Are you the type of person who would rather spend hours scrolling through social media or sorting your clothes by color than doing your tax return or working out? If you’re a serial procrastinator, you’ve come to the right place! We all procrastinate from time to time, and it has nothing to do with laziness. Find out in this article what procrastination really means, where it stems from in our, and all the ways you can counteract it.
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What is procrastination?
Let’s set the scene: It’s the beginning of a day, and your to-do list is packed. You’re gonna do a home workout this morning. There’s no way you’ll let your inner slacker win. But as soon as you turn on your laptop, it occurs to you to check your email. That leads to clearing out your entire inbox, and before you know it, it’s been three hours and nothing on your list is complete. You’re left wondering how this keeps happening despite all your best efforts, why you can’t seem to demonstrate any self-control, and resign yourself to try again tomorrow before shutting your laptop and calling it a day. Does this sound familiar, procrastinators?
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The phenomenon of systematically postponing tasks is called procrastination. The term is derived from the Latin verb “procrastinare” which means “to put off”, and the Greek word “akrasia” which means “to act against one’s better knowledge”.1 In other words, people procrastinate even though they know it’s not a good idea.
So why do procrastinators have such a tendency to put off unpleasant activities until later even if they know it will make them feel worse? Scientists believe that the causes of such behavior are much deeper than they seem at first glance.
Procrastinating is nothing to be ashamed of. If you think about it, most of the things we do while procrastinating actually require a fair bit of effort, like chores, among other things. Laziness and self-control have nothing to do with it.
To understand why you’re procrastinating, you have to look inward. Some research on procrastination suggests that the possible causes include:
Letting yourself be controlled by negative emotions
According to psychologists, 15 to 20% of people procrastinate to avoid negative emotions2.
For example, you may avoid a task because you find it either too boring or difficult. Rather than facing your fear of feeling these emotions, you redirect your attention to something more enjoyable or easy, like reading your email or scrolling through social media.
One psychological study3 found that procrastinators prioritize the need to immediately eliminate negative emotions instead of completing the task. The problem is that these negative emotions don’t just magically disappear after time. In fact, they may even be amplified by anxiety and guilt in the long term.
Feeling guilty leads to increased anxiety and frequently results in further procrastination. That momentary feeling of relief we all experience when we decide to put something off for later actually rewards us for our behavior. And that’s what triggers the vicious cycle. When we’re rewarded for behavior that’s detrimental to us, we have a tendency to repeat it regardless of its outcomes. That’s when procrastination starts to become a habit.
Tying your self-worth to you how well you perform
Appreciation and recognition are part of basic human needs. When we make an effort, we want to be praised for it. However, actively seeking recognition from others can be the cause of procrastination in certain circumstances. If you’re constantly drawing a link between your abilities and your accomplishments, your self-esteem may suffer as a consequence.
For example, if you experience imposter syndrome, or the feeling of not really knowing what you’re doing, you may be so afraid of failing that you prefer to postpone your work altogether. In this case, not doing it at all may feel preferable to the fear of failure.
When you procrastinate, it’s a form of self-protection. The fear of failure can be painfully immediate, especially when you’re working under a lot of pressure and expectations. In these moments, it can be good to remind yourself of your previous accomplishments, and the praise you received on projects that you didn’t think were particularly good. When your mind makes you think you can’t do it, trust in your abilities, put the time in, and, most importantly, don’t feel guilty for things that haven’t happened yet.
Relying on your future self
Do you ever leave something for future you to take care of? Some research suggests that we owe this quirky characteristic to evolution.
At the neural level, we perceive our “future self” as a stranger rather than a part of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brain think that the tasks we’re putting off, and the negative feelings we associate with them, are someone else’s problem.
From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that we’d be focused on surviving here and now. Think about our ancestors and all the difficult situations they had to escape on a day-to-day basis. But we are not our ancestors, and these mechanisms have no place in our modern society where we are constantly instructed to think in the long term. When the pressure is on to go against your instincts, it can be harder than ever not to lean into them.
Can procrastination be good?
It sure can! Research shows that procrastination can actually have a handful of benefits. For one, when you don’t get right down to a task, you have more time to think about the solution. One study6 showed that subjects who wanted to complete a task as quickly as possible were at a disadvantage because of their impatience.
The task involved carrying several bags of groceries around the house. Subjects took as many bags as they could carry in order to reach the goal more quickly. However, they still could not carry all the shopping bags at the same time, so they had to return twice. Among the consequences of this behavior, it also made the process much more difficult for them.
Going faster doesn’t always automatically equate to doing things better. It may make perfect sense to think first about how best to accomplish a task.
Procrastinators are creative. Postponing an important project may allow you to dive even deeper into the subject. In some cases, it can be good to set a project aside for a few days to leave yourself time to ruminate. A couple good nights of sleep may be all you need to crack the code!
Take the time that people in an experiment7 were more creative in developing new business ideas if they were allowed to play on the computer for 5 minutes every now and then. In comparison, the control group, who had to solve the task immediately without being able to postpone it, was less creative and imaginative.
Of course, this isn’t a free pass to drop time management entirely and ignore your deadlines, tasks, and appointments. Saving an important project until the last minute can also backfire. If something goes wrong unexpectedly, you won’t have as much spare time to course correct. As with everything in life, the key to healthy procrastination is finding the right balance.
How to stop procrastinating
If you feel like you’re procrastinating too much, we’ve put together some tips to help restore your balance.
Recognize the symptoms.
What’s the thing you always do when you’re not in the mood for a task? Do you reach straight for a sponge and start straightening up? Or does Netflix magically turn itself on – every single time? Pay close attention to your behavior to find out which habits are enabling your procrastination. Recognizing this pattern is the first step.
Eliminate distracting factors.
Is your smartphone constantly grabbing your attention? Put it in another room! Have a hard time not glancing at Facebook every few minutes? Download an app that will block you from using the website until you’re done with your work. The more temptations you eliminate, the harder it will be to become distracted, meaning you’ll be less likely to procrastinate.
Change the way you manage your emotions.
If you don’t feel like doing something, ask yourself why. What emotions do you associate with the task and why? And will they go away if you put off the work, or will you have to deal with them again later? Answering these questions may make it easier for you to get started, no matter what your task is.
Remember what you’ve accomplished.
Whenever you feel especially afraid of failing, remember your past successes. Just because your brain is telling you might fail at something, doesn’t mean that you will. You’ve accomplished projects like this one before and you’ll do it again. Trust the process and believe in yourself!
If you got caught in the act of procrastination again, don’t worry! Everyone procrastinates from time to time. You don’t have to feel bad about it. In one study8, students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating did so less during the next exam period.
Researchers concluded that self-forgiveness promotes productivity, and allowed students to overcome procrastination and better focus on their goals.
Don’t measure your worth by your performance.
You are much more than the work you do or the successes you have celebrated so far in your life. Defeats are a normal part of life and excellent opportunities to grow. Define your own self-worth yourself, not the project you’re working on or the boss who’s never happy. Remember, the people in your life don’t love you because of how many projects you’ve finished! They love you for the amazing person you are – let that be your motivation.
Think about the next step.
Before beginning a task, think about exactly how you’re going to do it, and be as specific as possible. Start with simple things: Think about what type of document you’ll use or where you’ll write the date. Just doing this may be enough to motivate you to get started.
Talk about your project to the people around you.
Chronic procrastinators tend to feel unmotivated until the deadline gets closer and the pressure mounts. You may actually be able to create this pressure earlier in the process by simply telling the people around you about the project you’re working on. Having more accountability might be just the motivation you need.
Procrastination is defined as the systematic procrastination of putting things off, even when you know it’s not a good idea.
We tend to put off unpleasant tasks that we don’t like or that are difficult, instead preferring a distraction that would give us short-term relief.
According to psychology experts, in addition to its negative definition, procrastination can also have positive effects such as better engagement in complex actions and more creativity.
Eliminating distractions, creating structure, setting priorities correctly, forgiving oneself for having procrastinated in the past are simple ways to stop procrastinating.
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3Sirois, F. and Pychyl, T. (2013) Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood
Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7
(2). 115 – 127. ISSN 1751-9004.
5Hal E. Hershfield (2013): Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice.
6Lisa R. Fournier (2018): Starting or finishing sooner? Sequencing preferences in object transfer tasks. In: Psychological Research volume 83 (2019).
8Michael J.A. Wohl *, Timothy A. Pychyl (2010): I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination.