“Procrastination is the thief of time” is a saying that denotes that procrastinating—postponing things unnecessarily—causes people to waste a lot of their time. This saying is meant to encourage people to take action in a timely manner, instead of delaying.
This is one of the most famous sayings about procrastination and its dangers, so it’s helpful to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about this saying, and see what procrastination is and what you can do to overcome it.
Examples of procrastination as the thief of time
One example of procrastination as the thief of time is a student who postpones studying for hours by browsing social media instead, and then ends up doing badly on their exam because they didn’t have enough time left to study properly.
In addition, the following are other examples of procrastination as the thief of time, since in all these situations, the procrastinator wastes a large amount of their time postponing things unnecessarily:
- Someone who wastes several days before getting started on an important assignment, which means that they have to rush to finish it in a hasty and stressful manner right before the deadline.
- Someone who wastes months before finally approaching a person that they’re interested in romantically, only to find out that in the time they’ve delayed, this person has entered a relationship with someone else.
- Someone who wastes years before starting to work on a project that they’re passionate about, such as writing a book or building a business, while constantly struggling with the guilt and shame of not being able to make progress toward their goal.
Quotes about procrastination as the thief of time
The phrase “procrastination is the thief of time” was coined by English poet Edward Young in his 1742 long poem “Night-Thoughts” (whose full title is “The Complaint: or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality”). In the poem, Young wrote the following:
As sudden, though for years admonished home:
Of human ills the last extreme beware,
Beware, Lorenzo! a slow-sudden death.
How dreadful that deliberate surprise?
Be wise today, ’tis madness to defer;
Next day the fatal precedent will plead;
Thus on, till wisdom is pushed out of life:
Procrastination is the thief of time,
Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves
The vast concerns of an eternal scene.
Since then, the concept of procrastination as the thief of time has been discussed by various other people, as demonstrated in the following quotes:
“My advice is, never do to-morrow what you can to-day. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him.”
— Charles Dickens (in his 1850 novel “David Copperfield”)
“The greatest thief this world has ever produced is procrastination, and he is still at large.”
— Attributed to Josh Billings (the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw)
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’ There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”
— Martin Luther King (in a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City)
Other quotes about the dangers of procrastination
In addition to being the thief of time, procrastination is also associated with various other dangers, as mentioned in the following quotes:
“Procrastination has been called a thief—the thief of time. I wish it were no worse than a thief. It is a murderer; and that which it kills is not time merely, but the immortal soul.”
— William Nevins (in his 1836 book “Practical Thoughts”)
“Procrastination is opportunity’s natural assassin.”
— Source unknown, often attributed to Victor Kiam, who popularized the saying
“… you shall find that delay breeds danger, & that procrastination in perils is but the mother of mishap.”
— Robert Greene (in his 1584 work “Gwydonius; The Card of Fancy”)
“The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.”
— Rita Emmett
“While we are postponing, life speeds by.”
— Seneca, in “Letters from a Stoic” (letter 1), published circa 65 CE
“Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.”
— Attributed to Wayne Gretzky
“You may delay, but time will not.”
— Attributed to Benjamin Franklin (the saying was published in Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack”)
“… a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance…”
— Hunter S. Thompson (in a letter written in 1958)
Research about the dangers of procrastination
Scientific research on procrastination supports the claims that it can be a thief of time, and also shows that it’s associated with a wide range of other issues.
For example, students often report that procrastination occupies over a third of their daily activities, usually in the form of behaviors such as sleeping, watching TV, or playing video games. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that, among students, procrastination is associated with various academic issues, such as worse exam scores, worse grades, increased course failures, increased course withdrawals, and an increased likelihood of dropping out.
Furthermore, procrastination has also been shown to be associated with various other issues. For example, procrastination is associated with various employment and financial issues, such as earning a lower salary, having shorter durations of employment, and having a higher likelihood of being unemployed or under-employed (as opposed to working full‐time). In addition, procrastination is associated with various physical and mental health issues, such as stress, as well as with the tendency to delay getting treatment for those issues.
The prevalence of procrastination
In addition to being associated with a wide range of dangers and negative effects, procrastination is also a highly prevalent phenomenon.
Furthermore, many more people than that engage in various forms of procrastination in general. For example, in a study on an adult sample, 74% of people who were surveyed indicated that they go to bed later than they planned to at least once a week, with no external reason for doing so.
Finally, procrastination is especially common among certain populations, such as students. For example, studies show that approximately 80%–95% of college students engage in procrastination to some degree, approximately 70% consider themselves to be procrastinators, and approximately 50% say that they procrastinate in a consistent and problematic manner.
How to avoid procrastinating
People procrastinate because their self-control and motivation are hindered by issues such as exhaustion and outweighed by issues such as anxiety. Accordingly, common causes of procrastination include abstract goals, rewards that are far in the future, fear of failure, and perfectionism.
To avoid procrastination, there are several things that you can do.
First, if you need to stop procrastinating right now, do the following:
- Make your environment as conducive to taking action as possible. For example, you can remove distractions from your work environment, even if you’re not yet ready to get started on your work.
- Arrange some immediate reward that you’ll receive if you manage to get started. This reward can be relatively small, but the important thing is that you’ll receive it in the very near future.
- Ask yourself “if I were to take action right now, what’s the smallest possible step I could take?”. Then, tell yourself that it’s okay if you just get started on that single tiny step, and try to do it, even if your work isn’t perfect.
In addition, you can ask yourself “what’s causing me to procrastinate?”, and then think through the causes of your procrastination and try to resolve them. For example, if your issue is that you’re afraid that you won’t be able to handle the task well enough, you can tell yourself that even if you make a mistake, that’s not the end of the world, since you can correct it later.
If you want to understand how to stop procrastinating in the long term, here is the systematic approach that you should use:
- Figure out what your goals are, and make sure that they’re clearly defined, possible to accomplish, and significant enough to allow you to achieve meaningful progress.
- Figure out when, how, and why you procrastinate, by examining situations where your tendency to postpone things is preventing you from achieving your goals.
- Create a plan of action based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques, while taking into account both your goals as well as the nature of your procrastination.
- Implement your plan and monitor your progress, while making sure to refine your approach by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.
Finally, here are some of the top anti-procrastination techniques you can use:
- Break large tasks into small, actionable pieces.
- Set concrete deadlines for yourself.
- Eliminate distractions from your environment.
- Count to 10 before indulging the impulse to procrastinate.
- Get yourself started by committing to work for only 5 minutes.
- Mark streaks of days on which you complete all your tasks.
- Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
- Avoid a perfectionist mindset.
- Visualize your future self.
- Focus on your goals instead of on your tasks.
The main goal of these techniques is to help you deal with the reasons why you procrastinate in the first place. For example, while “break large tasks into small, actionable pieces” is generally seen as a time-management technique, its main goal here is to help you transform overwhelming projects into something that feels manageable, which will prompt you to stop procrastinating on them and start taking action.