We’ve all been there.
It’s the eleventh hour and you are just starting a task that you should have finished (not to mention at least begun) weeks ago. As you watch the clock tick by you rearrange your desk, clear out your email junk folder, ensure your clothes are laid out for the next day, clean out your refrigerator…anything but starting your target task.
You can’t deny it any longer: you are officially procrastinating.
What’s The Problem?
Procrastination is officially defined as “the voluntary but irrational delay of an intended course of action” (Elliot, 2002). You would be hard-pressed to meet someone who had never hesitated to start a task they knew was essential, but (for some inexplicable reason) just couldn’t bring themselves to start.
We first learn about procrastination in school, when our childhood selves became masters of last-minute homework completion and book reports hastily done based on hurried skimming the night before. However, the main consequences of procrastination occur as an adult, when the success of our jobs, relationships, financial safety, and psychological wellbeing can hinge on the timely completion of certain essential tasks.
In this article, we’ll take a brief look at what actually causes procrastination, how much control we have over it, and (ultimately) how we can stop procrastinating for once and for all.
Why This Sucks
This is actually a pretty good question. Most people who procrastinate still get the job done. It’s not like they’re delinquent on their rent, forgetting to hand in assignments in school, or missing deadlines at work, so why should we care if we get the job done at the eleventh hour?
We’ve all heard the stories of the senior who puts off writing their thesis and then gets it done in one glorious, sleep-deprived weekend of writing, all-nighters, and Redbull. Everyone knows someone who has put a proposal off to the last minute and still gotten the account. Who cares if the task gets procrastinated as long as it still gets done?
Unfortunately, research has shown that procrastination does actually lead to poorer performance. In school, it’s positively correlated to cheating and other negative consequences, and the higher a person’s tendency to procrastinate the lower their assignment scores, examination grades, course grades, and ultimately their GPA. This trend of negative results from tasks that were procrastinated persists into the workplace.
So the answer is that it sucks because you care if you procrastinate…because, although there will always be some exceptions, it usually means that the task isn’t getting done as well or as effectively.
Procrastination versus Distraction
In order to stop procrastinating, you have to first recognize when you’re doing it.
The first important thing to note is that there is a difference between procrastination and getting distracted. The best way to explain it is that procrastination is caused by Newton’s first law of motion, which states that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.
This means that, in layman’s terms, if you’re on your couch watching Netflix, you aren’t going to get up and start that critical work task unless something makes you. (This something could be a spouse commenting on your laziness, a sudden realization that you only have an hour left until it’s due, or just that nagging inner voice that says you should be doing something productive with your life.) Whatever the case, procrastination is the unexplained resistance to start a task.
Distraction is something that happens once you have already begun working on a task. If you started working immediately the second you sat down at your desk, but keep switching browser tabs every time a new email comes in, you don’t have a problem with procrastination, you have a problem with distraction. It could still be a huge issue, but it’s really a separate subject.
However, if you find yourself unsubscribing from all your junk mail before you even start your task, then you, my friend, are procrastinating.
Are You a Procrastinator?
There’s a difference between procrastinating (i.e. displaying the occasional bad behavior) and being a procrastinator (i.e. having a habitual, long-term, trait-like tendency to procrastinate).
Chances are if you self-identify as “a procrastinator” you already know it and have for quite some time, but there is evidence for procrastination as a long-term trait rather than a temporary or situational behavior. One study did a long-term study of procrastination over 10 years and found a .77 correlation between testing times, indicating that procrastination is probably a pretty stable trait (Elliot, 2002).
Interestingly enough, there is also some scientific evidence behind the idea that procrastination is actually a trait you can inherit genetically, not unlike hair color or how tall you are (Gustavson, Miyake, Hewitt, & Friedman, 2014). This research used twin studies to examine the relationship between procrastination and impulsivity, eventually showing that procrastination is “moderately heritable”, with 49% of procrastination being genetically explained.
So the fact that there’s a biological basis to procrastination might give us hope that just because we have the urge to procrastinate might not be because we are a horrible, lazy, waste of oxygen and potato chips. But does this also mean that we’re doomed to a life of uncontrollable stalling and last-minute project completion?
No. It doesn’t. A biological tendency towards doesn’t mean you’re helpless (nor does it give you an excuse). There are plenty of things that are at least partially hereditary (such as height, weight, or intelligence), but this doesn’t stop us from playing basketball (even if we’re only 5′ 2″), trying to eat healthily, or going taking classes to further our education. It’s the same with procrastination.
Biology may have dealt you a certain hand, but by managing situational factors you have the ultimate say in your behavior.
How to Handle It
Let’s take this one question at a time…
Why do people procrastinate?
As you can imagine, there is an alarmingly large array of reasons why people procrastinate. We’ve already discussed that a portion of it may be due to genetics or other ingrained traits, but what about the rest? What situational factors make people more or less likely to procrastinate?
This section goes over a few key triggers for procrastination. By understanding what triggers your procrastination, you can re-engineer your environment to minimize your risk factors.
The first thing that affects procrastination levels is the nature of the task itself. This makes intuitive sense. You might have trouble with procrastination when it comes time to complete a particularly difficult or complicated work assignment, but I doubt you have to worry about procrastinating when it comes time to read your favorite book, eat ice cream, or watch your favorite television show.
So let’s look at what specific features of a given task should put you on the lookout for procrastination.
Expectedly, task aversiveness or task appeal has been shown to be one of the largest determining factors for whether or not we procrastinate (Steel, 2007). We procrastinate more on tasks we find unpleasant than on those we enjoy. This seems almost too self-explanatory to mention, but it’s an important fact to consciously note so you can have your guard up when you see an unpleasant task coming down the pipeline.
If you’re aware that you procrastinate more on tasks you dislike, you can automatically be on the lookout for procrastination behaviors when you know you have something unpleasant to get done.
Delay of Gratification
Usually, when you do something it’s because you expect a certain benefit from it. We eat to feel less hungry, we sleep to feel rested, and we complete a tedious project proposal because they will lead to a paycheck (in the short term) or even a promotion (in the longer term). We also do tasks to avoid negative outcomes. For instance, instead of looking for a promotion, you could potentially be completing that project proposal to avoid angering your boss (short term) or simply not to get fired (long term).
The further out the reward (or the negative event you’re trying to avoid) is, the more a task is at risk for procrastination (Steel, 2007). We rarely procrastinate eating because the reward is immediate. If we had to eat a meal then wait a week or two before we got to enjoy the taste or feel full we might start skipping dinner every once in a while.
Next time you get a task that is either highly unpleasant or for which the reward is a long way off, you will know to keep an extra eye out for procrastination.
Just like task characteristics carry a higher risk for procrastination, there are some differences in people that make them more likely to be procrastinators across the board. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the individual factors that can heighten a person’s predisposition towards procrastination (Steel, 2007).
- Low Self-Esteem: People who have low self-esteem may struggle with feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, and other insecurities that can hamper performance. These have shown to have both direct and indirect (through fear of failure) links to procrastination (Bandura, 1997; Ellis & Knaus, 1977).
- Low Self-Efficacy: Whereas low self-esteem is doubt in yourself as a person, low self-efficacy is having doubts in your ability to accomplish a specific task or uncertainty about your ability to get stuff done in general. This has also been directly linked to a higher tendency to procrastinate (Steel, 2007).
- Self-Handicapping: Self-handicapping is a particularly strange behavioral pattern in which a person doesn’t have faith that their actions will be enough to change a situation, so they engage in counterproductive behaviors to give themselves an emotional excuse for their ultimate lack of success (Smith, Snyder, & Handelsman, 1982). Procrastination is a very common form of self-handicapping in which people delay the start of a task (often until the last minute) to give themselves an “out” for if their performance is poor (i.e. “I didn’t do a bad job because I’m stupid, but because I did it at the last minute).
- Depression: All kinds of negative emotional states, such as pessimism, depression, low energy, and learned helplessness have been indirectly linked to procrastination.
- Impulsiveness: Impulsivity is defined as an overactivity of the behavioral activation system (BAS, Pickering et al., 1997), a trait that can lead to things like shorter attention span and rapid decision making, which are likely to increase procrastination.
- Sensation Seeking: Similar to impulsiveness, sensation seeking leads to becoming easily bored or longing for excitement. Obviously, these behaviors go hand in hand with procrastination.
- Distractability: While getting distracted and procrastinating are actually two separate things, people who get easily distracted are also more likely to be procrastinators as both behaviors are negatively correlated to self-control.
- Organization: Organization is one of the key self-regulatory techniques that can help reduce procrastination. Organization is also notably tied to goal setting and other positive habits that can help control procrastinating tendencies.
- Achievement Motivation: Achievement motivation is basically the desire to achieve things (Steel, 2007). It is negatively correlated to procrastination as people high in achievement motivation generally enjoy tasks for their own sake (and we already learned how task appeal was one of the things that lessened procrastination).
- Intention-Action Gap: One of the major assumptions of most procrastination research is that people usually don’t intend to procrastinate and sometimes don’t even realize they’re doing it (Silver & Sabini, 1981). The concept of an intention-action talks about how well people follow up on their initial plans for getting stuff done. People who have displayed a large intention-action gap also usually display low self-control, self-regulatory failure, and (yes) procrastination.
- Age: Very unsurprisingly, people tend to procrastinate less as they get older. This is fortunate, however, because it is an indicator that as people age they learn how not to procrastinate. This, in turn, implies that learning not to procrastinate is a skill that can be taught and learned. If it were a fixed trait, we wouldn’t see this drop off as people age.
- Gender: There have been many studies on this, with mixed results. While it is safe to assume the genders are relatively equal procrastinators, some meta-analyses do show that women have a slight advantage when it comes to effortful control, making procrastination slightly more likely in men than women (Else-Quest et al., 2006).
- Year: Believe it or not, research actually indicates that procrastination is becoming more and more common across the board. Over the last 25 years, many forms of self-regulatory failure (such as obesity, debt, and gambling) have proved to be increasingly prevalent. Seeing as procrastination is, in part, due to environmental factors and influences, it is entirely possible that everyone is more likely to procrastinate than they used to be.
Is Procrastination a Mental Illness?
No, procrastination is not a mental illness. The official definition of “mental illness” is something that is present in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the guidebook for diagnosing all psychological or psychiatric disorders. Procrastination is not defined as a disease according to the most recent version, the DSM-5.
However, procrastination is mentioned as one of the symptoms of self-regulatory failure, which could be one of the contributors to a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, which is recognized in the DSM-5. So while procrastination in and of itself isn’t a mental illness, it could be one of the signs that (when accompanied by a host of other warning signs and symptoms) something larger is wrong.
Is it Possible to Stop Procrastinating?
Even though procrastination can have biological or even genetic causes, it is possible to stop procrastinating. You simply have to utilize the right tools and strategies for your specific situation. For example, the twin study we discussed above showed that although procrastination was 49% heritable, much of the variation was caused by goal-management ability (Gustavson et al, 2014. This is significant because, while many people think they’re doomed to a life of chronic procrastination, goal management ability is something that can easily be trained, learned, and improved upon.
So if it is possible to learn how to stop procrastination, how do you do it?
How Do I Stop Procrastinating?
Now that you know what procrastinating is, where it comes from, and who’s most at risk, we get to the only thing you cared about this whole time: how to stop procrastinating.
Whether you’re a chronic procrastinator or just someone who struggles with the occasional tendency, these five steps are a simple (if not always easy) way to stop procrastinating.
Step 1: Realize When You’re Doing It
There is a difference between passive procrastination (which occurs irrationally and largely without a person’s knowledge) and active procrastination (where people intentionally choose to take tasks at a slower pace. The first step to fixing procrastination is beginning to notice when it occurs.
When you know you have a task to get done, grab a piece of paper and start noting each time you decide to check your email, reorganize your to do list, or clean your desk before starting a task.
By noting what types of activities you use to procrastinate and when they tend to sneak up on you, you can start guarding against unwelcome procrastination behaviors.
Step 2: Know Which Tasks are High Risk
Everyone has tasks they hate.
You know the ones I mean. It might be a certain type of paperwork, month-end invoices, or some other drudgery that should really be illegal. Whatever it is, you know that every time it comes up you feel a wave of dread welling inside you.
Yes, every once in a while you will procrastinate on something you usually like but for which you just aren’t in the mood, but a heavy majority of procrastination will be toward tasks that are highly unpleasant and for which the reward is not going to happen for a while. So next time you hear that you have to do a task you not only dislike but for which you will receive no immediate reward, you should hear warning buzzers go off in your head.
Step 3: Break Tasks Down Into Chunks
When you look at an entire task, project, or assignment it might seem pretty overwhelming. Who wouldn’t procrastinate when faced with a giant and seemingly-insurmountable task in front of them, especially one they strongly dislike doing.
However, if you break your task down into manageable, “bite-sized” chunks, you can turn a task you absolutely dread into one for which you only show mild distaste or even victorious ambivalence.
For example, if you have to write a 40-page report, split it up into ten four-page sections. Writing 40 pages is sadistic; writing 4 is manageable. By chunking your task into more manageable steps, you will bring down the level of aversion to your task and with it your likelihood of procrastination.
Step 4: Create a Specific Schedule with Consequences
Everyone creates a schedule when they have a task…or so they think.
“I’ll get it done by 5pm on Friday” feels like a schedule, but it’s just as easy to get it done at 6pm Friday or (11:57pm on Sunday) regardless of what your plan was.
The important parts here are to create a specific schedule and to create a schedule with consequences.
Here’s a specific version of the previous statement:
“I’m going to start writing the first section of my report at 3:30pm on Friday and have at least half of it done by 4pm.”
The difference here is that you didn’t just give yourself a deadline, you figured out what specific steps needed to be taken to make that deadline possible and found a way to measure how you were progressing towards your goal. This strategy is described in detail in my article on SMART goals, but the overall point is that you need to know when to start each of the chunks you identified in Step 3 and about when you should have them finished.
Here’s a version of that statement with consequences:
“I’m going to start writing the first section of my report at 3:30pm on Friday and if I don’t have at least half of it done by 4pm I won’t break for dinner until I do.”
It’s basically the same thing, but you’ve given yourself a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ option for how the task will still get done if you procrastinate. This also serves the dual purpose of giving yourself an immediate and tangible consequence for procrastinating. We talked earlier about how procrastination is more likely when the reward for a task (or punishment for not completing it) is delayed. This helps bring some immediacy into your consideration and thereby decreases procrastination. You may not care about a far-off event, but you darn sure don’t want to delay dinner.
Step 5: Honestly Reassess Your Progress Periodically
All the plans in the world will do you very little good if you can’t honestly look at your progress and assess what’s going well or badly.
Projects occasionally expand in scope, the amount of work could differ from what you initially expected, or something else could go wrong. Add in the potential for procrastination and you can see why it is necessary to stop every once in a while and check your progress against the plan you set forth in Step 3 and Step 4.
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Procrastination is a problem many people encounter when attempting to accomplish tasks that are difficult, unpleasant, or involve delayed rewards. While some struggle with it more than others, there are specific steps you can take to make procrastination much easier to avoid.
Your friendly neighborhood to do list aficionado,
Liz Bayardelle, PhD
Liz is the mom of three human(ish) kids, three furkids, three businesses, and eight blogs. She also has a PhD in Business Psychology, several published books on parenting psychology, and a serious Chick-fil-a addiction. Hobbies include color coding anything that will hold still, reading textbooks for fun, swearing at her herd of dustbunnies, and nodding off mid-sentence at the dinner table.
- Elliot, R. (2002). A ten-year study of procrastination stability. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Louisiana, Monroe.
- Gustavson, D. E., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J. K., & Friedman, N. P. (2014). Genetic relations among procrastination, impulsivity, and goal-management ability: Implications for the evolutionary origin of procrastination. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1178-1188.
- Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65-94.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
- Ellis, A., & Knaus, W. J. (1977). Overcoming procrastination. New York: Signet Books.
- Smith, T. W., Snyder, C. R., & Handelsman, M. M. (1982). On the self-serving function of an academic wooden leg: Test anxiety as a self-handicapping strategy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 314-321.
- Pickering, A. D., Corr, P. J., Powell, J. H., Kumari, V., Thornton, J. C., & Gray, J. A. (1997). Individual differences in reactions to reinforcing stimuli are neither black nor white: To what extent are they gray? In H. Nyborg (Ed.), The scientific study of human nature: Tribute to Hans J. Eysenck at eighty (pp. 36-67). Oxford, England: Pergamon/Elsevier Science.
- Silver, M., & Sabini, J. (1981). Procrastinating. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 11, 207-221.
- Kim, S., Fernandez, S., & Terrier, L. (2017) Procrastination, personality traits, and academic performance: When active and passive procrastination tell a different story. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 154-157.
- Else-Quest, N. M., Hyde, J. S., Goldsmith, H. H., & Van Hulle, C. A. (2006). Gender differences in temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 33-72.