Procrastination is a common problem, which can cause various issues, like 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, why it happens, and how you can overcome it.
What is procrastination (a definition)
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, a person is procrastinating when they delay 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.
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 to avoid thinking about a task that makes them feel anxious, while others procrastinate because they get distracted by social media.
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 predictable negative outcomes, in terms of factors like the procrastinator’s performance and 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.
Another example of procrastination is someone who has months to submit an important application, but delays until the day before the deadline, despite repeatedly promising themselves that they’ll start earlier.
In addition, the following are further examples of procrastination, which illustrate the diverse forms it can take, and 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 at night while watching videos or playing games, despite knowing this will make you tired tomorrow.
- Doing useful things, like cleaning your room, when you should be doing more important things, like finishing a school assignment.
- Promising yourself that you’ll get started on a passion project (like 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 (like 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 (like 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 (like a romantic 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, until this indecision means that both opportunities are unavailable.
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 lawyers, business executives, and college professors. Furthermore, procrastination is particularly common among certain populations, like 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:
- Repeatedly saying things like “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll do it tomorrow”.
- Getting stuck in neutral even though you know how important it is to get started.
- Taking a long time to complete things that require little except sitting down and doing them.
- Postponing things you don’t want to do (e.g., boring or frustrating tasks).
- Struggling to get started even if you hate yourself for it.
- Waiting until the last minute before deadlines to get started.
- Putting off making decisions for too long.
- Constantly postponing improving your work habits, despite intending to do it.
- Promising yourself you’ll do something and then dragging your feet instead.
- Finding yourself performing tasks that you intended to do days before.
- Working on trivial things instead of what you should be doing.
- Always having excuses for not doing things on time.
- Delaying taking action even after you decide what to do.
- Wasting time repeatedly and being unable to do anything about it.
- Delaying even though you know that doing it hurts your performance or wellbeing.
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: are you delaying when you shouldn’t? If the answer is “yes”, then that means that you’re likely procrastinating, especially if this delay hurts you in some way, like making you miss deadlines or feel bad.
Causes of procrastination
People procrastinate because their drive to delay is irrationally stronger than their drive to act. This happens when their self-control and motivation are weakened by issues like exhaustion, and are opposed by issues like fear.
Specifically, the drive to act represents how strongly people can push themselves 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’ll have to wait before being rewarded for taking action. Accordingly, issues like exhaustion and far-future outcomes can interfere with self-control and motivation, and consequently reduce people’s drive to act, as can issues like 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., fear of a certain task), and by increasing positive emotions (e.g., through digital entertainment), a behavior described as “giving in to feel good”. This drive involves various issues, like anxiety and perfectionism, which people want to avoid in order to protect their emotions in the short term.
Accordingly, although procrastination often leads to issues in managing time, it’s driven primarily by issues with regulating emotions. In addition, procrastination is associated with akrasia, which is a state of mind where people act against their better judgment due to insufficient self-control.
Based on this psychological framework, the following are the key issues that can cause procrastination:
- Prioritization of short-term mood (i.e., preferring to feel better right now even if this will lead to feeling worse later).
- Task aversiveness (i.e., thinking a task is frustrating, boring, or unpleasant in another way).
- Anxiety and fear (e.g., due to concerns over being criticized).
- Feeling overwhelmed (e.g., due to having so many things to do that it’s unclear where to start).
- Perfectionism (e.g., due to refusal 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 outcomes with tasks).
- Expected effort (e.g., due to hard tasks).
- Inertia (i.e., the tendency to keep doing what you’re already doing).
- Abstract goals (i.e., ones that aren’t clearly defined).
- Cognitive biases (e.g., being 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 rebelling 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).
The relationship between these issues and procrastination is complicated. For example, although some types of perfectionism and fear generally increase procrastination, other types generally decrease it (by increasing people’s motivation to act).
Furthermore, many of these issues are interrelated. For example, depression can cause lack of energy, which can exacerbate anxiety, which can increase task aversiveness. Similarly, the effect of anxiety on procrastination can be reduced by factors like high self-efficacy and mindfulness.
In addition, these issues can also cause repeating procrastination 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.
Finally, note that people can procrastinate for different reasons. For example, one person might procrastinate due to anxiety, while someone else might procrastinate due to a combination of perfectionism and abstract goals. Furthermore, a person can procrastinate for different reasons at different times and under different circumstances, sometimes leading to differences in how they procrastinate too.
For more information about the causes of procrastination, see the guide on why people procrastinate.
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 word, while accepting that it won’t be perfect, and might even be quite bad at first.
In addition, you can make it easier for yourself to get started first, for example by preparing your tools without yet trying to start working, and also make it harder to procrastinate, for example by removing 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 “be able to run a full mile 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 cases in which you delay unnecessarily, to figure out what exactly you procrastinate on (e.g., studying) and how you do it (e.g., by browsing social media). Then, think about those situations to also figure out where and when you procrastinate (e.g., at home or the library, on starting or finishing tasks, in the morning or evening). Finally, figure out why you procrastinate (e.g., due to perfectionism, fear, anxiety, depression, ADHD, sensation seeking, or abstract goals), potentially after reading about why people procrastinate.
- Create an action plan. It should involve using relevant anti-procrastination techniques, which account for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
- Implement your plan. Make sure to reflect on 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., into sub-tasks that you can easily complete).
- Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., to working for just 2 minutes).
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work won’t be perfect).
- 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 while you do them).
- Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by removing 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 noon tomorrow).
- Plan how you’ll handle 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’d 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., by emulating a role model).
- Use time-management techniques (e.g., by alternating consistently between work and rest).
- Create starting rituals (e.g., by counting down from five before taking action).
- Start with your best or worst task (e.g., with 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 you given your specific situation.
You’ll likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, like 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 a bit of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Also, 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.