Procrastination is a prevalent problem, which can cause various issues, such as missed opportunities and increased stress. Furthermore, people often misunderstand it, which prevents them from being able to stop procrastinating. To solve this, the following article will show you the key information you need to know about procrastination, including what it is, what causes it, and what you can do to overcome it.
What is procrastination (a definition)
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone delays working on an assignment until right before its deadline for no reason, even though they know that it would be better for them to start earlier, that person is procrastinating.
There are various types of procrastination, which can occur for different reasons, involve different behaviors, and lead to different outcomes. For example, some people procrastinate because they feel anxious about a task, so they avoid thinking about it, which leads them to keep worrying for longer than was necessary. Alternatively, some people procrastinate because they get distracted by digital temptations (e.g., social media), until they’re reminded of their original task by the pressure of an upcoming deadline.
Nevertheless, the following are the key defining features of procrastination, which characterize most of its types:
- It involves unnecessary delay.
- The delay generally leads to predictably negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as the procrastinator’s performance or emotional wellbeing.
- The delay is often—but not always—unintentional, meaning that it occurs despite the procrastinator’s intent to do things on time (so it involves an intention-action gap).
Examples of procrastination
A classic example of procrastination is a student who postpones studying for an exam until the night before, despite wanting to start earlier and feeling bad about the delay.
Similarly, another example of procrastination is a person who has months to submit an important application, but delays until the day before the deadline to work on it, despite repeatedly promising themselves that they’ll do it soon.
In addition, the following are other examples of procrastination, which illustrate the diverse forms it can take, as well as the diverse domains it can occur in:
- Browsing social media when you should be working, even though you’re frustrated with yourself and wish you could just get started.
- Staying up hours later than you intended watching videos or playing games, despite knowing that this will make you tired tomorrow.
- Doing useful things, such as cleaning your room, when you should be doing more important things, such as finishing a school assignment.
- Promising yourself that you’ll get started on a project (e.g., writing a book or building a business) “one day” or “sometimes soon”, but never making any progress toward it, and instead just fantasizing about your future success.
- Planning to start a new habit (e.g., dieting, exercising, or saving money), but instead making excuses to wait with it for months, even though you know that it would be better to just start.
- Intending to solve an issue (e.g., by paying bills or going to the dentist), but postponing doing so because it’s unpleasant, even though the issue becomes worse the longer you delay solving it, and won’t go away on its own.
- Wanting to ask someone for something (e.g., a promotion, favor, or date), but postponing it every time you have an opportunity, even though you wish you could just ask and get it over with.
- Postponing choosing between two opportunities repeatedly, until this indecision means that both opportunities are no longer available.
Finally, examples of procrastination also come from various people throughout history. For example, many famous authors regularly procrastinated on their writing, including J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Hunter S. Thompson, and Douglas Adams. Furthermore, many other famous people also procrastinated regularly; for example, Mozart procrastinated on composing music, Frank Lloyd Wright procrastinated on designing houses, Steve Jobs procrastinated on work, and the Dalai Lama procrastinated on studying.
Prevalence of procrastination
Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects around 20% of adults, including people such as lawyers, business executives, and college professors. Furthermore, it’s particularly prevalent among certain populations, such as college students, around 50% of whom procrastinate chronically.
Dangers of procrastination
Procrastination is associated with various potential issues, including missed opportunities, worse academic performance, worse employment and financial status, increased interpersonal conflicts, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and a tendency to postpone getting treatment for one’s problems.
Signs of procrastination
The following are common signs of procrastination:
- Waiting until the last minute before deadlines to get started.
- Finding yourself performing tasks that you intended to do days before.
- Continually saying “I’ll do it later” (or something similar, like “I’ll do it tomorrow”).
- Getting stuck in neutral even though you know how important it is to get started.
- Needlessly delaying finishing tasks, even if they’re important.
- Postponing working on things you don’t like to do.
- Promising yourself you’ll do something and then dragging your feet instead of doing it.
- Delaying starting tasks that look unappealing (e.g., boring, frustrating, or hard).
- Taking days to complete even jobs that require little else except sitting down and doing them.
- Always having excuses for not doing things on time.
- Constantly putting off improving your work habits.
- Putting off making decisions.
- Struggling to get started even if you hate yourself for it.
The more of these signs you display, and the more frequently and seriously you do so, the more likely it is that you’re a procrastinator, and the more severe your procrastination likely is.
These signs can also be summarized into one key question: do you often delay when you shouldn’t? If the answer is “yes”, then that means that you likely procrastinate.
In addition, the severity of your procrastination can also be influenced by the impact of procrastination on you, for example when it comes to your performance on tasks and to your emotional wellbeing.
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 do things (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.