Are you someone who puts off till tomorrow what could be done today? Time is ticking by, yet you find yourself with an ever increasing to-do list. Even though you know there are tasks to be completed, somehow you are finding it hard to get started. If so, you are not alone. Research has shown 84% of Brits procrastinate, with 20% of us procrastinating every single day. Procrastination can lead to feelings of poor self-worth and self-criticism. Let’s consider some of the psychological processes at play with procrastination and consider steps you can take to help manage that desire to do it later.
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination is the avoidance or putting off doing a task that needs to be accomplished by a certain deadline. You may be familiar with the teenager plea of: “I’ll do it in a bit…..” Yet, many of us find ourselves making deals with ourselves, in a bit to avoid talking something in the moment. Procrastination can involve avoiding getting started or avoiding finishing a particular task. Procrastination is a common human experience, and people often report procrastination in relation to things they’d rather avoid. Perhaps you recognise some of your own procrastination hot spots?
- Avoid completing chores: the hoovering can wait till another day?
- Attending medical appointments: you tell yourself you don’t really need to bother the dentist or the GP, and that you can wait a bit longer till you book the appointment?
- Completing work or study tasks: the project doesn’t need to be started just now – you’ll get round to it eventually.
- Having a difficult conversation with a friend or acquaintance: it just seems to much for today – you’ll wait till you feel in the mood.
Psychological Impacts of Procrastination
It’s also worth reflecting on the responses you have to any form of procrastination you might exhibit. Does procrastination help you? In the short-term? How about the long term? Does procrastination enhance your self-belief and confidence? Is procrastination a form of self-care? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions but exploring them can help you to find out more about the role of procrastination in your own life, and to make meaning of your experience. For many people who seek counselling or therapy as a result of procrastination, these are questions you may like to consider and explore with your therapist.
Isn’t Procrastination just Laziness?
No matter what others around you might say, or even what you might be telling yourself, procrastination is not the same as being lazy. Procrastination is an active process – you choose to do something else instead of the task that you know you should be doing. In contrast, laziness suggests apathy, inactivity and an unwillingness to act. Again, self-reflection and consideration of the role of procrastination in your life can help you to discover more about what it is you are gaining from procrastination.
The Benefits of Procrastination?
It is possible to think of procrastination as a negative trait, in that it prevents us from being productive and can lead to feelings of failure, inadequacy and guilt. It certainly can result in these feelings. However, procrastination can be a useful short-term strategy if we consider what our desire towards procrastination might be revealing to us. Procrastination can also be considered a wise response to certain demands that could present risky or negative outcomes or require waiting for new information to arrive. Consider the school pupil who is scared of failing their assignment. Somehow, there is a logic in the process of “if I don’t start, I can’t make a mistake”. In this way, procrastination serves a protective function and a useful short-term strategy, acting as a safeguard against fears of failing.
Why do I Procrastinate, and How Can I Procrastinate less?
Psychologists have been studying some of the drivers behind our desire to procrastinate. Research has looked at why we procrastinate more in some situations than in others and what causes or leads to procrastination. An important piece of research, looked at almost 700 studies, and combined the ideas and findings. This study identified 4 main factors that increase tendency towards procrastination. As with so many things in life, effecting behavioural change begins with better understanding of the reasons for that behaviour. Let’s take a look at the 4 factors that can lead to procrastination, with strategies for managing these situations to reduce procrastination:
- Low Self-Efficacy: Self-efficacy relates to how effective a person believes they are. When we have low-self efficacy, we don’t have much confidence in our ability to complete a task or to complete it well. As a result, our likelihood of procrastinating increases. We are then less likely to get a positive result that shows us we can achieve! It’s a vicious circle, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Finding ways to believe in our abilities and success as a result can help us to procrastinate less.
- Low Value: When we need to do something that we perceive as boring, too easy or of little importance, then we are more likely to procrastinate. We can procrastinate less by making sure we have enough challenge in what we do, and really getting to understand “why” certain tasks matter, so they have more value for us.
- Impulsiveness: When we have lots of distractions, then we’re much more likely to procrastinate. We can procrastinate less by turning off notifications on tech, finding a quiet space and telling others that we need space to work without disturbance.
- Delay: If we sense we have a long time to complete a task, we are more likely to procrastinate. We can procrastinate less by setting ourselves goals and deadlines, rather than relying on other people’s deadlines.
So, procrastination can be a creative response to a situation or feelings that are difficult to face. Whilst procrastination can lead to negative long-term results, it may offer some short-term gains. Increased awareness about the role of procrastination in your life can be fruitful in making meaning of the role and function of your procrastination, opening up increased choice about the steps you take in response.
 Steel P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65–94.