Your should be working on a research paper that is due in two days, but you haven’t even written the first paragraph. You tell yourself it is okay, because you work well under pressure and will get it done in time…even if that means staying up all night to write it the day before it is due.
The bills are piling up and some are late, but you can’t seem to find the motivation to sit down, write out the checks, and mail them.
The dust bunnies under your furniture are life-sized and are multiplying faster than real rabbits, but you’ll clean your house tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or, maybe sometime next week.
If any of this sounds familiar, you just might be a procrastinator.
While all of us procrastinate on occasion (who wouldn’t prefer surfing the internet to washing the dishes?), some of us take it to a level that is, well, destructive. Chronic procrastination can hold us back at school, at work, and at home. It can prevent us from fulfilling our potential, and from fully enjoying life.
Procrastination is complicated, and it represents a failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. It isn’t simply laziness or poor time management. Procrastination is a gap between intention and action. The desire to start or complete a task exists – but it loses to less important but more instantly rewarding activities.
Leading procrastination expert Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, explains:
What I’ve found is that while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator.
It really has nothing to do with time-management. As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to “just do it” would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, “cheer up.”
WHY do we procrastinate?
Experts say procrastination can serve as a coping mechanism. When we procrastinate, we are avoiding emotionally unpleasant tasks and replacing them with activities that provide a temporary mood boost. But, the procrastination itself causes anxiety, shame, and guilt, which in turn leads us to procrastinate even further, creating a vicious cycle.
Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., has been studying procrastination for over 20 years. He’s the author of the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, and has written dozens of published research papers on the subject.
Susanna Locke of Vox interviewed Dr. Pychyl, and he told her that there’s a common misconception about procrastination:
When a procrastinator thinks about themselves, they’ll think, “Oh, I have a time management problem” or “I just can’t make myself do it. There’s a problem with my willpower.” And when other people think about procrastinators, they use that pejorative term: “They’re lazy.”
But psychologists see procrastination as a misplaced coping mechanism, as an emotion-focused coping strategy. [People who procrastinate are] using avoidance to cope with emotions, and many of them are non-conscious emotions. So we see it as giving in to feel good. And it’s related to a lack of self-regulation skills.
I can simplify that and say that psychologists recognize we all have a six-year-old running the ship. And the six-year-old is saying, “I don’t want to! I don’t feel like it!”
Dr. Pychyl told Chris Bailey of A Life of Productivity that procrastination is fundamentally an instinctive, emotional reaction to things we have to do. When we put pressure on ourselves to accomplish certain tasks, we “have this strong reaction to the task at hand, and so the story of procrastination begins there with what psychologists call task aversiveness.”
The more aversive a task is to us, the more we will resist it, and the more likely we are to procrastinate.
Dr. Pychyl explained that tasks we are more likely to postpone usually have one (or more) of the following characteristics:
- Lack personal meaning and intrinsic rewards
- Ambiguous (you don’t know how to do it)
The more negative emotions we feel toward a certain task, the more likely we are to procrastinate, says Dr. Pychyl:
Emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination, because to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task. When you say task-aversiveness, that’s another word for lack of enjoyment. Those are feeling states — those aren’t states of which [task] has more utility.
For chronic procrastinators, short-term “mood repair” takes precedence. We want to eliminate the negative mood or emotions now, so we put off the task until later, when our “future self” will deal with it. In his article Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, Dr. Pychyl explained how the discrepancy between present and future selves relates to procrastination:
Our delay today provides relief to our present self but only at a cost to our future self, who will eventually have to get the task done. That could be OK if the benefits today outweigh the costs tomorrow, but we know that they rarely do. The problem is the unwillingness on the part of our present self to do what’s required now. It’s easier to simply put it off.
Our present self feels a little better by delaying action now. This is mood repair that reinforces the avoidant coping strategy. But the strangest part of this is that we really do believe we’ll feel more like it tomorrow. Why?
As Dan Gilbert of Harvard University has explained, we rely on our present to predict our future, so when we feel positive today, we predict our future self will as well. If I keep my focus narrowly on the present, it’s all good, right? Not really. The problem: We conveniently forget that our future self will also have the added burden of whatever we’re delaying today, but with even more stress or time pressure. This, too, is something we understand from psychological research.
What this means is that we treat our future self as a stranger – one that is more likely to complete the unpleasant tasks we are postponing. We trust our future selves far too much, explains Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a researcher from Bishop’s University in Canada:
The future self becomes the beast of burden for procrastination. 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.
If we KNOW we have a problem with procrastination, why do we KEEP doing it?
Researchers call procrastination the “quintessential” breakdown of self-control. Dr. Pychyl elaborates:
I think the basic notion of procrastination as self-regulation failure is pretty clear. You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.
People usually learn from their mistakes and reassess their approach to certain problems. But for chronic procrastinators, that feedback loop seems broken, if it exists at all.
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, 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.
Is there something strange going on in the brains of procrastinators?
The frontal systems of the brain are known to be involved in a number of processes that overlap with self-regulation. These behaviors, including problem-solving, planning, and self-control, fall under the domain of executive functioning. The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing yourself and your resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.
Laura Rabin of Brooklyn College noticed that no one had ever examined a connection between this part of the brain and procrastination, a situation she found odd:
Given the role of executive functioning in the initiation and completion of complex behaviors, it was surprising to me that previous research had not systematically examined the relationship between aspects of executive functioning and academic procrastination — a behavior I see regularly in students but have yet to fully understand, and by extension help remediate.
To address this missing piece, 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. They expected to find a link between procrastination and a few of the subscales (specificially, the first four in the list above). And, in fact, procrastinators showed significant associations with all nine, as Rabin’s team reported in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.
Rabin said the study suggests that procrastination might be an “expression of subtle executive dysfunction” in people who are otherwise neuropsychologically healthy.
Just how harmful IS procrastination?
Studies show that people who procrastinate have higher stress, higher risk of depression and anxiety, and a greater number of acute health problems. They also practice fewer wellness behaviors, including less frequent dental and medical check-ups. The stress caused by procrastination was associated with poor health and less frequent wellness and health-care behaviors, which in turn were related to poor health.
Procrastination predicts higher levels of consumption of alcohol among those people who drink. Procrastinators drink more than they intend to – a manifestation of generalized problems in self-regulation. That is over and above the effect of avoidant coping styles that underlie procrastination and lead to disengagement via substance abuse.
In addition, the possible psychological side effects of procrastination are not pleasant:
- Feelings of regret over lost time and missed opportunities
- Disappointment of not meeting goals
- Damage to your career: losing your job, or being passed over for promotions and raises
- Lowered self-esteem and self-confidence
- Stress over unpaid bills and financial instability
Like any other challenge, the first step to addressing procrastination is to acknowledge the problem exists.
So, you are a procrastinator – what can you do about it?
The good news is that there are many tactics you can use to stop procrastinating.
First, understand that real procrastinators tell themselves five lies, according to Dr. Ferrari:
- They overestimate the time they have left to perform tasks.
- They underestimate the time it takes to complete tasks.
- They overestimate how motivated they will feel the next day, the next week, the next month – whenever they are putting things off to.
- They mistakenly think that succeeding at a task requires that they feel like doing it.
- They mistakenly believe that working when not in the mood is suboptimal.
When you find yourself putting off a task, ask yourself WHY you are feeling a need to hesitate or delay. Then, remind yourself that undertaking that task in a reasonable time frame is in your own best interest (don’t leave it to Future You).
Dr. Ferrari recommends these strategies for reducing procrastination:
- Make a list of everything you have to do.
- Write a statement of intention.
- Set realistic goals.
- Break it down into specific tasks.
- Make your task meaningful.
- Promise yourself a reward.
- Eliminate tasks you never plan to do. Be honest!
- Estimate the amount of time you think it will take you to complete a task. Then increase the amount by 100%.
Flip a task’s characteristics to make it less aversive: Break down exactly which of these attributes an aversive task has, and take those qualities and turn them around to make the task more appealing to you.
Know the ways your brain responds to “cognitive dissonance”: Whenever you realize that you should be doing something but that you aren’t (psychologists call this separation between your actions and beliefs cognitive dissonance), you can respond in one of several ways to feel better about yourself. In his book, Pychyl identifies a number of unproductive responses people have when they procrastinate:
- Distracting yourself, and thinking about other things
- Forgetting what you have to do, either actively or passively (usually for unimportant tasks)
- Downplaying the importance of what you have to do
- Giving yourself affirmations, focusing on other your values and qualities that will solidify your sense of self
- Denying responsibility to distance yourself from what you have to do
- Seeking out new information that supports your procrastination (example: when you tell yourself you need to have more information before you get started on something)
Limit how much time you spend on tasks: Give yourself a certain amount of time to spend on a task. This makes the task more fun, more structured, and less frustrating and difficult because you’ll know there’s an end in sight.
Be kind to yourself: Dr. Pychyl says that when you procrastinate, “negative self-talk comes out in spades” and that’s counterproductive.
Just get started: “Once we start a task, it is rarely as bad as we think.” In fact, once you get started on something, your “attributions of the task change”, and what you think about yourself changes, too, Dr. Pychyl explains.
List the costs of procrastinating: How has your procrastination affected you in terms of your happiness, stress, health, finances, career, and relationships?
Become better friends with future-you: “We are not very good at predicting how we will feel in the future. We are overly optimistic, and our optimism comes crashing down when tomorrow comes. When our mood sours, we end up giving in to feel good. We procrastinate,” says Dr. Pychyl. Remember that your future self is YOU, not some random stranger.
Disconnect from the Internet when you have to get things done: One study found that 47% of people’s time online is spent procrastinating, which Pychyl calls a “conservative estimate” since that study was conducted before social networks like Facebook and Twitter became popular.
Form “implementation intentions”: Clearly define and organize your tasks. Making them more concrete and structured will make you more likely to work on them.
Use procrastination as a sign you should seek out more meaningful work: Constant procrastination might mean your work no longer holds meaning to you., says Pychyl. “Sometimes I would say procrastination is just a symptom that your life just doesn’t match what you’re interested in and you’re putting everything off because all of your goals are kind of falsely internalized and you’ve got no intrinsic motivation in any of this, and so maybe you should do something else.”
So, now what?
If you are a procrastinator, odds are, the information in this article has struck a nerve, and odds are, you are considering making some changes so you can start getting things done.
Just don’t put it off.