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Why you procrastinate (and what to do about it)

How much more could you get done with an extra 218 minutes of free time every day? Or an additional 55 days each year? 

That's the time an average person wastes procrastinating, according to peer-reviewed studies – with the top time wasters being too much TV, aimless internet surfing and meandering social media usage – or "Facebrocrastination". 

Twenty per cent of us identify ourselves as chronic procrastinators, 73 per cent of us want to stop all procrastinating, and 50 per cent of us see our procrastination as dysfunctional.  

Ironically enough, this article took me a couple of months to write – so this comes from a place of personal experience as well as professional!

The six golden rules of procrastination

1.    Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.
2.    All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination. Delaying action or decisions can be a positive or "active procrastination". Certainly, it's sometimes worthwhile to allow further thinking time, allowing us to do other more important tasks (it's just prioritising, right?).
3.    The reasons why we procrastinate have NOTHING to do with poor time-management, but rather our desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure and a failure of self-regulation. 
4.    Problem procrastinators are those who engage in culpably unwarranted irrational delay. 
5.    Procrastination is associated with a wide variety of negative health, wellbeing, productivity and performance outcomes. 
6.    Stopping passive procrastination is possible.

The three types of procrastinators – which are you?

You're an "arousal procrastinator" i.e. a thrill-seeker if you regularly:
•    Tend to put things off to the last possible minute
•    Enjoy the adrenaline rush of an almost-impossible deadline

You're an "avoidant procrastinator" i.e. someone who distracts yourself from unpleasant emotion such as fear, worry, anxiety or panic if you regularly:
•    Put off what you know you should be doing in favour of something else that is of less immediate importance but holds no pain
•    Tend to frequently delay or avoid doing something you perceive as unpleasant or stressful until you are in the "right mood"
•    Wait until it's too late and the deadline passes or someone else resolves the issue
•    Would rather have others think you're lazy than lack ability
•    Are tempted by immediate gratification

You're a "decisional procrastinator" i.e. if you find making decisions difficult and painful, feeling tormented before the door of big decisions and you regularly:
•    Can't or won't make a decision
•    Simply feel you don't know what to do
•    Want to be absolved of responsibility for the outcome
•    Feel lacking in courage

You can be one of these procrastinators, or a combination – and I think we all know someone who is all three!

Why do we procrastinate?

Despite what the super-organised may believe, the contemporary evidence emphasises that a procrastinator's behaviour is NOT caused by a lack of time management or poor planning.

Looking at the Big 5 personality factors, those who score at the low end for conscientiousness and the high end for optimism are more likely to procrastinate, as are those with lower self-regulation – where we give in to feeling good by prioritising short-term mood repair and avoiding stuff that is painful (stressful) or which may make us feel bad (anxious, overwhelmed, out of our depth). 

Many of us, without realising it, instinctively retreat to our comfort zone and try our best never to leave it. Procrastination is a result of that.

But all those who have ever sat on or delayed things will know the bad feelings and guilt that ensue. It's beyond ironic that in the pursuit of avoiding pain in the here and now, we can create a world of even worse pain for our future self. 

So, is procrastination bad for us?

'Fraid so, yes.

Most of the current evidence on procrastination describes it as a maladaptive, detrimental and self-undermining behaviour. 

We might kid ourselves that leaving things to the last minute means we'll do a better job because of the added pressure, but studies have shown that procrastinators are more likely to make mistakes – and in general, people who continually put things off are unhappier, as well as being less wealthy and healthy in comparison with those who get things done promptly. 

Other adverse effects of procrastination are anxiety, tension, loss of valuable opportunities, as well as the breakdown of relationships with other people, and even chronic disease (putting off that check-up, exercise regime, etc).

And, as I've written about before, bedtime procrastination may also be the key factor in contribution to the pandemic of sleep insufficiency that is currently and deservedly the subject of great attention. 

So, if you're a procrastinator (as opposed to someone who occasionally procrastinates), there's no doubt – it's bad for you! 

What should we do about it? 

Before we jump into specific strategies, there are a few guidance points to consider to make sure we're approaching the topic with the appropriate level of compassionate non-judgment and self-reflection:

1.    Procrastinators may act as if they have all the time in the world. But deep down, they know they're wasting parts of their life and they feel bad on the inside because of it. The trouble is, most of them don't know how to free themselves.
2.    Telling someone who procrastinates to manage their time better is like telling someone with severe depression to just cheer up.
3.    The process of overcoming procrastination can begin once someone is able to admit that when they are delaying action, they're really avoiding pain. 
4.    Whenever they feel procrastination creeping upon them, the key thing is to encourage a habit of 'moving towards' the pain instead of away from it and become more willing to take creative and emotional risks because they feel better equipped to cope with failure. 

OK, so now we've set the ground rules, here are nine strategies for dealing with procrastination:

1.    Notice when you are on the verge of procrastinating. Explore it. Get curious. "Why am I resisting this?" Try a five-minute mindfulness practice. 
2.    Actively shift to a positive and growth mindset, dropping the fixed or negative one. Ask yourself, "What are the positive and motivating reasons to do this now?" See this as a learning process rather than as a measure of your ability.  
3.    Visualise the ideal future. Ask yourself, "What's the one step I could take right now to move me towards that?" Then do it. 
4.    Tackle the worst first, not the easy. Do the difficult and most important first. In the sentiment of Mark Twain, if your job requires you to eat a frog, eat it in the morning. If you need to swallow two frogs, eat them both before anything else. 
5.    Remember that an imperfect step taken today is better than a perfect step never taken.
6.    Remove distractions and interruptions whilst allowing yourself a break every 15 minutes if you need it (as a positive reward).  Chances are once you get started in a suitably quiet place, you won't want to take a break – but at 90 minutes, put down the tools and enforce a breather. 
7.    Be wary of "purposefully delaying". Yes, this may be sensible re-prioritising, but in all probability, it's more likely to be an amygdala hijack driven by our strong feelings to avoid pain. 
8.    Write a to-do list of tasks and goals, prioritising and numbering them from most important to least important. For each task, ask yourself whether you should do it, delegate it or dump it. Then act accordingly. Break the tasks you are keeping into the smaller steps involved, estimating realistically how much time they will take. Allocate these into your schedule, then print it out and keep it in a place where you can see it regularly. I know I said time-management wasn't the issue but being functionally competent in these aspects is always going to help!
9.    Don't beat yourself up if you do procrastinate. Procrastination has been as issue since the beginning of time. It has negative connotations of self-blame and shame, so it's important to keep these feelings in check, channelling self-compassion and forgiveness. 

Don't procrastinate when it comes to stopping procrastination

If you've identified yourself as one (or all) of our "problem procrastinators", applying some of the recommended help strategies can have a profound effect.

Problem procrastination affects our productivity and psychological wellbeing – involving feelings of anxiety, stress, guilt, shame and depression. 

Like my delay with writing this article, those of us who suffer procrastination are often masters of disguise – covering our avoidance behaviours by being very busy. 

The basic notion of procrastination is as a self-regulation failure – we know what we ought to do and we're not able to bring ourselves to do it. 

It's that gap between intention and action.

Hopefully your next action is a positive one!

Audrey McGibbon is a registered psychologist. She has an MA in Psychology and Business and an MSc in Psychotherapy Studies, focusing on the factors that drive wellbeing for senior executives. 
Along with Karen Gillespie, Audrey created the GLWS wellbeing survey, which is used to provide a complete view of the factors affecting a business leader's energy, resilience and wellbeing.

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