Do you keep putting things off when you know you shouldn’t? Get going by understanding the psychology of irrational delay
by Wendelien van Eerde + BIO
At university, many people talk about their procrastination; they’ll joke: ‘Have you heard about the procrastination conference? It was postponed – again!’ In academia and beyond, procrastination is usually seen as a bad habit that many wish they could break. Notwithstanding the jokes made about it, some people genuinely suffer with their procrastination and struggle to get their lives in order, falling prey to the problem over and over again.
Procrastination can become a vicious cycle. Trying to achieve something and failing to act on your intentions can feel frustrating and depressing, and this can then lead to even more procrastination. Research on procrastination confirms that it’s related to negative outcomes – people who are inclined to more procrastination tend to have lower life satisfaction, lower achievement and poorer health.
Although people talk about procrastination a lot, there can be considerable differences in what they mean by the term. Psychologists like me who study this topic make an important distinction: procrastination is a form of delay, but not every type of delay is procrastination. Before working on ways to reduce your procrastination, it’s useful to understand this distinction and recognise times when you’re delaying a task but not actually procrastinating. For instance, you might need to delay some activities due to sudden changes in your situation or because you simply can’t get everything done at the same time. So you might delay an activity to suit your schedule better. Although these instances involve putting off something, psychologists would not consider them as procrastination.
Another particularly important distinction to make is between ‘strategic delay’ and procrastination – the two are often confused. Strategic delay entails deliberately putting off a task as a way to generate time pressure as a source of motivation. Many people defend this strategy, saying it works for them, and some even claim it’s the only way they can do things: by putting pressure on themselves, they feel stimulated to work harder. However, it’s a risky strategy because you might run out of time. It also consumes a lot of energy and can lead to a dip after a deadline in which you feel exhausted. What’s more, there isn’t much evidence to suggest it works, compared with following a plan that is more balanced over time.
Procrastination is arguably even more irrational than strategic delay because the person will often be fully aware that delaying a task will have bad consequences, yet they still choose to delay. This is puzzling from a psychological perspective. For instance, even if someone has intended many times to finally file their taxes, and they fully recognise it would be in their best interest to do so, they still don’t do it. Instead, they start to watch their favourite TV series, perhaps thinking that they might feel more like it after one episode. But when the next episode is suggested, they start watching that one. After that, they think to themselves: ‘It is really too late to start on the taxes now. Tomorrow I will feel more like it,’ and then they go to bed. Procrastination describes this type of delay, where there is a striking gap or mismatch between your intention and the actual action you take, and you feel incapable of overcoming it.
The psychological explanation for this common but irrational behaviour is that, by avoiding the emotional discomfort of engaging in the behaviour, procrastination provides a temporary relief or escape. The task might go undone, but at least the confrontation with the negative emotion is avoided. Easier and more fun things encourage us to stay away, at least momentarily, from what needs to be done. This is the main problem: procrastination is avoidance behaviour. It is the avoidance of something aversive by occupying your thoughts with something you would rather do and that is available right now, not taking into account the future. It can be seen as a conflict between what you want to do now versus what you should be doing for your future self. In short, it is a self-regulation problem.
Of course, at different times, some people might use both strategic delay and procrastination, depending on the particular activity. The key difference between them is the emotional connotations – that is, putting pressure on oneself purposefully versus irrational avoidance that runs counter to one’s intentions.
A common idea about procrastination is that it is triggered by fear of failure, but we know that it is not just fear that leads to procrastination. Anything aversive can trigger it: boredom, resentment, difficulty, disgust, practically anything that is negative in your mind. Almost everyone has experienced needing to do something they would rather avoid. Some examples that cause emotional discomfort: studying for an exam, telling bad news, paying taxes, or cleaning something that had just been cleaned. Instead of doing these tasks, you might scroll through a timeline on your phone, and your thoughts are pleasingly occupied with something else and, from one page to the next, you have delayed what you needed to do.
Unfortunately, avoidance does not make the obligation or necessary action go away; it is still there, of course. So procrastination is a way of coping that might help you feel better for a while, but it is no solution. The activities that were done instead of the intended one mostly do not make you feel better in the long run. They were just temporary and easy distractions, often not a productive activity or something that makes you feel proud, accomplished, or at least worthwhile spending time on. Some might brush this off, but for others this can then prompt further angst – now they feel they wasted time. And therefore, procrastination can lead to many negative emotions, such as feeling guilty, ashamed, nervous or depressed. The realisation of not having completed a vital task might get worse over time and, at some point, the barriers to completing the task might seem unsurmountable (for instance, after a deadline has passed).
If you are prone to procrastination and you recognise yourself in these descriptions, the good news is there are practical, effective ways to start making a change, and this Guide will show you how.
Use time-management techniques
One obvious way to tackle procrastination is to start managing your time better – to create an overview of upcoming tasks, set yourself rules for prioritising, and plan how to spend time productively. Although this won’t address your emotional discomfort or your avoidance directly, it can serve a preventative role. By increasing your sense of control, you’ll calm your emotional state and it’s less likely you’ll feel the need to procrastinate.
There is a risk with creating time-management schedules that the transparency of what you need to do creates panic and feelings of being more burdened. To avoid this, when you make a list of all the activities you need to complete, make sure you prioritise them and schedule them (of course, you can’t do everything at once). Most important of all, make sure you execute your plan.
That last part is probably the most problematic. I advise starting on small tasks and working on them in a regimented way: set a short time-frame, take a break, then register how much you got done (or if you ended up doing something else instead). Let’s say you choose to work on an essay for 15 minutes. If you succeed in staying focused for that time, then you could consider doubling the session next time. The point of this approach is that it makes you realise what targets are actually doable, rather than setting yourself a burdensome load of work that discourages you from even starting on it.
This approach of setting yourself small tasks might be especially helpful for long-term projects that lack intermediary deadlines. In this situation, many other issues can get in the way that demand attention in the present, taking away from future achievements. (I’m thinking of freelancers who need to create their own products over time, for instance.)
An important shortcoming of time management is that it is rational and cognitive. It does not provide advice on avoidance and how to manage the emotional discomfort that causes procrastination. Among the approaches to address the root cause of procrastination are: emotional self-regulation, mindfulness, building on your strong points, but also more therapeutic approaches. Let’s turn to all of these next.
Identify what you’re avoiding
Procrastination is avoidance due to emotional discomfort. The activities that prompt procrastination differ for everyone. Telling bad news might be difficult for everyone but, for some, it is also having to buy a present or to call a friend. If you’re unsure what drives your procrastination, try keeping a daily journal for a week or more, to help you become more aware.
We are not always consciously aware of our emotions. You could use your journal to focus on when you feel bad exactly. Perhaps you’ll see a pattern in the types of tasks and obligations that are likely to make you procrastinate. There are many things that can create emotional discomfort, such as the fear of letting someone down, the thought that an activity might be so all-consuming that it leaves no freedom for any fun, or even resentment that you’re having to complete a task that was someone else’s obligation. So find out what it is for you in particular.
If you recognise a pattern, it might be possible to do something pragmatic about it. For example, it might be possible to delegate the obligation you inherited to someone else, organise activities differently, or have others step in to help you. Rather than avoiding, perhaps you can find a practical solution for the execution of this activity.
Unfortunately, recognising avoidance and trying to find solutions external to yourself is often not enough to stop procrastinating. Sometimes you know you should not avoid a task, but you still keep putting it off. What’s more, for many tasks you really are the only person who can do it: you’ve decided you need to do it, but you still don’t do it! To progress, you will have to confront your avoidance.
Confront your avoidance
To beat procrastination, you need to go against your feelings. Perhaps you can tolerate more discomfort than you anticipate. Taking things step by step: the thing you avoided might not be as frightening as you expected. Often, doing at least a small part helps. By making a small dent into the avoided activity, many people realise that their avoidance was driven by an exaggeration of how bad it really would be. If you manage to just get started, this is one small step in the right direction, and it helps to build confidence for a next step. Be happy when you avoid avoidance, celebrate your achievement in getting going.
To make that initial step, it might help to pause and assess your capabilities on the one hand (for instance, you might remind yourself of past achievements), and the risks or costs of delay on the other. Be compassionate to yourself: instead of being harsh and hating yourself for not doing something, also consider what you’ve done well so far, or what can be done better next time without judging yourself too harshly. This doesn’t mean finding excuses because the situation was so bad, or because others made you act this way; rather, take responsibility and try to take the perspective of another person who means you well. Reflect on what you learned from this experience of initial avoidance, and what might be a good way to tackle it next time. If you are focused on learning rather than achieving something, it might be easier to accept that success is sometimes possible only after a few failures.
Manage your emotions
Having confronted your avoidance and begun the task, you can work on improving your mood while doing this activity that you dislike or have feared. In some circumstances, when not all concentration is needed but a boring or unpleasant task needs to be done, you might come up with ways to make it less aversive. For example, listen to music and dance while cleaning.
You can manage your emotions in different ways once you are aware of your feelings. This means not only down-regulating negative affect as in the example above, but also up-regulating positive affect, so trying to find ways to make the activity a more positive experience. One tip is to remind yourself that the activity is the journey to reach the goal. This goal might be worthwhile enough to endure a little suffering.
Often, people feel lonely in their struggles to confront their avoidance. Do not think you are the only one who procrastinates. Getting support from others can make things easier. Perhaps you could challenge others to confront and tackle their procrastination with you in a joint group effort.
What if you tried all of the things mentioned here, but still face problems? Well, one comforting thought is it’s possible that you’ve been trying to force yourself to do something that actually isn’t necessary or worth it. Or maybe the honest answer is you are not capable of completing this task? Be realistic. Maybe you have more choice than you realise. Sometimes people strive to be perfect in the eyes of others. Who are you doing this dreaded task for? Are there other tasks that are better suited for you? Giving up can sometimes be an option and a relief. Be conscious of the reasons for your decisions.
Procrastination can be a sign of deeper problems
Finally, it’s worth being aware that your procrastination could possibly a sign of a broader pattern of problematic avoidance that you can work on. If you not only procrastinate, but also avoid many things in life from close relationships to career promotions, then it’s possible your procrastination is part of a pattern that underlies many of your decisions, and the causes might be deeply rooted. If you become aware of such a pattern, it might be wise to seek professional help to change your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and shape them into new routines. A therapeutic approach with more intensive guidance might be appropriate for you. There are therapists who specialise in helping people to combat procrastination and avoidance more generally.
What if procrastination is a part of who you are?
Procrastination is closely related to the personality trait known as conscientiousness (one of the ‘Big Five’ personality trait dimensions). If procrastination is a fundamental part of your personality, that would imply that it is a relatively stable part of who you are, and so some might doubt that procrastination can ever be overcome.
For example, some research shows that students who were task-avoidant in their studies were also more likely to experience burnout in their early career jobs. Also, there is some evidence for the genetic component of procrastination and for its neurological basis. And yet, despite this, there are several reasons to be optimistic about the possibility of overcoming a chronic procrastination problem.
First, the meta-analysis that Katrin Klingsieck and I wrote shows that interventions targeting procrastination, similar to the advice outlined in this Guide, have helped people, at least directly after such an intervention. Where later measurements after the intervention were available, the beneficial effects remained stable even after several months.
We compared different types of interventions: those more directed at self-management, others focused on building on confidence and self-efficacy (belief in one’s own capabilities), and therapeutic approaches (based on cognitive behavioural therapy – CBT – or related approaches that aim to tackle the irrational thoughts fuelling procrastination). We found that a CBT approach had the strongest effect. This might speak to the idea that we can change our thoughts and, by doing so, we can change our behaviour. We expected differences in the effect according to how much time people spent or how intensive the intervention was, but this was not the case. Possibly, by devoting attention to the procrastination, becoming aware of it, and doing anything to confront it, the majority of people could already be doing something useful. The small number of studies and the fact that they were difficult to compare cause our study conclusions to be tentative; as more studies appear, it is likely that our insights of what is most useful will change.
Second, another indication that people can change is that older people are less prone to procrastination. This might point at the importance of learning, and becoming more experienced and confident in one’s own skills. Perhaps speeding up this learning can be achieved if you put your efforts into being open to change; a mindset that helps to become a different person. Some researchers interpret the apparent decline of procrastination with age as a generational effect. Rather than older people having become less prone to procrastination, they say the younger generations are undisciplined and cannot self-regulate as previous generations did. Younger generations, they say, are more prone to distraction because there are more possibilities of being distracted due to the internet. There is no conclusive answer to why procrastination is less prevalent in older people – to answer that question definitively, we need more longitudinal studies that track the same individuals through their lives. Personally, I find the first explanation of learning and experience more plausible, because people can be distracted by anything, even if there is no internet.
Third, although it’s true, as I mentioned, that personality factors such as conscientiousness – closely related to procrastination – are assumed to be relatively stable over a lifetime, there is growing evidence that people might be able to shape their personality in becoming the person they would like to be. Both through one’s own efforts and by what the situation demands, people can change their personality. For example, a new work responsibility, such as taking on a leadership role, can contribute to a person becoming more conscientious over time.
Taken all together, the evidence suggests that even if you are a chronic procrastinator and you feel it is a part of your nature, there is reason to be hopeful that you really can overcome it, to the benefit of your health and work.
People love to hear about procrastination. In his very popular TED talk, ‘Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator’ (2016), the blogger Tim Urban provides an explanation for the phenomenon, with interesting examples and fun cartoons about the mind of a procrastinator.
The psychologist Timothy Pychyl gives useful tips on beating procrastination in this online interview with the Rebound Talks series.
Pychyl’s book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle (2013) is my favourite self-help text: short and practical, and solidly based on research.
This BBC article by Psyche’s own Christian Jarrett also clearly summarises what procrastination is and what can be done about it.
Your smartphone could actually be useful for overcoming procrastination. Apps such as Forest can help you become more aware of your behaviour, set goals or make behaviour changes that you need to be reminded of to make them into habits. You could try other apps that help you manage your time, such as Pomodoro, or ones that block apps and websites to help you focus, such as Freedom.