“Procrastination is the Thief of Time” (Edward Young, 1683 – 1765)
Procrastination is a common human tendency. We all have, on occasion, postponed tasks despite the negative effects caused by the delay.
When procrastination becomes a habit, it can have serious consequences in life. We don’t only procrastinate at work or in education: we may also avoid obligations such as completing tax returns, delaying making medical appointments, or failing to keep promises towards friends and family. Feelings of guilt, anxiety or depression about the delays can then follow. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that chronic procrastination is associated with lower achievements in education, slower job promotions, and poorer mental and physical health.1
Why do we procrastinate, and how can we overcome this habit?
Procrastination can be caused by a large variety of factors2, which can be grouped into three domains:
1/ task characteristics (e.g., the unpleasantness of the task, unclear instructions or feedback)
2/ environmental factors (e.g., incentives for success, accountability, external distractions)
3/ personality facets (e.g., negative mood, avoidant coping style, poor emotion regulation)
We often avoid tasks because they are unpleasant (for example, going to the dentist), or they are overwhelmingly large (for example, completing a major project or losing a lot of weight).
Procrastinators usually do something else instead of the required task. The more available and pleasant that ‘something else’ is compared to the task, the easier it is to procrastinate. This is especially the case if the task does not result in outcomes that are worth the effort (for example, the task seems to have little meaning or value, or you expect that your achievements will not be recognised by others).
Not everybody will procrastinate to the same extent, even if the task is unpleasant. Several personality characteristics make us more likely to procrastinate, given the same task and environmental factors.
Briefly, procrastination can be seen as an attempt at emotion regulation in the face of stress. This attempt is usually successful in the short term but has serious negative consequences in the long-term.
For example, a person may consider the task too overwhelming, boring, or lacking in real value and interest. These perceptions can cause feelings of stress, anxiety, resentment, or other negative emotions. Procrastinators tend to have a lower ability to tolerate and set aside these emotions and concentrate on the task. Instead, the quickest way to reduce these feelings is to walk away from the task, do something else, and even convince ourselves that the other task is just as important.
Unfortunately, the deadline will eventually be so close that avoiding the task is no longer possible, and the procrastinator will finish the job at the last minute, often not having enough time to check for mistakes or create a polished product. If then the feedback is less than positive, the procrastinator may feel guilty (a negative emotion that can lead to more procrastination), or they may be able to maintain self-esteem by telling themselves that they could have done a better job “if only they had more time to do it”. Indeed, this ‘self-handicapping’ behaviour is quite common among people with low confidence in their abilities.
How to reduce procrastination?
Reconsider how you view the task. Procrastinators often focus on the unpleasant or anxiety-provoking aspects of the task. To reduce procrastination, it is important to make sure that all aspects of the task are considered and put into perspective. For that, we need to slow down and think about the task in a different way.
For example, if the task is overwhelming, we may decide to focus on achieving small parts, step by step. Deciding to focus on the time spent working on the task can be helpful. One may set a very rigid schedule: work on the task for exactly 45 minutes, then have a break for exactly 15 minutes and do something to reward yourself. Repeat, rigidly, until you have spent 4 hours working on the task. Have a longer break, then start again. The most important point is to divert attention from how large and scary the task is and focus on the small achievements. They will add up and the task will be finished.
If starting is particularly difficult, again, take tiny steps. Make it easier on yourself. Tell yourself: “I’m just going to open the document and read one page. That’s all.” Or, “I’m just going to put on my running shoes and take a walk around the block.” Or, “I’m going to find my tax expense receipts for just one month”. While it may sound like doing such small tasks is ‘not worth it’, they are a whole lot better than not doing anything! Most importantly, they will help you refocus your attention from your perception of how unattainable the task is. This may allow you to reduce your negative emotions about the task and make a start.
Change the task environment. We all know that limiting intrusions and distractions is important to stay focused. Turn off social media reminders. If needed, put on an email notification saying that you are away from email for a couple of hours.
However, distractions are only a part of the total work environment. The positive and negative consequences associated with the task itself are very important. Were the expectations for the task clearly communicated to you? Do you feel supported, can you turn to someone for advice? Are your achievements recognised by your workplace? If you feel alone, unsupported, and unsure of what it is you need to do, procrastination is more likely. A conversation with your supervisor may help if your workplace is open to feedback.
Consider your personality and coping style. Empirically supported treatments for chronic procrastination tend to emphasise the development of more effective emotion regulation skills3. People can learn a variety of emotion regulation techniques, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, or setting up positive experiences as rewards for achieving small steps. Observing and changing one’s own thinking habits and emotion regulation styles is difficult, though. Procrastination is often associated with long-held beliefs (for example, a deep-seated feeling of not being good enough despite evidence for the contrary; or a belief that one needs to cope with everything without asking for help) that are so automatic that we are rarely aware of them. Reading a self-help book about procrastination or seeking professional assistance may be helpful in these cases4.
1Steinert, C., Heim, N., Leichsenring, F. (2021). Procrastination, perfectionism, and other work-related mental problems: prevalence, types, assessment, and treatment. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.736776
2Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychology Bulletin, 133, 65–94. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
3Malouff, J.M., Schutte, N.S. (2019). The efficacy of interventions aimed at reducing procrastination: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Counseling and Development, 97, 117–127. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12243
4Steel, P. (2010). The procrastination equation: how to stop putting things off and start getting stuff done. Random House Canada.
Dr Marianna Szabo is a Clinical Psychologist, a leading expert in Mindfulness and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sydney.