A Look At The Emerging Science Of Procrastination
Procrastination is the arch-nemesis of productivity.
It sometimes feels like we could accomplish anything if we could just stop procrastinating!
We know that hard work pays off. We might even love what we do. We have our goals set out and we genuinely want to reach them. But for no lack of trying, we can’t help but be pulled off course. We impulsively pick up our smart phone, or open Reddit, or start doing the dishes. Before we know it, it’s been 2 hours, the morning’s almost over, and all our good intentions came to nothing.
In this article, we’re going to tell you how to avoid procrastination.
Seriously, that’s what we’re going to do. We don’t mind making big claims here because we know that if you properly understand procrastination, why it exists, and how it works, then the way to stop procrastinating becomes glaringly obvious.
More than that – it becomes easy.
We’re going to show you how to stop being a procrastinator, allowing you to finally hit your targets and fully achieve your potential. These are actionable, tangible methods that you can employ from today.
But before we get to that, we need to understand what procrastination is, how it works, and why it happens.
What Is Real Procrastination?
This might sound obvious, and indeed it is pretty obvious on the face of things.
We all intuitively know what procrastination is when we see it. We definitely recognize it when we are the perpetrators.
But we don’t actually understand procrastination as well as we could. Thankfully, psychologists have done a lot of good work in this area and we now have some robust definitions.
It should be clear that procrastination is not merely “to delay an action”. That is the old dictionary definition of procrastination. But procrastination does, and indeed should, have some negative connotations. Sometimes we have a very good reason to delay an action. We might need to do more research, or something genuinely more important might come up that requires us to drop what we’re doing right now.
So a definition of procrastination needs to account for this.
We also can’t just call procrastination “delaying an action when we shouldn’t”. This would imply that we can objectively decide what is in the best interests of people, when we can’t.
As John Perry, the Stanford-based philosopher, pointed out in his book The Art of Procrastination, it is possible to procrastinate to your benefit. One person might think that you’re procrastinating, but the thing you chose to do instead is of much more value to you than the primary goal.
Procrastination clearly isn’t just a case of poor time management either.
There is a difference between not leaving yourself sufficient time to do all the tasks you want to do, and putting off those tasks until it’s too late because a small part of you wants to play on your smartphone right now.
You can be an incredibly diligent person, never procrastinate, and still miss deadlines just because you can’t keep a diary properly. This will sound familiar to the less conscientious people out there!
Instead, we believe that a workable definition of procrastination has to include a notion of self-defeat.
For us, procrastination has to be genuinely frustrating. It has to be working against your own, self-appointed interests, goals, and desires. It can’t just be an external diagnosis; you need to want to do something but you still find yourself taking the easy course, much to your own dismay.
Basically, you need to truly want to stop procrastinating for it to really be procrastination.
This sits well with how behavioral psychologists see procrastination happening in the real world. Many people are quick to label things like list-making and thinking time as procrastination. But these things can be part of the plan, they can be very worthwhile, and they can be perfectly fine according to the agent in question.
Real procrastination isn’t like that.
It also has to include some notion of guilt. It seems that true procrastination is always accompanied by regret, guilt, and sometimes self-loathing.
We know that what we truly want is to hand in our dissertation on time. But we know that we were weak and gave in to the desire to play Playstation in the moment. We really regret missing the deadline, and we are feel guilty for letting ourselves down over something so trivial.
The amazing things is that, in this case, we KNOW that the regret, the guilt, and the shame is coming if we play our Playstation instead of doing our dissertation, but we let the momentary impulse win anyway.
For us then, procrastination is when you delay accomplishing your true, deep goals for the sake of a momentary, trivial indulgence, which you know you will then regret on a deep level.
So we have a working definition of procrastination.
Now we need to figure out why it arises and how it works against us.
How Procrastination Works Against You
If you want to know how to avoid procrastination, then you need to understand how it arises and why.
A good place to start is this fascinating lecture by Timothy Pychyl, Professor of Psychology at Carleton University and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change:
As you’ll learn if you watch the video, Pychyl believes that procrastination is both the biggest and fastest growing problem in academia. He says the problem will continue to get worse as we encourage students to learn and work independently.
The more we work remotely, the more we self-regulate, the more opportunity we have to procrastinate.
For those of you who don’t have time to watch the video, here is a quick run-down of the key points:
- Procrastination can have both direct and indirect effects on our health and emotional well-being
- Procrastination has second-hand effects; it runs downstream and affects others
- Procrastination IS about self-regulation; it is when self-regulation fails
- It is a weakness of will – a giving in to ‘feel good’
- It is related to lots of other forms of self-regulation failure; over-eating; buying things we can’t afford; excessive gambling
- Procrastination works by negative re-enforcement; the getting rid of a negative stimulus. When you think about a task, you get negative emotions. Procrastination helps get rid of those negative emotions
- Personality influences the chances of you procrastinating; are we conscientious or not? Are we impulsive?
- The nature of our goals affects whether or not we are likely to procrastinate
Let’s flesh out the above a little.
According to Tim, procrastination is in fact a problem of self-regulation and willpower. This is largely something of habit. Procrastination is when your self-regulatory system is out of practice. There is therefore no instant cure for procrastination – the solution needs to be built through habit and consistency.
It is partly dictated by personality. If you are an extremely conscientious person then you are unlikely to procrastinate, while an incredibly impulsive person often well (they can’t “shield one goal from another”). Yet it is still not absolutely dictated by personality traits – it just makes your job of avoiding procrastination more or less difficult!
Emotional intelligence can help you stop procrastinating. It seems that if we get more in touch with our feelings, our wants, and our deeper desires, we are more able to harness those emotions and put them to good use. Tim believes that if we understand our emotions properly then we can control them more easily, which will in turn let us use them to overcome procrastination.
We are going to have negative emotions, we’re going to want to stop working, and we’re going to crave immediate relief (a Playstation marathon). If we understand these emotions and why they are arising, we can clearly see that we shouldn’t give into them.
Procrastinators make “downward counter-factuals” more often, and diligent people make “upward counter-factuals”.
As stated above, procrastination is often a product of negative re-enforcement. We have a negative emotion or thought, and we want to get rid of it asap. We therefore turn to something mind numbing and, just like that, the thought of that nasty literature review is gone! Isn’t Facebook amazing?!
Well a related problem is that people who procrastinate seek a similar feel good response to failure. When they haven’t revised for a test, they might get a C. Instead of thinking, “I could have gotten an A if I’d studied more”, they think, “I might have gotten an F, things could be worse”. They do this because this makes them feel good about their achievement, despite it being below their best.
We find tasks aversive in different ways at different stages depending on how they are structured.
When we’re planning a goal, if it doesn’t match our self-identity, if it seems to lack deeper meaning, or if it is not enjoyable, then we are going to find the task aversive. Anybody who has put off writing a plan for their dissertation will attest to this: “It’s a stupid topic anyway”, right? In the action stages, we find a lack of control or competence very frightening. This gives us a powerful aversion to the task.
If these problems arise, we will have a powerful drive to procrastinate.
How we conceptualize a goal has an ENORMOUS impact on our ability to sit down and get through the task.
When we think about things in concrete, tangible terms, our brain automatically gives them a very high priority rating. If we think “I need to change the wiper fluid today”, then our brain sees the action play out in the future and sorts that goal into the category of “must do soon”.
But if we leave our goals as far-off abstractions, our brain can’t actually conceptualize how we are going to reach it. It therefore doesn’t really register the goal at all. it certainly doesn’t give it any sort of priority rating, and it doesn’t allocate any ‘drive’ to achieve that goal.
The brain thinks in concrete terms, so you need to break down your abstract goals into discrete, actionable, concrete chunks. Otherwise your brain will treat it almost as a daydream.
Tactics To Stop Procrastinating
What can we do with all of this information?
Can we use any of this to help us procrastinate less?
The lecture above is so powerful because of how much power it puts in your hands when it comes to changing how you work. Anybody interested in becoming a more productive, successful, accomplished person will take great comfort in that talk. Because while our personality dictates how strong of an inclination to procrastinate we might have, the ball is still very much in our court.
We can change. We can become the sort of people who never procrastinate.
The implications for our productivity, our careers, and our social lives are profound to put it mildly.
So, what should you do?
Here is a list of some tactics that will help you stop procrastinating in the future. They are all simple, actionable, and they can be implemented today. They SHOULD be implemented today.
As we explained, procrastination is born of habit, so it must be killed of habit. There is no instant cure. But with 6 months of consistency, you can be the diligent, hardworking, insanely productive person you’ve always wanted to be.
Learn Some Willpower
It’s been said a thousand times, but people still don’t fully believe it: willpower is a muscle. You are born with it, but it will quickly atrophy and become weak. To grow it, you have to train it.
Psychologists now believe that willpower is a general skill. By strengthening it in one area, you become more disciplined across the board.
A great example here is meditation. We explained in this article how meditation improves concentration skills generally. By practicing lazer-like focus on one specific thing, your breath, you become better able to focus on anything, be it a lecture, writing, reading – anything. This is because you’ve taught yourself to get rid of distracting thoughts generally.
Try building in some practices that require you to concentrate. You could try meditating for 5 minutes every day, but if that’s not your bag, anything that needs dedicated focus will do: do some puzzles, read a paper or watch a video on a fun topic and take notes, play Duolingo, put on some music and REALLY listen to it.
It doesn’t matter what it is; just concentrate for 5 minutes, and try to do it every day. Before long, your willpower will be generally a lot stronger.
Write Down Your Feelings
This one definitely isn’t going to go down well with many of you, but for the more emotionally intelligent of you, this one might be the most powerful procrastination avoidance tool. This is our favorite, for sure.
The next time you find yourself procrastinating, take a notepad and pen, and just write down what you’re doing. Be brutally honest with yourself; say “I’m watching clips from The Office because editing my video essay is hard”.
If you do this a few times, you’ll realize just how pathetic your excuses sound. You need to be honest with yourself here, and you need to be on the look-out for when you’re actually procrastinating. But for most of us that’s pretty easy. Upwards of 99% of people know full well when they’re procrastinating.
Pretty soon, you’re going to want to avoid having to write “I’m not writing my introduction because I’m stupid” in a notebook. Then the thought of work will be more appealing than the procrastination itself. This is a good way to turn the tables on the negative re-enforcement trap!
In a few years when procrastination is something you barely remember, you might still have that notebook as a little trophy; a testament to your boundless mental energy and insane productivity.
Break Down Your Goals Into Discrete Chunks
Our favorite part of the Timothy Pychyl lecture is when he talks about his graduate students who, when asked “what are you doing?”, reply with “just working on my thesis”.
When somebody tells you that they’re pursuing a far-off, abstract goal right now, you know that they’re probably doing very little.
That’s because we find it almost impossible to turn abstract, ephemeral goals into action. Our brains just aren’t wired that way. Somehow, we evolved the ability to conceptualize concrete actions in the world and to imagine their possible consequences. We have the ability to imagine us doing things, and if we see a likely consequence as positive, we can make ourselves motivated and driven to do the action.
That is how motivation works. We imagine an action, we imagine the goal, and if we want the goal, we do the action and release dopamine as a reward.
It doesn’t work like that with abstract goals. Without simple, easily conceivable, discrete steps, our brain’s can’t actually conceptualize the goal. We therefore have no motivation for doing it; no drive to get things done, no dopamine reward for accomplishing things, nothing. We just have an image of us on a stage receiving an award, which as far as the brain is concerned is just a daydream.
To keep you motivated and driven, you need to take your distant goal and break it down into its individual chunks.
So if your goal is “to finish my thesis”, you need to break this down into its constituent parts.
One way to go about it might be to break up your year into months, with each month given a distinct goal: September is for gathering a reading list and doing preliminary research, October is doing a literature review and refining the question, November is laying out the structure of the thesis and organizing how each chapter will follow on from one another, and so on.
Then, at the start of each month, you break down the end goal into weekly chunks, which you then break down into daily chunks. Your weekly goal might be “define chapter order”, while your daily goals might be “finish reading that paper”, or “print out structure draft and take it to supervisor”.
All of a sudden, you no longer wake up every day thinking “I need to work on my thesis”, which means you’ll end up doing nothing.
Instead, “working on my thesis” has become “finish reading that paper”, which is very do-able. When something is very do-able, you are exponentially more likely to get out of bed and do it!
Henry is a long-time contributor to this site. He has years of experience both using natural nootropic supplements, enhancing productivity, and generally making himself a more efficient, effective, healthier person. He mainly writes about natural cognitive enhancement (through diet, behavior, practices, etc).