poor health behaviors, chronic illness and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
According to Piers Steel, people who don’t procrastinate tend to be high in the personality trait known as conscientiousness, one of the broad dispositions identified by the “Big 5″ theory of personality. People who are high in conscientiousness also tend to be high in other areas including self-discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility.
Although typically perceived as a negative trait due to its hindering effect on one’s productivity procrastination is often associated with depression, low self-esteem, guilt and inadequacy; it can also be considered a sometimes wise response to certain demands that could present risky or negative outcomes or waiting for new information to arrive before making a decision.
Procrastination is “a purely visceral, emotional reaction to something we don’t want to do,” says Timothy Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. The more averse you find a task, the more likely you are to procrastinate.
In his research, Pychyl identifies a set of seven triggers that make a task seem more averse. Bring to mind something you’re putting off right now — you’ll probably find that task has many, if not all, of the characteristics that Pychyl discovered makes a task procrastination-worthy:
- Not intrinsically rewarding (i.e., you don’t find the process fun)
- Lacking in personal meaning
“Non-procrastinators focus on the task that needs to be done. They have a stronger personal identity and are less concerned about what psychologists call ‘social esteem’ — how others like us — as opposed to self-esteem which is how we feel about ourselves,” explained Dr. Ferrari Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of Still Procrastinating?: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, in an interview with the American Psychological Association.
Ferrari has found that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. “That’s higher than depression, higher than phobia, higher than panic attacks and alcoholism. And yet all of those are considered legitimate,” he said. “We try to trivialize this tendency, but it’s not a funny topic.”
Psychologists like Ferrari and Pychyl see flaws in such a strictly temporal view of procrastination. For one thing, if delay were really as rational as this utility equation suggests, there would be no need to call the behavior procrastination — on the contrary, time-management would fit better. Beyond that, studies have found that procrastinators carry accompanying feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety with their decision to delay. This emotional element suggests there’s much more to the story than time-management alone. Pychyl noticed the role of mood and emotions on procrastination with his very first work on the subject, back in the mid-1990s, and solidified that concept with a study published in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality.
In general, people learn from their mistakes and reassess their approach to certain problems. For chronic procrastinators, that feedback loop seems continually out of service. The damage suffered as a result of delay doesn’t teach them to start earlier the next time around. An explanation for this behavioral paradox seems to lie in the emotional component of procrastination. Ironically, the very quest to relieve stress in the moment might prevent procrastinators from figuring out how to relieve it in the long run.
“I think the mood regulation piece is a huge part of procrastination,” says Fuschia Sirois of Bishop’s University, co-editor with Timothy Pychyl of the book Procrastination, Health and Well-Being: “If you’re focused just on trying to get yourself to feel good now, there’s a lot you can miss out on in terms of learning how to correct behavior and avoiding similar problems in the future.”
A few years ago, Sirois recruited about 80 students and assessed them for procrastination. The participants then read descriptions of stressful events, with some of the anxiety caused by unnecessary delay. In one scenario, a person returned from a sunny vacation to notice a suspicious mole, but put off going to the doctor for a long time, creating a worrisome situation.
Afterward, Sirois asked the test participants what they thought about the scenario. She found that procrastinators tended to say things like, “At least I went to the doctor before it really got worse.” This response, known as a downward counterfactual, reflects a desire to improve mood in the short term.
At the same time, the procrastinators rarely made statements like, “If only I had gone to the doctor sooner.” That type of response, known as an upward counterfactual, embraces the tension of the moment in an attempt to learn something for the future. Simply put, procrastinators focused on how to make themselves feel better at the expense of drawing insight from what made them feel bad.
Recently, Sirois and Pychyl tried to unify the emotional side of procrastination with the temporal side that isn’t so satisfying on its own. In Social and Personality Psychology Compass, they propose a two-part theory on procrastination that braids short-term, mood-related improvements with long-term, time-related damage. The idea is that procrastinators comfort themselves in the present with the false belief that they’ll be more emotionally equipped to handle a task in the future.
“The future self becomes the beast of burden for procrastination,” says Sirois. “We’re trying to regulate our current mood and thinking our future self will be in a better state. They’ll be better able to handle feelings of insecurity or frustration with the task. That somehow we’ll develop these miraculous coping skills to deal with these emotions that we just can’t deal with right now.”
One of the first studies to document the pernicious nature of procrastination was published in Psychological Science. Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister, rated college students on an established scale of procrastination, then tracked their academic performance, stress, and general health throughout the semester. Initially there seemed to be a benefit to procrastination, as these students had lower levels of stress compared to others, presumably as a result of putting off their work to pursue more pleasurable activities. In the end, however, the costs of procrastination far outweighed the temporary benefits. Procrastinators earned lower grades than other students and reported higher cumulative amounts of stress and illness. True procrastinators didn’t just finish their work later — the quality of it suffered, as did their own well-being.
“Thus, despite its apologists and its short-term benefits, procrastination cannot be regarded as either adaptive or innocuous,” concluded Tice and Baumeister. “Procrastinators end up suffering more and performing worse than other people.”
A little later, Tice and Ferrari teamed up to do a study that put the ill effects of procrastination into context. They brought students into a lab and told them at the end of the session they’d be engaging in a math puzzle. Some were told the task was a meaningful test of their cognitive abilities, while others were told that it was designed to be meaningless and fun. Before doing the puzzle, the students had an interim period during which they could prepare for the task or mess around with games like Tetris. As it happened, chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation. When it was described as fun, they behaved no differently from non-procrastinators. In an issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, Tice and Ferrari concluded that procrastination is really a self-defeating behavior — with procrastinators trying to undermine their own best efforts.
“The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort than lacking ability,” says Ferrari. “It’s a maladaptive lifestyle.”
Procrastination can be seen as irrational behavior — delaying some intended course of action, realizing that it is disadvantageous according to K.B. Klingsieck in an article published in European Psychologist. Behavioral delay in procrastination is observed in at least two ways. First, during action implementation, the person may divert to an alternative and more tempting course of action indirectly delaying the original plan. Second, in a longer time perspective, the negative consequences of such diversions become visible, as for example when people postpone seeing their doctors until treatment is no longer an option.
Recently the behavioral research into procrastination has ventured beyond cognition, emotion, and personality, into the realm of neuropsychology. The frontal systems of the brain are known to be involved in a number of processes that overlap with self-regulation. These behaviors — problem-solving, planning, self-control, and the like — fall under the domain of executive functioning. Oddly enough, no one had ever examined a connection between this part of the brain and procrastination, says Laura Rabin of Brooklyn College.
To address this gap in the literature, Rabin and colleagues gathered a sample of 212 students and assessed them first for procrastination, then on the nine clinical subscales of executive functioning: impulsivity, self-monitoring, planning and organization, activity shifting, task initiation, task monitoring, emotional control, working memory, and general orderliness. The researchers expected to find a link between procrastination and a few of the subscales (namely, the first four in the list above). As it happened, procrastinators showed significant associations with all nine, Rabin’s team reported in Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.
Rabin stresses the limitations of the work. For one thing, the findings were correlative, meaning it’s not quite clear those elements of executive functioning caused procrastination directly. The assessments also relied on self-reports; in the future, functional imaging might be used to confirm or expand the brain’s delay centers in real time. Still, says Rabin, the study suggests that procrastination might be an “expression of subtle executive dysfunction” in people who are otherwise neuropsychologically healthy.
Causes of Procrastination
Research on the physiological roots of procrastination have been concerned with the role of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for executive brain functions such as impulse control, attention and planning. The prefrontal cortex also acts as a filter, decreasing distracting stimuli from other brain regions. Physical damage or low activity in this area of the brain can reduce one’s ability to screen out distractions. This is similar to the prefrontal lobe’s role in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, where it is commonly under activated.
There is some evidence also that procrastination can have some genetic influence. In a 2014 U.S. study surveying procrastination and impulsiveness in fraternal- and identical twin pairs, both traits were found to be “moderately heritable.”
Some psychologists procrastination as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision. Piers Steel indicated that the focus of studies on procrastination should be impulsiveness. That is, anxiety will cause people to delay only if they are impulsive.
Why Stopping Procrastination is Difficult
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University, has found that just like any muscles, human’s self-control is a limited resource that can quickly become exhausted. When self-control is close to being depleted, human tend to choose what’s more pleasurable, which can then reinforce procrastination. At its core, procrastination is an avoidance strategy Baumeister argues. Procrastinators choose to do something else instead of doing what they need to do because it’s much easier to choose pleasure over pain.
Many procrastinators argue they procrastinate because they perform better under pressure, but research shows that is not the case. More often than not that’s their way of justifying putting things off. Procrastination can also fuel some self-deception. At some level, procrastinators are aware of the truth of their behavior.
Procrastination has been associated with perfectionism: a tendency to negatively evaluate outcomes and one’s own performance, intense fear and avoidance of evaluation of one’s abilities by others, heightened social self-consciousness and anxiety, recurrent low mood, and “workaholism”. In a regression analysis study of Steel, from 2007, it is found that mild to moderate perfectionists typically procrastinate slightly less than others, with “the exception being perfectionists who were also seeking clinical counseling”.
ADHD and Procrastination
75% of individuals with ADHD classified as “chronic procrastinators” according to research conducted by Scott Taylor and colleagues. Scott found that when working on academic tasks, individuals with ADHD displayed high levels of procrastination. Most importantly, two symptoms associated with ADHD were key to this relationship. Second, Scott found that the self-motivation and self-management to time aspects of executive function (EF) were associated with increased levels of procrastination.
Research has revealed that some people with certain types of challenges may also suffer from chronic procrastination. “We have found some links with chronic procrastination and ADHD, people who have passive-aggressive tendencies, seek revenge, have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other areas,” said Joseph Ferrari, author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done. found that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. “That’s higher than depression, higher than phobia, higher than panic attacks and alcoholism. And yet all of those are considered legitimate,” he said. “We try to trivialize this tendency, but it’s not a funny topic.”
Ferrari theorizes that there are three types of procrastinators: thrill-seekers, who crave the rush of putting off tasks until the last minute and believe they work best under pressure; avoiders, who procrastinate to avoid being judged for how they perform on a project; and indecisives, who have difficulty making important or stressful decisions, often because they’re ruminating over several choices.
Can We Blame Technology?
Some people observers point to the negative influence of the internet and particularly social media as a contributing factor. “We hear that technology today makes it easier to procrastinate,” said Dr. Ferrari. “Well, in 2006, a reporter phoned me and asked what I thought of the snooze button, which is more than 50 years old. The snooze button is one of the first technologies designed to give us more time, yet we have not gained anything. We still delay. Today’s technology can help us not procrastinate if we use it wisely. We don’t have to surf the Web for hours on irrelevant tasks. We can install systems that time us out after 10 minutes. We don’t need to carry an iPhone with us constantly. Use technology as a tool, not as a means of delay.”
What to Do If You Are a Procrastinator
- Take planned and frequent breaks. According to MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Bob Pozen,author of the bestselling book Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, taking regular timeouts can help you refresh your focus and get more done. In a Fast Company article, Pozen says that the question to ask is not how many breaks you should take in a day, but “what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking break?” Pozen suggests taking a time-out every 75 to 90 minutes. He comes to this duration based on studies of professional musicians, who are most productive when they practice for this amount of time in a single sitting. In addition, research by Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes. To help you could the Pomodoro Time Tracker. It is a great tool to help you take breaks at set intervals.
- Reward yourself. It’s important to acknowledge and reward yourself for achieving even the small tasks. It creates a sense of motivation and releases those feel-good, productive emotions that spur you on to achieve even more. Make your reward proportional to the task you completed. “Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do,” said psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center.To rewire any habit, we have to give our brains what Dr. Brewer called the “Bigger Better Offer” or “B.B.O.” In the case of procrastination, we have to find a better reward than avoidance — one that can relieve our challenging feelings in the present moment without causing harm to our future selves. The difficulty with breaking the addiction to procrastination in particular is that there is an infinite number of potential substitute actions that would still be forms of procrastination, Dr. Brewer said. That’s why the solution must therefore be internal, and not dependent on anything but ourselves.
- Keep track of how you use your time. By having a clear idea of where you spend your time, you can always review your productivity and know which areas to improve. You could use the app Rescue Time, to help. It gets you a categorized breakdown of how you spend your time and helps you to find out how much time you’re really on-task. You can even label activities as productive and non-productive so as to block your biggest distractions.
- Remove your obstacles and distractions. Prior to getting started on a task, take a moment to carefully consider the obstacles and distractions that might get in your way. Then, develop a plan to ensure that they don’t. For example, email or smart phone notifications or messages will distract you from your task and reduce productivity. Research shows that it takes between 12–24 minutes to regain your focus when you are distracted from the task at hand.
- Start with something small. Procrastinators find it hard to begin a task, often because they want it to be perfect or take too big a step. Focus on taking a small action, and think of it only as a “draft,” not a finished product.
- Be in a friendly environment. Working in the wrong environment can make you succumb to procrastination. This physically distancing yourself from distractions such as television, electronics, friends, and loud places.
- Take control of your negative self-talk. Telling yourself not to do something focuses your attention on not doing it, and can have the reverse effect.Telling yourself positive messages of how you are going to do it successfully, and the reward that is waiting for you will help
- Stop trying to be and do perfect. As mentioned before perfectionism — wanting the conditions prior to doing the task to be perfect, or hoping the outcome will be perfect, are demotivators, and can actually prevent you for starting the task. First, adopting a measurement of doing the best you can under the circumstances rather than demanding 100% will help. Also, conditions will never be perfect to start something, and taking an attitude of trial and error will be much more productive.
- Use a habit system to control procrastination.In the late 1990s, a group of neuroscientists at MIT discovered that habits are formed in the brain, a process that The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg calls “the habit loop.” To establish good habits or get rid of bad habits, learning how the habit loop works can be a powerful tool for controlling procrastination, says James Clear, in his book, Atomic Habits. One of the techniques he describes :“Another way to overcome the trap of chronic procrastination is to use visual cues to trigger your habits and measure your progress. A visual cue is something you can see (a visual reminder) that prompts you to take action.Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation.As the visual evidence of your progress mounts, it is natural to become more motivated to continue the habit. The more visual progress you see, the more motivated you will become to finish the task. There are a variety of popular behavioral economics studies that refer to this as the Endowed Progress Effect. Seeing your previous progress is a great way to trigger your next productive action. Clear suggests two strategies that use visual cues are The Paper Clip Strategy, which is helpful for beating procrastination day-after-day, and The Seinfeld Strategy, which is great for maintaining consistency over longer periods of time.
- Forgive yourself in the moments you procrastinate. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam. They concluded that self-forgiveness supported productivity by allowing “the individual to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts.”
- Practice self-compassion, which is treating ourselves with kindness and understanding in the face of our mistakes and failures. In a 2012 study examining the relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination, Dr. Sirois found that procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion, suggesting that self-compassion provides “a buffer against negative reactions to self-relevant events.”
- Set deadlines close to the present and not far off. Psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California attempted to prove this in a recent study published in Psychological Science. They found that if people considered far-off events from the perspective of days rather than months or years, they acted more quickly.
Dealing with others who procrastinate
It can frustrating dealing with a family member, friend or work associates who chronically procrastinates, and we tend to bend over backwards to accommodate them. Some research has suggested taking a different approach.
Ferrari, who offers a number of interventions in his book would like to see a general cultural shift from punishing lateness to rewarding the early bird. He’s proposed, among other things, that the federal government incentivize early tax filing by giving people a small break if they file by, say, February or March 15. He also suggests we stop enabling procrastination in our personal relationships.
Stop enabling procrastinators by stepping in to help them. For example, In a 2011 paper in Psychological Science,Gráinne Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel report that people who think their relationship partner will help them with a task are more likely to procrastinate on it.
Procrastination can be a serious problem for people, causing negative consequences in their personal and work lives. And there is a clear connection to perfectionism, the addiction to technological distractions and anxiety. But practical strategies to address the problem are easily available and proven to be successful.