Many people struggle with procrastination, when they unnecessarily delay doing things such as completing assignments, dealing with household tasks, or working on passion projects. This can lead to various issues, such as worse performance, missed opportunities, and increased stress.
Because of this, it’s important to understand what causes procrastination, and to find ways to overcome it. The following article will help you with this, by presenting an important psychological concept called “self-efficacy”, showing how it relates to procrastination, and explaining how you can use it to reduce procrastination.
What is self-efficacy
Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to perform the actions needed to achieve their goals. For example, if a student thinks that they will be able to successfully do everything that they need in order to get a good grade on a paper (e.g., background research, writing, and editing), then they have high self-efficacy in this context. Conversely, if a student thinks that they won’t be able to do what they need in order to get a good grade, for instance because they think that they aren’t able to write well enough, then they have low self-efficacy in this context.
Self-efficacy can be domain-specific. For example, a student might have high academic self-efficacy, but low social self-efficacy, meaning they believe more in their ability to perform academic tasks than social tasks.
Self-efficacy can also be task-specific. For example, a student might have homework self-efficacy but low test self-efficacy, meaning they believe more in their ability to do well on homework assignments than on tests.
Self-efficacy is about people’s subjective perception of their ability, rather than their objective (true) ability. Although people’s perceived and true abilities are often strongly associated, there can also be substantial differences between them.
This means, for example, that although people with high ability often have high self-efficacy, they may have unreasonably low self-efficacy instead, for instance if they always receive harsh criticism on their work, or if they suffer from impostor syndrome (so they wrongly attribute their successes to factors like luck rather than competence). Similarly, although people with a low ability often have low self-efficacy, they may have unreasonably high self-efficacy instead, for instance if they always receive praise for their work.
Accordingly, a person’s self-efficacy can be influenced by various factors beyond their true ability, like their past experiences, the feedback that they receive from others, and the characteristics of the actions that they need to perform. In addition, self-efficacy is associated with and sometimes influenced by various related concepts, such as self-esteem, confidence, motivation, optimism, hope, control beliefs (and the locus of control), agency, ego identity, and neuroticism.
The link between self-efficacy and procrastination
Low self-efficacy is associated with increased procrastination in two main ways:
- Low self-efficacy can increase procrastination. For example, it can do this by causing a person to doubt their ability to complete a task, which can lead them to postpone the task as a way to postpone negative emotions that will be associated with failure. Similarly, it can do this by causing someone to believe that there’s no point in trying to complete a task, so there’s no point in forming strong intentions to work on the task in the first place. In this regard, note that self-efficacy is considered crucial to people’s ability to self-regulate their behavior, which is what allows them to act in a timely manner (i.e., without procrastinating), and low self-efficacy is also associated with various issues that are also related to procrastination, such as pessimism, fear of failure, and anxiety.
- Increased procrastination can reduce self-efficacy. For example, this can happen if someone’s past delays make them doubt their ability to complete tasks on time. Similarly, this can happen if someone’s delays lead to poor performance on certain tasks, which makes that person believe that they’re incapable of doing well on such tasks.
Accordingly, the link between self-efficacy and procrastination can lead to a vicious cycle, where procrastinating causes someone to have low self-efficacy, which increases the likelihood that they’ll procrastinate again, which keeps their self-efficacy low, and so on, in a perpetual self-fulfilling prophecy. This is especially likely in cases when people have low-self efficacy with regard to their ability to self-regulate and avoid procrastinating, since this can cause them to not even try to overcome their procrastination.
However, the link between self-efficacy and procrastination can also lead to a virtuous cycle instead, where high self-efficacy reduces procrastination, which can increase self-efficacy and therefore reduce future procrastination, and so on. This ties in to the description of self-efficacy as “the power of believing you can”.
Nevertheless, overly high self-efficacy can also lead to procrastination, for example when it causes people to have such an overconfident sense of their abilities, that they become overly optimistic about their ability to work on tasks, and consequently postpone them unnecessarily, thinking that they’ll be able to get things done in less time than they actually need.
Finally, certain factors can influence the relationship between self-efficacy and procrastination, such as the type of motivation that people have for pursuing a certain goal. Furthermore, concepts that are associated with self-efficacy, such as hope, can also help when it comes to dealing with procrastination, by doing things such as increasing a person’s motivation to work and reducing their fear of failure.
How to increase self-efficacy
There are various things that you can do to increase your self-efficacy, which can be beneficial both for reducing your procrastination, and also for improving other aspects of your life, such as your emotional wellbeing:
- Achieve easy initial successes. For example, if you’re faced with a major project, try to deal with a few initial small parts of it that you can easily complete.
- Reflect on your successes. For example, if you’re faced with a difficult task, think about times in the past when you were able to successfully handle similar tasks.
- Reflect on the successes of others. For example, if you’re faced with a challenge, think about how a friend who is similar to you was able to handle that challenge successfully, and realize that this means that you will likely also be able to handle it.
- Imagine yourself succeeding. For example, if you need to give a speech, imagine yourself doing really well and getting applause from the audience.
- Reflect on the strategies you can use. For example, think about which strategies you can use to achieve your goals, and about your ability to successfully execute them. When doing this, you can also figure out you’ll handle potential obstacles, by forming implementation intentions comprised of relevant if-then rules (“if X happens, then I’ll do Y”).
- Identify and address your fears. For example, if you’re afraid of some potential obstacle, figure out exactly how you can deal with it if you do end up encountering it.
- Set realistic goals and standards for yourself. For example, give yourself permission to make some mistakes along the way, rather than letting perfectionism cause you to think that the only acceptable outcome is unattainable flawlessness.
- Get encouragement from others. For example, ask a mentor to provide you with reassuring feedback during rehearsal.
Furthermore, to increase your self-efficacy, it can also help to deal with issues that can decrease it, such as:
- Underlying physical or mental issues. For example, if you’re exhausted, it could help to get some sleep. Similarly, if you’re depressed, it could help to address this with the help of a mental health professional.
- Negative social influence. For example, if someone constantly says negative things about your abilities in a hurtful and unhelpful way, it could help to minimize or avoid interactions with them.
- Negative experiences. For example, if a certain task is entirely beyond your current abilities, and dealing with it would only make you feel like a failure without teaching you anything, then it could be beneficial to avoid it, or see if you can modify it in some way that makes dealing with it more productive.
In addition, the following statements reflect some of the key beliefs that you should foster in order to increase your self-efficacy. As such, you can use them to guide your efforts, or to assess your current self-efficacy, by seeing the degree to which they reflect your beliefs:
“I will be able to achieve most of the goals that I have set for myself.”
“When facing difficult tasks, I am certain that I will accomplish them.”
“In general, I think that I can obtain outcomes that are important to me.”
“I believe I can succeed at most any endeavor to which I set my mind.”
“I will be able to successfully overcome many challenges.”
“I am confident that I can perform effectively on many different tasks.”
“Compared to other people, I can do most tasks very well.”
“Even when things are tough, I can perform quite well.”
Finally, note that when increasing your self-efficacy, you should be careful to do so in a way that leads to positive—rather than negative—outcomes. This means, for example, that you should not unrealistically exaggerate your skills in a way that leads you to be overly optimistic about your ability to perform certain tasks, and consequently to postpone those tasks until there’s not enough time to complete them properly.
Other ways to overcome procrastination
To reduce your procrastination, as well as associated issues such as stress, it can be beneficial to do additional things beyond increasing your self-efficacy. Most notably, you can benefit from figuring out what causes you to procrastinate in the first place, and then using relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as breaking large tasks into manageable steps and increasing your self-compassion.