Procrastination – 8 ways to deal with it effectively
Why I'm talking about procrastination
We are all humans. We postpone unwanted or challenging tasks at least a few times. Although it is considered normal to procrastinate to some extent, procrastination is a major issue to many of us, leading to stress, guilt, severe self-judgment, loss of productivity and confidence, lack of commitment and social disapproval. These feelings cause further procrastination.
According to Rozental and colleagues (2015), 20% of adults and 50% of students consider themselves chronic procrastinators. In moments of crisis, those percentages increase.
The solution is not just to use time and self-management techniques & strategies but to deal with our emotions in different ways.
In this blog I am going to look at:
- What is procrastination,
- Different types & factors that cause it,
- Its root causes & how to overcome it using….
- 8 scientific proven ways, time management tips as well as my personal take,
- Exercises to help YOU deal with procrastination.
What is procrastination
Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an obligation or task (Steel, 2007) which usually, but not necessarily, has an expiration date. This delay can be evident either in our attempt to start a project or in our difficulty in completing it. Procrastination is not a matter of laziness or incompetence, but managing the emotions that lead to excuses for short-term versus long-term pleasure. Understanding this simple fact can help you to delay less.
Types of procrastination
It is important to distinguish procrastination from other types of delays. For example, if an activity is delayed because another obligation has arisen that requires our immediate attention, it is considered a strategic delay (Sirois, 2016).
Previous research has reported two types of procrastination (Chu & Choi, 2005).
1. The first type of procrastination is one in which indecision paralyzes us to such an extent that we fail deadlines and timely completion of our obligations. The characteristics of this type is the difficulty in deciding and organizing the start of our project.
2. The second type of procrastinator is the one which leads to consciously postpone of projects. The characteristics of the second phase are the inability to concentrate but also to exclude external distractions in order to continue your work (Wäschle et all, 2014). Most people that fall into this type, work often better under pressure and finally manage to complete their obligations in the short time they decide to mobilize.
More recent research (Rozental et. All, 2015) distinguishes up to 5 subcategories which differ from each other based on severity and consequences.
Procrastination is the perfect example of our tendency to prioritize short-term needs over long-term ones. We use procrastination to control situations and, most importantly, success, which many of us are very afraid of (Piers Steel, PhD in Industrial / Organizational Psychology).
Many studies conclude that procrastination comes from our childhood. We learn to live with this dysfunction and consequently with all the negatives that accompany it. More specifically:
- Growing up in an authoritarian family or in an environment with strict control, the child as a defensive attitude adopts passivity in order to set the necessary barriers against the subjugation of his/her personality.
- In another case, a child may start postponing things when the parents put too much pressure on him/her to achieve high goals. The child consciously begins to postpone situations in order not to upset his parents but also to avoid personal failure.
- Finally, in families where the parents are completely disorganized and the child is growing up in a chaotic environment. This results in procrastination because the child never really learns the stages of achieving a goal.
The degree of procrastination varies. We cannot talk about a specific cause, or just one cause that can explain it. However, we can refer to some factors which, according to studies, are related to non-adaptive procrastination. These are perfectionism, anxiety, worry, low self-esteem, various emotional difficulties.
These factors may coexist and do not cover all the possible factors that exacerbate the problem. At this point, it is important to note that when we talk about correlations, we consider that these factors interact and are not the cause of each other. If we take for example stress and procrastination, stress does not precede (necessarily) nor does it follow (necessarily) procrastination.
If we look at the case of perfectionism, a multidimensional phenomenon, procrastination can be the result of a great fear of failure that is created in the individual (Rice et all, 2012). Thus, as the person tries to avoid mistakes and in the face of his great desire for a perfect result he tends to postpone his obligations.
Fear of failure, is often associated with stress but also with non-adaptive beliefs. For example, fear of failure can lead to "all or nothing" pessimistic thoughts and critical comments that do not correspond to our abilities or the belief that the worst will happen to us (Rice et al., 2012).
In addition, the emotional difficulties we are experiencing at this time are likely to lead to reduced self-control, which may contribute to the postponement of an activity.
What causes procrastination?
"We weren't really designed to think about the distant future because we had to focus on providing ourselves in the here and now," said psychologist Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing at the University of California Anderson School of Management, in Los Angeles.
Hershfield research has shown that, on a nervous level, we perceive ourselves for the future more as strangers than as part of ourselves. When we are late, there are parts of our brain that really believe that the tasks we are failing at - and the negative emotions that accompany and await us on the other side - are someone else's problem.
To make matters worse, we are even less able to make well-informed and future-oriented decisions in the midst of a stressful situation. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala - the part of the brain that acts as a "threat detector" - perceives this task as a real threat, in this case for our self-esteem or well-being. Even if we mentally recognize that stopping work will create more stress for us in the future, our brains are still wired to be more interested in eliminating the threat in the present. Researchers call it "piracy in the amygdala".
Procrastination is really absurd. It does not make sense to do something that you know will have negative consequences. People are associated with this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination due to their inability to handle negative moods around a job. The self-awareness that "you are hurting yourself" is a key part of understanding why procrastination makes us feel bad. When we are late, we do not just avoid our duties. And yet, we do it anyway.
In a 2013 study, Pychyl and Sirois found that procrastination could be understood as "the superiority of short-term mood repair ... over the goal of longer-term planned actions." Simply put, procrastination focuses more on the "immediate urge to manage our negative moods". "Thoughts about procrastination often aggravate our anxiety and stress, contributing to even greater procrastination," Sirois said. The particular nature of our aversion depends on the task at hand or processing.
This could be due to the fact that the job itself is inherently unpleasant, such as cleaning a dirty bathroom or setting up a large, boring spreadsheet for your boss. However, it could also arise from deeper work-related emotions, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, stress or insecurity. When you look at a blank document, you may think, “I am not smart enough to write this. Even if I am, what will other people think? Writing is so difficult. What happens if I do it wrong?”
We feel a temporary relief when we are being late creating a vicious circle with the whole situation. In the immediate present, suspending a job brings relief – is a reward. When we are rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is why procrastination tends not to be a one-time behaviour, but a cycle that easily creates chronic habits.
Over time, chronic procrastination costs not only productivity, but also catastrophic effects on our mental and physical health, such as chronic stress, general psychological distress and low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, bad habits, health, chronic diseases and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, we cannot just stop procrastinating. Productivity tools focus on how to be more efficient or do more good work, They do not address the root cause of procrastination.
Getting to the root of procrastination
As we have said, you may think that the reason you are late is that you have a defective character or that you are lazy or perhaps self-destructive. As Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology and a member of the Procrastination research team at Carleton University in Ottawa, puts it, "Procrastination is a problem of emotion regulation, not a time management problem."
Self-discipline can help you overcome your procrastination however just because you are not self-disciplined does not mean that you are unruly. You are overwhelmed by negative emotions and deal with them in the only way you know. Postponing what you should have done, which makes you unhappy. Procrastination is a way of dealing with difficult emotions and negative moods created by boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment and more.
"Our brains are always looking for relevant rewards. "If we have a cycle of procrastination, but we have not found a better reward, our brain will continue to push us in the same way we manage until we give it something better," said Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University.
To reshape any habit, we must give our brain a better "reward" than the reward it receives now. Something that can ease our emotions in the present without harming our future. The difficulty with eliminating the addiction to procrastination in particular is that there are an infinite number of possible substitutes that could still be forms of procrastination, Brewer said. This is why the solution must be internal and not depend on anything but us.
How do we overcome procrastination?
Now that you know that procrastination is more about emotions than about character flaws, how can we limit it?
Before we talk about ways to deal with it, it is good to understand that what can be considered an acceptable delay differs from culture to culture and from person to person (White, Valk, & Dialmy, 2011). Also, we mentioned earlier that there are some stages of procrastination, which do not cause problems.
First of all, do not expect to change immediately. We are all human beings, prone to procrastination, especially when we do not like it. Do not think that you are the only exception to this rule.
Your main goal in overcoming procrastination should be to strengthen yourself, your supportive environment, explore your emotional state and train yourself in time management techniques.
From research I have found 8 different ways that could help you. At the same time, I have written what helps me. Each way has exercises that I suggest you do.
1. Ask yourself if your procrastination causes dissatisfaction and if this dissatisfaction has existed again for long periods of our lives.
Think and analyse, see for a while, the reasons why you fell into the trap of procrastination and got used to its "companionship". Write when your procrastination causes dissatisfaction, what you feel. Does it happen often? Why;
2. Forgive yourself for your procrastination. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastination ended up being less late in the next exam. Since the reason you are late is that you are full of negative emotions, feeling even worse makes the problem worse.
Self-forgiveness supports productivity, as it allows you to overcome the unproductive adjustment of your behaviour and focus on the future, without the burden of past actions.
- Do not be angry with yourself,
- Do not make negative self-conversations,
- Do not be obsessed with all the bad things that will happen because you postponed something you wanted or had to do.
Forgive yourself for your procrastination. This, in itself, will help.
Make a list of 5 things you want to do and have procrastinated and forgive yourself.
3. Self-compassion: Treat ourselves with kindness and understanding about your mistakes and failures. Procrastinating people tend to have high stress and low self-compassion. Self-compassion is:
- A regulator for negative reactions,
- Supports motivation and personal development,
- Reduces psychological discomfort,
- Actively enhances motivation and feelings of low self - esteem and
- Cultivates positive emotions such as optimism, curiosity and personal initiative.
Self-compassion does not require a change of external factors - just a commitment to meet your challenges, with greater acceptance and kindness, rather than doubt and sorrow.
Try to do something by looking at the positive aspect of it. Remember the time when you did something similar and everything was fine. Think about the beneficial effect of completing the work you have done. What did your boss or co-worker say when you showed them your completed job? How did you feel about yourself?
4. Cultivate curiosity: If you feel tempted to delay, pay attention to the senses that arise in your mind and body.
Try to find out why you are postponing some things. Not by asking yourself, "What's wrong with me?" But questions like:
- What emotions provoke my temptation?
- How do I feel in my body?
- What does this remind me of?
- What happens to the thought of procrastination as you observe it? intensify? Reducing? How do they change?
- Why do all these different emotions arise?
- How do the senses in your body change as you continue to feel those emotions?
Once you answer these questions, you may be able to find ways to make your job less tedious. If it’s tedious, maybe you can make it more fun by listening to music or asking a friend to keep you company.
5. Consider the next action: It helps calm our nerves and allows for "a layer of delusion".
Do not expect to be in the perfect mood to do a particular job. Motivation follows action. Get started and find the motivation later.
If what you have to do scares you and you are afraid that you will not do well, instead of doing the work right now, do the next thing you would do if you completed the work you want to do. For example, if you are stuck at the beginning of a text or a task, quickly write down some suggestions for what you will do when you have completed what you want to do. How will you feel? What will others say? What will be your next move, action?
At the beginning of a task consider your next move as a simple possibility. Ask: What is the next step I would take, even though I have not completed what I am doing now? Maybe you would open your email. Make an appointment?
6. Make your temptations more uncomfortable: It is much easier to change your circumstances than you. Take what you know about your procrastination and use it to your advantage, putting barriers between you and your temptations. Especially those that can cause a degree of frustration or anxiety. In this way, you add "friction" to the procrastination cycle and make the reward value of your temptation less immediate.
At the same time do the things you want to do as ease, as possible for you. Do what you can to make it easier for others to help you. If you want to go to the gym before work, but you are not a morning guy, get your clothes ready before you go to bed.
Think about what benefits you and what habits make you postpone actions and tasks. Make a list. Change some of your ways. For example, if you frequently check social media, delete those applications from your phone. Complicate your social media password.
7. Reward yourself. Procrastination creates its own reward. How; By protecting you from the negative emotions that come from doing an unpleasant task, something we do not like.
Give yourself a small allowance, for example, an hour of rest, a walk. Do not forget to take frequent short breaks, which, according to research, allow you to use your brain more efficiently.
Make a list of what you want to do. Put them in order of priority. Now next to each task, write down your reward for completion.
8. Other solutions – Time management techniques
- Five seconds of action: Once you have a thought, a feeling for a goal, act immediately or within 5 seconds, otherwise your brain will start leaning towards procrastination. This technique allows your brain to eliminate doubts, fears and emotions that prevent you from performing. Once you start using this rule correctly, these five seconds can take 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days to complete your tasks.
- Do an hour of power: Remove all distractions and work on concentrated chunks of time followed by short rest periods.
- Choose a song that really gives you energy and listen to it whenever you want to deal with something that you have postponed or delayed.
- Place a bet: select a day and time in the week to complete a task or task and place a bet with a friend to see who completed it first or on time.
- Create a reward that you will give yourself as soon as you complete something. The human brain responds to the stimulus of rewards and this can be a good way to create habits.
- Put structure or chaos will come, Make a list in order of priority.
- Look at some areas of your life and point out from 1-10 how you are doing. How good a job do you do as a parent, work, personal life, family, friends, diet, exercise ..... If an area is under 5, then you need to do something about it right away.
What works for me
My thinking is: "The sooner I finish my task, the faster I will do what I really want."
Then, I have different routines throughout the day that helps me structure my life and give me a flow, plus help me not to miss anything important.
I start my day with
- Meditation & gratitude.
- I pay attention to what I say and think. My goal is: to have a wonderful day, to be present in everything I do. I get up from my bed feeling that I have achieved what I want already,
- I then make my bed. This way I have already my first win for the day
- Then I exercise, have a coffee and breakfast.
- I open my calendar, where I have 3 things I want to complete today as well as 3 things I will not do today. This is normally a list that I make from the night before.
- I create task categories. What should I do immediately, is it urgent? What is not urgent? What can wait?
- I choose one thing and do it well, with 1000% concentration. I allow NO external interference, so mobile is on silent and away, no reminders, no emails, no pop up messages. This allow me to go "to my world" as I call it, phase out and immense myself to the task ahead.
- I follow the 5 mins rule. Let me just do it for 5 mins. But this usually becomes bigger.
- I work for 1 hour, break 15 minutes. Unless "I am in the zone" with what I'm doing when in this case I will not stop until I am done.
- When I complete a big task my reward is to watch a documentary, go for a walk, meet a friend.
Lunch break - Routine
Afternoons are the same as the mornings
- I look at my calendar and see which of my 3 things is left from the morning,
- I choose one thing and do it well, 1000% concentration,
- I get into the zone. Everything that can disturb me is” silent quiet and far”,
- Work 1 hour, break 15 minutes.
I close my day by:
- List 3 things that I want to accomplish for the next day,
- Prepare what I will wear, what I have to do - organization in the diary,
- I contemplate what I did well, what did I miss and could improve,
- Finally, I spend a few minutes being grateful about something that happened or is in my life.
Friday - Planning of the week
- I chose my big goal for the week. I MUST complete this task,
- Then I put a medium goal, one that would be great to complete,
- Finally, I have a small goal, one that if I do, it will be perfect and will end my week.
If I do all 3 goals, I'm gone, I'm doing something for myself, a long walk, take the rest of the week off. I am for Sunday or Saturday to be for me, without regrets and I spend it with friends, walking in nature, swimming or reading.
- NOT hang out with negative people,
- Avoid anything negative & impose on me (television or internet),
- Choose my environment,
- Not eat bad food that makes me feel with no energy the next day. I listen to my body,
- Pay attention to what I think and what I say, including words.
- Laugh, listen to music,
- See friends,
- Something for someone else, to laugh and feel beautiful. Positivity.
Of course there are moments that I too procrastinate, I am human after all. I try during those moments to listen to what I feel, be curious on what I felt, understand why I did it and be lean and kind to myself. It helps to change and kind of control my environment, not only by planning but also by limiting distractions as I mentioned. Finally, by following lots of Stoic rituals, I give order to my chaos, one that by being an entrepreneur, is always changing and adapting.
Procrastination is deeply existential, as it raises questions about our individual existence and the way we want to spend our time as opposed to how we actually do it. It is not a matter of laziness or incompetence, but of managing emotions, leading to excuses for short-term versus long-term pleasures and rewards.
We are increasingly vulnerable to painful emotions and most of us just want to be happy with the choices we make. Our instinct is often the best advisor and we should not ignore it. We know that if we trust it, it will lead us to increasing progress and confidence. Mental strength and positivity. Personal enjoyment and give back to people we love, family, friends, society.
So be kind to yourself, understand your why, be curious. Deep inside, trust your gut and why you avoid things. Remember, those tips above are meant to help you but there will be times that you will fall back. Its ok. Pick yourself up, undust your mentality, forgive and give yourself a tap in the back, a push in moving on.
I wanted to conclude this blog with a few words of wisdom from some of my favourite personalities.
“What never happens is what we do not crave enough”.
“We exist once, there is no way we can exist twice,
or maybe we will never exist again.
And you who does not rule tomorrow, postpones the joy.
And life is lost with procrastination and everyone dies busy”.
- Chu, A.H.C., & Choi, J. N. (2005). Rethinking Procrastination: Positive effects of “active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance. The Journal of Social Psychology, 145(3), 245–264
- Eerde, W.V, & Klingsieck, K. (2018). Overcoming Procrastination? A Meta-Analysis of Intervention Studies. Educational Research Review
- Haghbin, M. (2015). Conceptualization and operationalization of delay: Development and validation of the multifaceted measure of academic procrastination and the delay questionnaire. (Doctoral dissertation). Carleton University, Canada
- Rice K. G., Richardson C. M., Clark D. (2012). Perfectionism, procrastination, and psychological distress. J. Counsel. Psychol. 59, 288–302.
- Rozental A., Forsell E., Svensson A., Andersson G., Carlbring P. (2015). Internet-based cognitive — behavior therapy for procrastination: a randomized controlled trial. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 83, 808–824.
- Rozental, A., Bennett, S. , Forsström, D. D, Shafran, R., Andersson, G. & Carlbring, P. (2018) Targeting Procrastination Using Psychological Treatments: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology
- Sirois, M.F, Giguère &Vaswani, M. (2016). Delaying Things and Feeling Bad About It? A Norm-Based Approach to Procrastination. Procrastination, Health, and Well-Being, Academic Press, 189–212.
- Steel,P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin 133(1):65–94 · Procrastination and self-efficacy: Tracing vicious and virtuous circles in self-regulated learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 103- 114.
- White, L. T., Valk, R., & Dialmy, A. (2011). What is the meaning of “On time”? the sociocultural nature of punctuality. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42, 482–493
- Charlotte Lieberman NYT - Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control), March 25, 2019
- Minda Zetlin - The Reason You Procrastinate Is Not What You Think
- Inc. March 29 2019
- Eirini Velidaki - Procrastination .. the sweet coming of the next day - July 15 2020