“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” (this is part of the advice given by the character of Mr. Micawber to the character of 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 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (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 “Practical Thoughts” (1835)
“Procrastination is opportunity’s natural assassin.”
— Source unknown, often attributed to Victor Kiam, who popularized the saying (circa 1986)
“… you shall find that delay breeds danger, & that procrastination in perils is but the mother of mishap.”
— Robert Greene in “Gwydonius; The Card of Fancy” (1584)
“The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.”
— Rita Emmett, describing what she calls “Emmett’s law”, in “The Procrastinator’s Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing It Now” (2000)
“While we are postponing, life speeds by.”
— Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger), in “Letters from a Stoic” (Letter 1, Verse 2), written 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, who published it in “Poor Richard’s Almanack” (Item 665), published in the middle of the 1700s
“… a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance…”
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 worse emotional wellbeing, various physical and mental health issues (e.g., stress), and the tendency to delay getting treatment for these issues.
Accordingly, procrastination has been called a thief of other things beyond time, such as happiness.
The prevalence of procrastination
In addition to being associated with a wide range of dangers and negative effects, procrastination is also very common, as it chronically affects around 20% of adults.
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.
In addition, procrastination is especially common among certain populations. Notably, around 50% of college students procrastinate in a consistent and problematic manner, around 75% consider themselves to be procrastinators, and around 80%–95% engage in procrastination to some degree.
Causes of procrastination
People procrastinate because their drive to delay is irrationally stronger than their drive to act. This generally happens because their self-control and motivation are weakened by issues such as exhaustion and delayed outcomes, and are opposed by a preference for feeling better in the short term, as well as by emotional issues such as anxiety and fear.
Specifically, the drive to act represents how strongly driven people are to take action at the moment. It depends primarily on people’s self-control and motivation, which are influenced by various factors. For example, at any given moment, a person’s self-control can be influenced by how tired they are, while their motivation can be influenced by how long they will have to wait before being rewarded for taking action. Accordingly, issues such as exhaustion and delayed outcomes can interfere with self-control and motivation, and consequently reduce people’s drive to act, as can many other issues, such as depression, ADHD, and low self-efficacy.
Conversely, the drive to delay represents how strongly people feel pushed to avoid taking action at the moment. It depends primarily on the desire to feel better in the short term, by avoiding negative emotions (e.g., anxiety and fear that are associated with a certain task), and by increasing positive emotions (e.g., enjoyment from digital entertainment), a behavior described as “giving in to feel good”. This drive can involve various underlying issues, such as perfectionism, which are often also rooted in the desire to feel better in the short term from an emotional perspective.
Accordingly, although procrastination often leads to issues in managing time, it’s driven primarily by issues with regulating emotions. In addition, procrastination is strongly associated with the concept of akrasia, which is a state of mind where someone acts against their better judgment, due to a lack of sufficient self-control.
Based on this psychological framework, the following are the key issues that can lead to procrastination:
- Prioritization of short-term mood (i.e., preferring to feel better now even if this will lead to feeling worse later).
- Task aversiveness (i.e., finding a task to be frustrating, boring, or unpleasant in another way).
- Anxiety and fear (e.g., due to concerns of being criticized for your work).
- Feeling overwhelmed (e.g., due to having so many things to do that it’s unclear where to start).
- Perfectionism (e.g., due to refusing to publish work that has any flaws).
- Disconnect from the future self (e.g., viewing the consequences of your delay as something that someone else will experience).
- Delayed outcomes (e.g., due to discounting of rewards that will only be given in the far future).
- Low motivation (e.g., due to low-value outcomes, low expectancy of achieving outcomes, or difficulty in associating tasks with their outcomes).
- Expected effort (e.g., due to hard tasks).
- Inertia (i.e., the tendency to keep procrastinating once you’ve started).
- Abstract goals (i.e., ones that aren’t clear and well-defined).
- Cognitive biases (e.g., a bias that makes you unreasonably pessimistic about your odds of success).
- Time-management issues (e.g., failure to prioritize tasks).
- Problematic traits (e.g., impulsivity and distractibility).
- Underlying behaviors (e.g., self-handicapping, sensation seeking, or rebellion against an authority figure).
- Underlying conditions (e.g., depression and ADHD).
- Low energy (e.g., due to lack of sleep).
- Low capacity for self-control (e.g., due to exhaustion).
- Problematic environment (e.g., one that’s filled with distractions or has negative peer influence).
For more information about the causes of procrastination, see the guide on why people procrastinate.
Many of these issues are interrelated. For example, depression can cause lack of energy, lack of energy can exacerbate anxiety, and anxiety can increase task aversiveness, which can cause procrastination due to prioritization of short-term mood. Similarly, the effect of anxiety on procrastination can be influenced by various factors, such as people’s self-efficacy and mindfulness.
Furthermore, the relationship between these issues and procrastination is complex for other reasons. For example, while some types of perfectionism and fear generally increase procrastination, others generally decrease it (by increasing the motivation to act). Accordingly, the exact way in which these issues influence people’s behavior can vary across situations.
Finally, note that the issues that cause procrastination can lead to problematic cycles. For example, this can happen when someone is anxious about a task, so they procrastinate on it, which causes them to do badly, which makes them more anxious about similar tasks, which makes them likely to procrastinate again for the same reason in the future.
Solutions to procrastination
To stop procrastinating right now, identify the smallest possible step you can take to make progress toward your goals, and try to start with just that tiny step, while giving yourself permission to make mistakes during the attempt. For example, if you need to write an essay, you can decide to start by writing just a single sentence, while accepting that it won’t be perfect, and might even be quite bad at first.
In addition, you can also make it easier to get started, for example by preparing everything that you need for your work without yet trying to start the work itself, and also make it harder to procrastinate, for example by eliminating potential distractions from your environment.
To overcome procrastination in the long term, do the following:
- Set specific and realistic goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, a good goal might be “manage to run for 1 mile straight by the end of the month”, while bad goals might be “do some running” (unspecific) and “run a marathon by the end of the month” (unrealistic).
- Assess your procrastination. First, identify situations where you delay unnecessarily, to figure out how you procrastinate (e.g., by browsing social media). Then, think about those situations to also figure out where and when you procrastinate (e.g., on starting or finishing tasks, in the morning or evening, at home or the library). Finally, figure out why you procrastinate (e.g., due to perfectionism, fear, anxiety, depression, ADHD, sensation seeking, or abstract goals), potentially after reading why people procrastinate.
- Create an action plan based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques, while accounting for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
- Implement your plan, and then monitor your progress and refine your approach, primarily by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.
The following are key anti-procrastination techniques you can use:
- Break tasks into manageable steps (e.g., sub-tasks you can easily complete).
- Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., working for just 2 minutes).
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work will be imperfect).
- Make it easier to take action (e.g., by preparing everything you need in advance).
- Make tasks more enjoyable (e.g., by listening to music).
- Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by eliminating potential distractions).
- Delay before indulging the impulse to procrastinate (e.g., by counting to 10 first).
- Set deadlines (e.g., by deciding that you’ll complete a certain task by tomorrow evening).
- Plan how you will deal with obstacles (e.g., by deciding that if X happens, then you’ll do Y).
- Identify and address your fears (e.g., by considering what advice you would give to a friend).
- Increase your motivation (e.g., by marking streaks of days on which you achieve your goals).
- Increase your energy (e.g., by taking necessary breaks).
- Improve your environment (e.g., by adding reminders of your goals).
- Use social techniques (e.g., emulating a role model).
- Use time-management techniques (e.g., alternating consistently between work and rest).
- Create starting rituals (e.g., counting down from five to zero).
- Start with your best or worst task (e.g., your easiest or hardest one).
- Develop self-efficacy (e.g., by reflecting on your successes).
- Develop self-compassion (e.g., by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes).
- Treat underlying conditions (e.g., ADHD).
For more information about these techniques and how to use them effectively, see the guide on how to stop procrastinating.
You can use any combination of techniques that you want, but should start by focusing on a few that seem most relevant to your situation.
You will likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, such as helping you think more clearly and making your decisions feel more concrete.
You can use a similar approach as an intervention to help someone else stop procrastinating, by doing the above on their behalf, doing it together with them, or encouraging them to do it themselves.
Finally, remember that imperfect action is generally better than no action, so you’ll benefit more from trying to do just some of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Furthermore, the longer you delay, the more likely you are to do nothing, so you should start right now, while understanding that you’ll probably get some things wrong at first, but that you’ll be able to improve your approach over time.
If you feel overwhelmed, just start with the first technique in this section (committing to a tiny step), until you feel ready to do more.