You are probably very familiar with procrastination.
For many, procrastination becomes a life-long shadow, following them around wherever they go. Always on hand to help them delay the important work that they need to be doing. Always postponing their dreams and desires until a later stage.
The biggest lie that procrastination tells us is that there is time, that it is ok to delay now because the work can always be done at a later stage. But we know the truth. We are poor custodians of time.
The ironic paradox of procrastination is that we are acutely aware of the benefits of completing the work that we have set out to do. In many ways, we want to do something because we wish to advance our position in life. And yet, we remain unmoved.
This is my attempt to help you get unstuck.
The Essence of Procrastination
Procrastination is derived from the Latin word procrastinare, which means ‘defer till the morning’. It can be described as putting off until later what our better judgement tells us ought (preferably) to be done now, thereby incurring unwanted consequences through such dilatory behaviour (Neenan, 2008).
Dryden (2012) pointed out that there are two broad types of procrastination:
- Chronic situation specific – this refers to procrastination in one specific area of your life. For example, constantly missing tax deadlines. This is mostly due to your relationship with the specific task at hand.
- Chronic cross situational – this type affects all areas of life, spilling over from one area to the other with little regard for the particular activity at the time. This, in my opinion points to an underlying emotional or behavioural issue.
Procrastination is often misunderstood. We misjudge it in one of two ways:
1- We exaggerate our affliction. The odd procrastination here and there is not as big a problem as the tendency to chronically procrastinate. It’s only when it becomes a persistent behavioural pattern that you should truly become concerned. It’s therefore ok if you procrastinate a bit from time to time. You are human after all.
2- We confuse our procrastination with laziness or a lack of willpower or ambition. Our cure for this is generally a shot in the arm of motivation or shaming the one procrastinating. We judge such people with statements such as, “Don’t you want it bad enough?” or “Get your ass in gear”. Such tactics rarely work.
Procrastination manifests itself in the physical but often has its roots in the psyche.
The Costs of Procrastination
Before we talk about the costs of procrastination, I want to make an important point. As you will soon see, procrastination is often caused by the fear of a specific outcome. In other words, being overly focused on the consequences of procrastination has a way of keeping one trapped in a vicious cycle. And while the costs of procrastinating are certainly real, you would do well not to dwell on it.
Often people report that they function well under stress. So, in a way, procrastination for such types actually helps them to be at their best (Steel, 2007).
However, relying on procrastination to provide stress for fuel is poor planning to put it mildly. This line of reasoning has several faults:
- It neglects the ingraining behavioural pattern that is forming as a result, a pattern that is easily replicated in other areas of one’s life.
- Procrastination has a negative impact on career and financial success (Steel, 2007).
- It does not provide a buffer for any unforeseen situations that might interfere with getting the work done on time.
- Some stress is good. However, a lot of stress due to a looming deadline and other contributing factors is not.
Perhaps the greatest cost of procrastination is that it gets in the way of you living your best life.
Procrastination in all cases has a component of delay, though in some cases the delay extends into infinity and at worst ends in regret. For example:
The entrepreneur who never started.
The guy who never asked that girl out.
The person who waited for the perfect moment that never came.
Do not let procrastination similarly rob you of a life well lived.
Why we Procrastinate
Procrastination comes in many shapes and forms. It’s useful to understand the mechanics behind it if we are to overcome it.
Something interesting, but not surprising, is that researchers have found that the incidence of procrastination tends to increase with each consecutive publication year of research. This shows that procrastination seems to be on the rise (Rozental & Carlbring, 2014).
Why is this interesting, but not surprising? Because we are constantly surrounded by distraction. Instead of writing this article, I could reach over to my phone and play poker, read about golf, scroll through Instagram, or do a myriad of other things. Accessible mindless distraction is a temptation for all of us.
The task at hand
Although there are many masked causes of procrastination, we cannot overlook one of the most obvious reasons for its presence: sometimes we simply despise the task at hand.
The tendency to delay is worsened if we are quick to bore (Scher & Ferrari, 2000). The same can be said for those who have a relatively low level of motivation (Steel, 2007).
In coaching and therapy, much time is spent in the domain of beliefs. Coaching explores irrational beliefs which lead to anxiety. This includes the fear of failure, impostor syndrome, perfectionism and self-doubt.
Self-efficacy, defined as “believing in one’s ability to perform a given course of action”, has moderate ties to procrastination (Scher & Ferrari, 2000).
To put it differently, if you do not trust your ability to execute well on a certain task, you might prefer to delay it instead of facing the ensuing feeling of incompetence. The instigator for delay is the voice inside of your head that spouts negativity and self-defeating statements such as “I am not good enough” or “I will never be able to complete this”.
Thus, when eventually thrust into a situation with a deadline looming, the person with a low belief in their ability will leave the task until the last minute and then execute it with reduced ability.
When this leads to a poor outcome, the person cements that belief and carries it with them to the next task of a similar nature.
A low frustration tolerance, as described by Albert Ellis, ties nicely into the idea of irrational beliefs and the importance of self-efficacy. A low frustration tolerance relates to our inability to endure when it comes to tasks that frustrate us. Many have cited this as the main reason for procrastination.
Low frustration tolerance has two components, namely ego disturbance and discomfort disturbance.
The underlying assumptions here are that:
• We prefer our ego (image of self) not to be disturbed.
• We seek out comfort instead of discomfort.
To assist with the process of ‘diagnosing’ procrastination, I found it helpful to look at the six different styles of procrastination, as described by Sapadin and Maguire (1999):
- The Perfectionist does not start or finish in case it is not perfect in the eyes of others or self. Typical for creatives and entrepreneurs.
- The Dreamer wants life to be smooth. They love to dream big without translating it into action. If their dreams never become reality, then they can never fail.
- The Worrier is always wondering “what if something goes wrong?” They get caught up in their heads and overanalyse the situation.
- The Defier is resistant to the instruction of others because they do not want to be told what to do. They procrastinate not because of the task at hand but because of their relationship with the task giver.
- The Crisis Maker likes living on the edge. They feel that the added pressure of a looming deadline makes them work better.
- The Overdoer takes on too much without establishing priorities and boundaries. They ultimately realise that they are overcommitted and start losing their grasp on the task.
The six styles are helpful for the sake of creating awareness. It’s often easier to identify with an archetype than with a string of characteristics.
It bears mentioning that you are probably a mixture of styles and that these will vary depending on the task and area of your life that is thereby affected.
Dealing with Procrastination
Obviously, there is no magical cure for procrastination. Nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution. This does not mean that hope is lost though.
You can deal with procrastination by approaching it from two different angles. The first option is to focus on the behavioural component and the second is to focus on the cognitive aspect.
This approach attempts to minimise the impact of the environment on the task that you are doing and to modulate the banality of the task itself.
The first strategy would be to eliminate options from the environment. Think of it as choice minimalism, in that you are actively removing distraction and temptation. If you are trying to lose weight, then you will be foolish to keep a chocolate cake in the fridge, for example. The same goes for procrastination.
A few ideas:
- Turn off notifications on your phone.
- Change your phone screen to greyscale.
- Activate ‘Do not disturb’ mode.
- Install a social media blocker.
The second strategy would be the use of routine. This ranges from scheduling specific blocks of time for when you will be at a certain place doing a specific task to creating smaller rituals around activities. One such ritual for me is that I always take off my watch when I write. It makes my hands feel light and therefore (in my head) makes it easier to type and remain in flow.
The third strategy is directed at the avoidance behaviour itself. Burka and Yuen (2008) said that breaking through the pain threshold often requires short exposures to the activity itself. For instance, committing to sit down and work for 15 minutes before breaking might provide you with enough momentum to simply keep going. I have found this to work particularly well for big projects that require intense concentration and might initially feel overwhelming.
You can structure this ‘forced fifteen’ based either on output or input. In other words, you might commit to writing for 15 minutes (input) or until you hit a certain word count (output).
The fourth strategy is to ensure you have a definable goal that you are working towards. Of course, you will feel unmotivated if you are vague about what you want to achieve.
Here the aim is to deal with the deeper underlying causes of procrastination which often manifest as fear, anxiety or irrational beliefs.
Continuing from before, the fifth strategy would be to review and reframe any belief that might be hindering you from taking action.
To do this you first need to pinpoint the exact belief that needs to be changed. This is often quite obvious if you sit with it long enough. An easy way to elicit the belief is to imagine yourself doing the task and the outcome thereof.
In doing so, the unaware perfectionist might come to see how their need for perfectionism is preventing them from moving forward. They can also then imagine a scenario where they simply give their best and then use the outcome as feedback. It might also be worth exploring the cost of perfectionism and the reward of good enough (but not perfect) work.
Once this exercise has been done, the procrastinator can reframe the irrational belief into a more rational and sustaining one. This could be something like, “I will give my best and it will be good enough”.
The sixth strategy would be to work with a professional coach. You will find that you see clearer when someone holds up a mirror to you.
The reason I decided to write about procrastination is because I see it affecting everyone I coach in one way or another.
The truth is that we don’t require more information. We know how to lose weight. We know how to get more customers. We know how to do. But when fear and environment kick in, we often become stuck.
It is therefore useful to see how procrastination plays out in your life. I am hoping that you can use some of the strategies I have outlined above to create unstoppable momentum in whatever you do.
Acta non verba,
Want to work with me?
I am a personal performance coach and speaker. I would love to speak at your business about procrastination or coach you or your employees to become more effective and ultimately overcome procrastination. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will set up a quick 20-minute meeting for me to better understand your context.
Psychology of Personal Performance podcast
You can also listen to this article on the Psychology of Personal Performance podcast. Subscribe and listen using the links below:
References for further reading
Burka, J., & Yuen, L. (2008). Procrastination: Why you do it, what to do about it now. Cambridge, MA: DaCapoPress.
Dryden, W. (2012). Dealing with procrastination: The REBT approach and a demonstration session. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 30(4), 264-281.
Rozental, A., & Carlbring, P. (2014). Understanding and treating procrastination: A review of a common self-regulatory failure. Psychology, 5(13), 1488.
Sapadin, L., & Maguire, J. (1999). Beat procrastination and make the grade: The six styles of procrastination and how students can overcome them. Peguin Books.
Scher, S. J., & Ferrari, J. R. (2000). The recall of completed and noncompleted tasks through daily logs to measure procrastination. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(5), 255.
Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65.