Procrastination: The Complete Guide

Almost everyone struggles with procrastination at some point, and we all want to be able to stop procrastinating when that happens. However, in order to successfully overcome our procrastination, it’s important to fully understand it first.

As such, the following article will show you everything you need to know about procrastination, and about why we experience it. Then, you will see an outline for the steps that you should follow when it comes to tackling your procrastination problem, together with some beneficial tips on how you can get yourself to stop procrastinating.

Note that this article is quite comprehensive, so feel free to skim through it and focus on the parts that are most relevant for you.

 

What is procrastination

Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone has a week to finish an assignment, but they keep postponing it until right before the deadline, despite the fact that they intended to work on it earlier, that person is procrastinating.

Procrastination generally occurs as a result of a person’s inability to self-regulate their behavior, and is therefore 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. Accordingly, procrastination is generally unintentional and irrational, meaning that people procrastinate even when they realize that doing so is bad for them, and even when they want to stop.

From a psychological perspective, the main driving force behind procrastination is the prioritization of short-term mood repair and emotion regulation over long-term achievement and wellbeing. Essentially, this means that when procrastinators are averse to a task for some reason, such as because they’re anxious or because they find it boring, they postpone it, in order to avoid suffering from negative emotions in the present. They do this despite the fact that this delay will prevent them from achieving their goals, and despite the fact that it could cause them to experience more negative emotions in the long-term, which is especially likely in cases where people feel guilty about their procrastination.

Furthermore, in many cases, people become predisposed to procrastination because they feel disconnected from their future self. This disconnect means that people feel as though any positive or negative outcomes that they will experience in the future will be experienced by someone else, even if they know that in reality that’s not the case. Accordingly, they are less motivated by any potential rewards or punishment, which makes them more likely to procrastinate on their work.

 

Examples of procrastination

People procrastinate in different ways and in different areas of life, by engaging in various types of dilatory behaviors, either intentionally or unintentionally. The following are some common examples of procrastination:

  • Browsing social media at work instead of getting started on important tasks.
  • Repeatedly putting off a homework assignment until the night before it’s due.
  • Wanting to start a new positive habit, such as dieting, exercising, or saving money, but repeatedly delaying it while telling yourself that you’ll start sometime in the near future.
  • Wanting to create a project or start a business, but wasting time looking up inspirational material and unimportant information instead of actually setting something up.

As you can see from these examples, and as you will continue to see in the following sections, procrastination is a complex phenomenon, as different people can experience it in completely different ways and for completely different reasons.

 

Prevalence of procrastination

Procrastination is a widely prevalent phenomenon. Research indicates that approximately 20% of the adult population and around 50% of the student population perceive themselves as being severe and chronic procrastinators, meaning that they experience significant difficulties in their everyday life as a result of their procrastination.

Furthermore, the number of people who procrastinate in general is even higher. For example, although approximately 50% of college students consider themselves to be chronic procrastinators, around 75% of students consider themselves to be procrastinators in general, and approximately 80%-95% of students say that they engage in procrastination to some degree.

This also demonstrates the fact that even although procrastination is prevalent in general, there are certain populations where it is especially common. For example, procrastination is such a commonplace issue among students, that the tendency to procrastinate on tasks until right before they are due is sometimes referred to as student syndrome.

Finally, note that there are some indications that the rate of procrastination in the population is increasing over time, which is consistent with the growing prevalence of similar issues, such as overeating and gambling, that involve people’s failure to self-regulate. However, procrastination is far from a new phenomenon, and it has been documented by various people throughout history, as evident, for example, in the writing of the following Greek poet:

“Do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.”

– From Hesiod’s “Works and Days”, circa 700-800 BC

 

Correlates of procrastination

There are various personal and background factors that are associated with the likelihood that a person will be predisposed to procrastination. The most notable of these are outlined in the following sub-sections.

 

Demographic factors and procrastination

A meta-analysis of studies on procrastination showed that a person’s age is negatively associated with the likelihood that they will procrastinate, since people tend to procrastinate less as they grow older. Furthermore, this analysis showed that gender is also associated with the likelihood that a person will procrastinate, with women procrastinating less, on average, than men.

In addition, there are various other demographic factors that are associated with the tendency to procrastinate, such as a person’s nationality, education level, and marital status. Some of these are more causal in nature, meaning that they can make a person more likely to procrastinate, while others are more correlational in nature, meaning that they are associated with higher levels of procrastination, but don’t necessarily cause a person to procrastinate more.

Overall, however, while these factors are all associated with procrastination to some degree, it’s important to note that procrastination can be found across most types of populations, which is why it’s viewed as a universal human behavior.

 

Personality traits and procrastination

Research shows that there is a significant relationship between some personality traits and people’s tendency to procrastinate. The most notable of these are the following:

  • Conscientiousness, which is the tendency to be disciplined, achievement-oriented, focused, and organized, is the personality trait that is most strongly associated with procrastination, and the more conscientious someone is, the less likely they are to procrastinate.
  • Impulsiveness, which is the tendency to act without planning or without considering the consequences of one’s actions, is also strongly associated with procrastination, and the more impulsive someone is, the more likely they are to procrastinate.
  • Agreeableness, which is the tendency to care about others and work well with them, is a personality trait that is associated with procrastination in some cases, and specifically in situations where people who are low in agreeableness procrastinate as a form of rebellion against tasks or deadlines given to them by an authority figure that they resent.
  • Sensation seeking is a personality trait that is associated with the tendency to procrastinate in some cases, and specifically in situations where people procrastinate in order to make tasks feel more challenging and exciting, usually by waiting until right before the deadline to get them done.

Note that neuroticism, which is the tendency to be prone to negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, is generally not directly associated with the tendency to procrastinate, meaning that, on average, neurotic people aren’t more likely to procrastinate.

However, in some cases, it’s possible that neurotic people will be more likely to suffer from negative emotions such as anxiety and depression as a result of their procrastination. Furthermore, there are some specific situations where a person’s neuroticism could be one of the causes of their procrastination, such as when they are so anxious about making failing that they end up avoiding a necessary task.

 

Cognitive abilities and procrastination

In general, there is no significant correlation between people’s intelligence and the tendency to procrastinate.

However, when procrastinators work and study, they tend to use fewer cognitive strategies, such as rehearsal and elaboration, as well as less metacognitive strategies, such as preplanning and self-monitoring. This can have a negative effect on procrastinators’ performance when it comes to tasks that require a significant cognitive effort.

 

ADHD and procrastination

Research shows that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with procrastination in some ways.

For example, one study found a significant correlation between ADHD scores and the tendency to procrastinate, meaning that the more ADHD-based behaviors a person displays, and the more severe those behaviors are, the more likely that person is to procrastinate.

This is in line with the fact that many ADHD-based behaviors can contribute directly to procrastination, as in the case of the difficulty to maintain attention while working, or the tendency to be easily distracted by the environment. Furthermore, procrastinatory behavior is sometimes used to help diagnose ADHD, as in the case of the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale, which asks people how often they delay getting started when they have a task that requires a lot of thought.

Accordingly, procrastination is generally viewed as an associated symptom of ADHD, and interventions aimed at treating ADHD often address people’s tendency to procrastinate.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are different types of ADHD, which are associated with procrastination to different degrees.

For example, one study found that symptoms of ADHD which are related to inattention are correlated with procrastination, while symptoms that are related to impulsivity and hyperactivity are not. Though there are some limitations to the study, meaning that it’s entirely possible that impulsivity and/or hyperactivity are in fact associated with procrastination, this does indicate that different types and symptoms of ADHD are associated with procrastination to different degrees.

Finally, note that research on the topic also shows that students with learning disabilities tend to procrastinate more than students without learning disabilities, and also tend to suffer more as a result of their procrastination. However, since there is a wide range of issues that are categorized as “learning disabilities”, it’s difficult to generalize these results across all students with learning disabilities, and it’s possible that only some disabilities, such as ADHD, are associated with procrastination, while other disabilities, such as dyslexia, are not.

 

The genetics of procrastination

There is a strong genetic component to procrastination, which means that the tendency to procrastinate is moderately heritable, as shown by longitudinal studies on twins. The heritability of a person’s tendency to procrastinate is strongly associated with the heritability of their tendency to be impulsive, and the heritability of these two factors is linked primarily to the heritability of people’s ability to self-regulate their actions by focusing on their goals.

There are various neurobiological mechanisms that could explain the genetic component of procrastination. For example, one such mechanism is a gene that affects dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter, which plays a role in people’s ability to exert self-control and avoid impulsive behavior. Some people have a version of this gene that causes them to have lower baseline levels of dopamine, which makes it more difficult for them to regulate their behavior in order to avoid procrastinating.

 

Environmental factors and procrastination

People’s tendency to procrastinate can be affected by a large number of environmental factors, that are external and relatively temporary in nature.

For example, when people’s sleep schedule is disrupted as a result of the timing of their shifts at work, they become much more likely to procrastinate, compared to when they sleep properly.

Similarly, when a person feels that they don’t fit in well at the organization where they work, due to a mismatch in terms of their skills, abilities, needs, or values, they also become much more likely to procrastinate, compared to when they feel that they fit in.

 

The negative effects of procrastination

Procrastination can negatively affect people in two main ways.

First, procrastination can affect people’s performance, and hinder their ability to achieve their goals. For example, among students, procrastination is associated with worse exam scores and worse grades, as well as with increased rates of course withdrawals and course failures. Similarly, procrastination is also associated with various issues in the workplace, and high levels of procrastination are associated with a lower salary, shorter periods of employment, and a higher likelihood of being unemployed.

Second, procrastination can also cause people to experience various negative side effects. For example, procrastination can cause people to experience higher levels of stress, which in turn can cause them to suffer from a variety of issues in terms of their physical and mental health.

In this regard, another common issue that can occur as a result of procrastination is sleep insufficiency. This is especially prevalent in cases where people engage in bedtime procrastination, by postponing going to sleep unnecessarily. Furthermore, this issue can be exacerbated by the fact that lack of sleep is associated with increased levels of procrastination, which can lead to a cycle where a person’s tendency to procrastinate causes them to be sleep-deprived, which in turn causes them to procrastinate more, and so on.

Procrastination can also lead to other types of problematic cycles. For example, people who display depressive symptoms are more likely to develop internet addiction if they are prone to engaging in procrastination. This addiction can then increase the likelihood that they will use the internet in order to procrastinate when avoiding unpleasant but necessary tasks, which, in turn, can cause their depressive symptoms to worsen, which can further increase their internet addiction and their tendency to procrastinate.

Finally, procrastinators are also less likely to seek support for their mental health issues, and are more likely to delay when it comes to getting help or taking action that is necessary in order to resolve their issues.

Note: some factors can help reduce the negative impact that procrastination has on people. For example, mindfulness, which involves focusing on the present and accepting thoughts and emotions in a nonjudgmental manner, can help reduce the stress and health problems that people experience as a result of their procrastination, while also reducing the likelihood that they will procrastinate in the first place.

 

Why people procrastinate

As noted above, procrastination occurs primarily as a result of people’s inability to self-regulate their behavior. This self-regulatory failure can occur due to a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • An environment filled with distractions.
  • The use of poorly-defined goals.
  • A lack of motivation.
  • A lack of energy.
  • An aversion to the task that needs to be completed.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Fear of receiving negative feedback from others.
  • A perceived lack of control over the possible outcomes of your work.

However, note that although these represent some of the most common reasons why people procrastinate, there are additional reasons why people do so. These reasons are covered in detail in the related guide on the topic, titled “Why People Procrastinate“.

 

How people cope with their procrastination

There are various coping mechanisms that people use in order to deal with their procrastination. These include, for example:

  • Avoidance. Avoiding anything related to the task that you’re procrastinating on. For example, this could involve staying away from the kitchen if there are dishes that you need to wash.
  • Denial. Pretending that you’re not actually procrastinating, by engaging in secondary, unnecessary activities instead of working on the task that you should be working on. For example, this could involve spending a lot of time baking cookies when you should be studying, and saying that you need a proper snack in order to concentrate on your work.
  • Justification. Trying to make it seem as if the way in which you’re procrastinating is the best way to achieve progress on the task that you need to perform. For example, this could involve telling yourself that spending weeks researching different exercise plans is the best way to get yourself to start exercising.
  • Bargaining. Attempting to explain how you can still achieve your goals, despite your procrastination. For example, this could involve saying that it’s okay that you wasted half the time that you had for completing a project, because you can still get it done on time if you work twice as fast as planned from now on.
  • Distancing. Trying to create emotional distance either yourself and the tasks that you need to complete or the goals that you’re trying to pursue. For example, this could involve saying that you don’t care about how you’ll do on an exam, in order to reduce the degree to which you feel bad about the fact that you’re not studying when you should be.
  • Trivialization. Pretending that the tasks that you’re procrastinating on aren’t that important. For example, this could involve trying to convince yourself that it’s not important to hand in a certain assignment on time, because it only accounts for a small portion of your final grade.
  • Comparison. Comparing your procrastination issues to someone else’s problems or to your past behavior, in an attempt to downplay your current actions. For example, this could involve saying that your procrastination is acceptable, because someone else that you know procrastinates even more.
  • Valorization. Taking pride or pretending to take pride in how much you procrastinate. For example, this could involve boasting to your friends about how much you procrastinated before an exam.
  • Humor. Using humor in an attempt to downplay or validate your procrastination problem, either through self-deprecating humor or through the mockery of those who are more productive than you. For example, this could involve laughing with your friends about how you’re not able to get things done in college, despite the fact that you’re spending so much money on your degree.
  • Distraction. Engaging in unrelated behaviors in an attempt to distract yourself from the task that you need to complete. For example, this could involve browsing social media or playing video games instead of working on your project.
  • Wishful thinking. Focusing on what you wish you could accomplish, instead of on what you’re accomplishing in reality, while often promising yourself that things will be different in the future. For example, this could involve going to bed after having wasted an entire day, and promising yourself that tomorrow will be different, even though you said the same thing the night before.
  • Exaggerating accomplishments. Focusing on the things that you did accomplish, in an attempt to ignore how much you’ve procrastinated. For example, this could involve saying that even though you didn’t actually start writing your paper, at least you thought of an outline in your head.
  • Anger. Being upset at the source of the task or of the associated deadlines. For example, this could involve being mad at a professor for assigning a difficult research assignment that you ended up procrastinating on.
  • Externalization. Blaming your procrastination on external causes, that are out of your control. For example, this could involve claiming that you can’t start working out because the gym that was closest to your house shut down.
  • Rumination. Fixating on your mistakes and constantly thinking about how you procrastinate. For example, this could involve spending hours feeling guilty while thinking about how you aren’t able to get anything done, despite the fact that you promised yourself that you’ll be productive.
  • Self-blame. Criticizing yourself for your procrastination and for your inability to accomplish your goals. For example, this could involve lying in bed feeling depressed because you know that you’re failing to accomplish anything, despite wanting to make progress in life.
  • Self-isolation. Avoiding others, and avoiding letting others know how bad your procrastination is. For example, this could involve pretending that you’re able to keep up with your studies, even though in reality you’re rapidly falling behind because you just can’t bring yourself to get started on assignments.

Note that many of these coping mechanisms are not necessarily specific to procrastination, and can serve as coping mechanisms for other types of similar behaviors. Furthermore, note that these coping mechanisms are mostly maladaptive, which means that they are largely viewed as a negative way to deal with your procrastination.

However, you can also use adaptive coping strategies in order to deal with your procrastination in a positive and productive way. Such strategies include, for example, identifying the reasons why you procrastinate, improving your time-management skills, and seeking social support.

To learn more about these strategies and about how you can use them, take a look at the “How to Stop Procrastinating” guide, or scroll down to the section in this guide on how to stop procrastinating.

 

Determining whether you have a procrastination problem

How to tell whether you’re prone to procrastination

Most of us already know intuitively whether or not we procrastinate, and if you’re reading this article, odds are high that you believe that you’re a procrastinator, and that procrastination is affecting you in a negative way.

If you’re not sure whether you’re a procrastinator, the most important question that you need to ask yourself is simply “do I tend to delay when it comes to making decisions or taking action?”. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then that means that you tend to procrastinate.

If you’re still unsure after asking yourself that question, try answering the following short questionnaire, which represents the Screening version of the General Procrastination Scale:

For each of the following statements, ask yourself “how characteristic is this behavior for me?”. Answer intuitively, and try to not overthink your response.

  1. I often find myself performing tasks that I had intended to do days before.
  2. I do not do assignments until just before they are to be handed in.
  3. Even with jobs that require little else except sitting down and doing them, I find they seldom get done for days.
  4. In preparing for some deadline, I often waste time by doing other things.
  5. I am continually saying “I’ll do it tomorrow”.

Essentially, the more characteristic these behaviors are of you, the more likely it is that you have a procrastination problem.

 

How to tell if your procrastination is hurting you

Some people procrastinate by continually delaying tasks that they need to perform, but are able to do this in a way that doesn’t cause them to experience any negative side effects, which is why they are sometimes referred to as well-adjusted procrastinators.

As such, there is an important difference between active procrastination and passive procrastination:

  • Active procrastination involves making a deliberate decision to procrastinate, in order to use the pressure of acting under a deadline as motivation to complete a task. This form of procrastination leads to positive outcomes, since it helps people be more efficient while they work.
  • Passive procrastination involves procrastinating due to an inability to act in a timely manner. This form of procrastination is associated with a variety of direct and indirect negative outcomes, such as reduced performance and increased stress, as we saw earlier in the article.

People who engage in active procrastination are generally more similar to non-procrastinators than to procrastinators in terms of factors such as time management and overall performance on tasks. Because of this, and because of the positive nature of this procrastination, the classification of active procrastination as a form of procrastination has been challenged by some researchers, and in some cases, this form of behavior is referred to as purposeful delaystrategic delay, or wise delay instead.

Nevertheless, the important thing to understand is that even though repeatedly postponing decisions or actions is generally a sign of procrastination, when trying to determine whether your tendency to procrastinate is a problem for you, there are two important questions that you should ask yourself:

  • Is my procrastination hurting my performance? For example, is my procrastination causing me to miss deadlines, or to submit subpar work?
  • Is my procrastination causing me to experience negative side effects? For example, is my procrastination causing me to experience stress, or to get into fights with others?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, that indicates that your tendency to delay is classified as a dysfunctional form of procrastination, which is actively harming your life.

If the answer to both of these questions is “no”, this indicates that you’re able to delay getting started on tasks in a strategic manner, that allows you to function properly, which means that your procrastination isn’t necessarily a problem. However, it’s important to be truly honest with yourself if you think that this might be the case, and to make sure that you aren’t simply trying to justify your bad habits to yourself.

 

How to stop procrastinating

So far in this article, we saw what procrastination is, why people do it, and how to tell whether it’s an issue for you. However, research on the topic also shows that it’s possible to learn how to manage your procrastination problem, and reduce your tendency to procrastinate.

As such, in the following sections, you will see the steps that you should follow in order to successfully deal with your procrastination. These steps include setting clear goals for yourself, assessing the nature of your procrastination problem, and implementing a comprehensive plan of action, which relies on various cognitive and behavioral anti-procrastination techniques.

 

Set clear goals

The first step to overcoming your procrastination is to set clear goals for yourself. This is important, because doing this helps you figure out what exactly you’re trying to accomplish, and because you are more likely to pursue goals that are clearly defined than those that are vague or abstract.

This means that you should figure out and preferably write down what you want to accomplish, in as much detail as possible. For example, a goal such as “write my thesis” is relatively vague, and is therefore more likely to lead to procrastination than a clearly-defined goal such as “write 500 words for the first draft of my thesis each weekday over the next month”.

 

Assess your procrastination problem

Once you have clearly defined your goals, you need to assess the nature of your procrastination problem. This means that you should look at the way you act, and once you figure out when and how you procrastinate, you need to analyze your behavior in order to determine why you do it.

For example, you might notice that during the weekend, even though you want to be productive, you end up sitting in front of the computer in your room and simply wasting hours browsing social media or playing video gaming instead of getting things done, because you feel overwhelmed with all the tasks you have to do and you don’t know how to get started.

This is important, because procrastination is a varied and complex phenomenon, so generalized solutions are often going to be less effective than personalized ones.

If you’re not sure why you procrastinate, read the “Why People Procrastinate” guide. Going over it can be beneficial even if you feel that you know why you procrastinate, because we sometimes attribute our procrastination to factors such as laziness or lack of self-control, when in reality our underlying problems are completely different, and involve things such as fear of failure or anxiety.

 

Create a plan of action

Once you’ve set your goals and assess the nature of your procrastination problem, the next step is to create a plan of action, and figure out which techniques you can use in order to stop yourself from procrastinating.

There are many anti-procrastination techniques that you can use in order to accomplish this. You can, for example:

  • Break large goals into small, actionable tasks.
  • Set self-imposed deadlines for completing tasks.
  • Tailor your schedule to your daily productivity cycles.
  • Establish a consistent work routine.
  • Gamify your behavior and create productivity streaks.
  • Remove distractions from your work environment.
  • Use nudges that make it easier for you to get started.
  • Get into work mode by starting with a tiny step.
  • Reward yourself for progress.
  • Visualize your future self.
  • Strategically switch between tasks when necessary.
  • Limit the time available for decision-making.
  • Deal directly with irrational fears regarding your performance.

Furthermore, you can use a variety of other techniques in order to get yourself to stop procrastination. A large number of these are listed, together with comprehensive explanations and examples, in the guide titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“.

Finally, note that when implementing this approach for dealing with procrastination, you can benefit from writing everything down, including your clearly-defined goals, your insights into the nature of your procrastination problem, and your preferred techniques for dealing with your procrastination. This will take a bit more work than just keeping all the information in your head, but will likely pay off in the long-term, because it will improve your ability to analyze the situation and keep track of things, while also increasing your commitment to this course of action, all of which will increase the likelihood that you will be successful.

 

Summary and main takeaways

  • Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions.
  • Procrastination is a prevalent phenomenon, which can affect people in every area of life, and which is associated with a variety of issues, such as worse grades, lower salaries, increased stress, and a higher rate of physical and mental health problems.
  • People procrastinate for various different reasons, including lack of motivation, task aversion, fear of failure, distractibility, and impulsivity.
  • In order to determine whether you have a procrastination problem, you should ask yourself whether you tend to postpone things unnecessarily, and if so, whether your delays cause you to suffer in terms of performance or in terms of negative side effects such as stress.
  • In order to successfully overcome your procrastination, you should first set clear goals for yourself, and then identify the nature of your procrastination problem, in terms of when, how, and why you procrastinate, before choosing the best strategies that you can use to deal with your specific type of procrastination.

 

In conclusion

Procrastination is a detrimental and widespread phenomenon, that causes us to engage in unnecessary delays.

If your goal in reading about procrastination is to figure out how to successfully overcome your own procrastination problem, check out this guide, which will give you all the tools that you need in order to figure out how to stop procrastinating.