People often misunderstand the relationship between time management and procrastination. This can cause various issues, the most notable of which is that people fail to overcome their procrastination, because they don’t understand what causes it in the first place.
The following article can help clear this confusion, by clarifying how procrastination relates to managing time. As such, it will help you understand procrastination better, which in turn will help you overcome it.
What is procrastination
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, a person is procrastinating if they postpone starting a task until right before its deadline for no good reason, despite intending to work on it earlier.
Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students. It’s associated with various issues, such as lower productivity, worse academic performance, worse financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and delay in getting help for issues.
There are various types of procrastination, which can occur for different reasons and lead to different outcomes. 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 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.
Time management and procrastination
When people procrastinate, they generally fail to manage their time properly. An example of this is someone who should be working on an assignment, but instead wastes their time browsing social media until right before the deadline, so they’re not using their time in an effective way.
Time-management issues are sometimes a cause of procrastination. For example, someone might procrastinate on an important task if they fail to prioritize their tasks properly, and consequently fail to realize how important it is to finish the task on time.
On top of that, other time-management issues, like poor planning and organization, can also cause procrastination in some cases. This can happen, for example, when:
- Someone doesn’t assign a self-imposed deadline to a task, even though they need it in order to form a concrete intention to complete the task.
- Someone schedules important tasks for a time of day when they naturally struggle to concentrate on such tasks.
- Someone schedules stimulating activities at a time that wakes them up shortly before they should go to sleep.
However, time-management issues are generally a symptom—rather than a cause—of procrastination. Procrastination is generally caused by various other issues, like perfectionism, fear, anxiety, depression, and ADHD, which generally revolve around difficulties in regulating emotions. This has led to assertions that procrastination is an emotion-regulation problem, rather than a time-management problem. Nevertheless, because procrastination generally leads to poor time management, the two issues are closely connected.
Furthermore, time-management issues that lead to procrastination are often caused by underlying issues. For example, if someone is afraid of a task because they doubt their ability to complete it, then they might convince themselves that the task is easier than it really is, to protect their feelings in the short term. This can then lead to the planning fallacy, by causing the person to underestimate how long it will take them to complete the task (despite similar tasks taking longer than expected in the past), and to consequently postpone the task until right before its deadline, under the wrong assumption that they can easily complete it then.
In addition, procrastination can cause issues with things other than time management. Some of these issues are caused by procrastination due to the time-management issues that it leads to. For example, this is the case when students postpone working on a school project, and must then rush to complete it at the last minute, so they do a bad job and consequently fail their class. However, procrastination can also lead to issues that don’t necessarily have to do with time management, such as increased negative emotions (e.g., anxiety and stress). These issues, in turn, can sometimes exacerbate time-management issues and procrastination, thus leading to problematic procrastination cycles, for example when someone’s anxiety causes them to procrastinate on a task, which causes them to do badly, which increases their anxiety procrastination on future tasks.
In summary, procrastination often leads to issues in time management, and can sometimes also be caused by such issues. However, time-management issues are generally a symptom—rather than a cause—of procrastination, which is usually caused by other issues, and especially those involving emotion regulation (e.g., perfectionism). Furthermore, procrastination can lead to issues with things other than time management, such as increased stress.
Proper time management can reduce procrastination
Proper time management can reduce procrastination by reducing time-management issues that cause procrastination (e.g., failure to prioritize work), and by reducing other issues that cause procrastination (e.g., failure to regulate emotions).
For example, one common time-management technique is to break tasks into manageable steps. This technique can reduce procrastination by improving people’s time management directly, for instance by helping them understand, prioritize, and plan their work. Furthermore, this technique can also reduce procrastination by improving people’s emotion regulation, for instance by helping them feel more in control of tasks that otherwise feel overwhelming, and consequently increasing their self-efficacy.
Similarly, a related time-manage technique is to use a to-do list. This technique can also reduce procrastination, for instance by making tasks, deadlines, and goals feel more concrete, and consequently increasing people’s motivation to act.
Accordingly, learning to manage time better can help reduce procrastination. However, to overcome procrastination successfully, it’s generally also important to learn other things, and especially how to regulate emotions. Accordingly, many interventions for reducing procrastination involve teaching a combination of different skills, including ones for time management and ones for emotion regulation, though some interventions focus on only one type of skill, especially if that’s more appropriate given the specific type of procrastination problem that a person has.
Time-management techniques for reducing procrastination
The following are key time-management techniques that you can use to stop procrastinating:
- Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on this report next week”, set a concrete goal, such as “next week, starting Monday, work on this report every day from 9:00–11:00, and have a final draft ready to send out by Friday”.
- Set deadlines. Deadlines should be appropriate (i.e., they shouldn’t give too much or too little time), concrete (i.e., specify an exact—rather than a vague—point in time), and meaningful (i.e., they should be associated with some incentive to abide by them, such as someone who holds you accountable). In addition, if a large project involves just one major deadline at the end, setting additional intermediate deadlines for yourself can help you plan ahead, be more accountable, and feel more motivated.
- Break your work into manageable steps. For example, if you need to write a paper, you can break it down into tasks such as choosing a topic, drafting an outline, and finding five relevant sources.
- Use a to-do list. For example, you can write down a list of study tasks in a dedicated notebook, a random piece of paper, or an app, together with relevant information to remember, such as associated deadlines.
- Prioritize tasks. For example, you can use the Ivy Lee Method, by writing down, at the end of each day, six tasks you want to complete tomorrow, ranked in order of importance. Similarly, you can use an Eisenhower matrix, by determining how important and how urgent your upcoming tasks are, and then using that to decide what to work on.
- Set reminders. For example, you can put a sticky note next to your laptop if there’s something you need to do tomorrow, or you can use an app to send you a notification when there’s a task that you need to complete soon.
- Alternate consistently between work and rest. For example, you can use the Pomodoro technique, by working on your tasks for 25-minute long stretches, with 5-minute breaks in between, and taking a longer 30-minute break after every 4 work sets.
- Schedule dedicated blocks of time in advance. For example, you can allocate 30 minutes in the afternoon to making an important decision that you’ve been postponing (a technique called timeboxing).
- Schedule work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you struggle to concentrate on your work for an hour after lunch (i.e., that’s your slump time), then you should avoid scheduling work for that time as much as possible, or schedule less important work that you’ll be able to focus on more easily. Conversely, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning (i.e., that’s your peak time), then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible. When doing this, you should often aim to reach a flow state, where you’re completely immersed in the activity you’re engaged in, and are consequently highly productive and unlikely to procrastinate.
- Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
- Establish consistent routines. For example, have a dedicated time each day when you work on a specific type of assignment, or a dedicated day each week when you do a specific chore.
There are various apps that can help you implement these techniques, for example by helping you manage your schedule and prioritize tasks.
While these techniques focus on time management, some of them can also help with other things, and especially emotion regulation (e.g., when using the techniques makes you feel more in control and consequently less anxious), which can further help reduce procrastination. Nevertheless, it can be beneficial to also use other types of anti-procrastination techniques, such as ones that focus on emotion regulation, especially if this will help you better address the specific causes of your procrastination.
Other anti-procrastination techniques
In addition to anti-procrastination techniques that focus on time management, you can use other types of anti-procrastination techniques, which focus on things such as regulating emotions and increasing motivation. These techniques include the following:
- Commit to starting with just a tiny first step, for example by deciding to work on your projects for only 2 minutes at first.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes, for example by telling yourself that your first draft just needs to be good enough, rather than perfect.
- Figure out what you’re afraid of and address your fears, for example by asking yourself what’s the main thing you’re worried about with regard to a task, and then considering what advice you would give to a friend on dealing with this concern if they were in your situation.
- Increase your self-efficacy, by identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
- Visualize your future self, for example by imagining yourself having to deal with negative consequences if you keep procrastinating.
- Focus on your goals instead of on your tasks, for example by thinking about how you want to get good grades, rather than about the homework assignment you need to do.
- Make tasks more enjoyable, for example by listening to music while you work.
- Improve your work environment, for example by removing distractions (e.g., by putting your phone in a different room) or by switching to a better environment (e.g., by studying in the library instead of your room).
- Add a delay before indulging your impulse to procrastinate, for example by counting to 10 before opening the social-media app that you use to procrastinate.
- Gamify your behavior, for example by marking streaks of days on which you successfully achieve your goals.
- Reward yourself for making progress, for example by treating yourself to something nice if you manage to stick to avoid procrastinating for a week.
- Forgive yourself for past procrastination, for example by saying “It’s true that I should have gotten started earlier, but the best thing to do now is forgive myself for delaying and focus on getting started as soon as possible, and also find a way to avoid making the same mistake again in the future”.
- Increase your self-compassion, by developing its three components: self-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
When choosing which anti-procrastination techniques to use and how to use them, it can help to first figure out what’s causing your procrastination, since understanding your procrastination problem can help you figure out how to solve it most effectively. If, when doing this, you realize that you suffer from a serious underlying issue that causes or exacerbates your procrastination—such as depression, ADHD, or lack of sleep—then you should generally aim to treat that issue first, using professional help if necessary, in order to overcome your procrastination.