What is procrastination?

Procrastination is a delay that is both intentional and harmful.

Procrastination is intentional...

Are we choosing to delay? Then we might be procrastinating.

Not on purpose? Then it's not procrastination.

If the delay isn't our choice, then it's an issue of patience, not procrastination.

...and harmful

When we choose to do low-priority things instead of high-priority things, our life will be worse than it could have been.
Rare New Form of Procrastination Identified (joke title: this is a common form of procrastination) – "a delay of the day’s most important activities because your attention shifts to less important, but perhaps seemingly more urgent, tasks. You are trading your to-do list for emergencies."

If a delay is both
  1. by choice
  2. and makes our life worse than it could have been
then it is called “procrastination.”

Not harmful? Then it's not procrastination.

If we delay low-priority things so that we can do high-priority tasks, then we're not procrastinating – we're prioritizing. The ability to say “No” is good for productivity!

No, Thursday's out.
How about never – is never good for you?

In addition, it is sometimes wise to delay a high-priority task. For example, we should give ourselves time to research and talk about an important life decision. This isn't procrastination: this is patience.

Is procrastination a problem?

Yes! Procrastination can harm your happiness, relationships, and education.

It is also widespread. More than 70% of students have problems with procrastination, and 20% have severe problems.
Tomorrow, I Love Ya! – "about 70 percent of college students say they typically procrastinate on starting or finishing their assignments (an estimated 20 percent of American adults are chronic procrastinators)"

Escape Artists – "On the surface, Robert Capp is a true success. He's a publishing executive at the top of his field. ... "As soon as I have something important to do," he says, "I get really into my head about it. I don't do it, just can't do it. Anxiety starts to build."

Luckily, you can fix it.

Urgent vs. important

When we procrastinate we do:

When we don't procrastinate, we do:

Urgent tasks

By waiting until things turn into emergencies, we spend our time "putting out fires."

Not-yet-urgent tasks

By doing things before they turn into emergencies, we control our own time.

Unimportant tasks

Procrastinators don't spend all their time putting out fires – they also spend a lot of time trying to repair their mood.

Important tasks

Instead of trying to repair their mood, non-procrastinators choose things that will make the future better.

Low-quality leisure time

We do things that make us feel better immediately but make us feel worse later.

Quality leisure time

We enjoy ourselves in ways that make our whole lives better.

Ignoring relationships

It hurts our relationships when we keep our friends waiting.
Second-hand Procrastination: How Your Procrastination May Harm Others – “In the name of "working better under pressure," too often social engagements are canceled, promises are broken, and favors called in to have others problem solve last-minute catastrophes (a jammed printer becomes a national emergency). ... Procrastination harms relationships at home and at work.

Building relationships

Our relationships are a priority.

Ignoring the big picture

We regret all the things in life that we meant to do.

Building our life

We decide what matters most in our life... and make it happen, bit by bit.

Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination is usually caused by poor emotion regulation. It works like this:

1. Giving in to anxiousness

Everybody has things to do that they don't want to think about, but procrastinators pay too much attention to the bad feeling they get when they think about the unpleasant task.

2. Doing something else to make the anxious feeling go away

Instead of just moving ahead, procrastinators decide that they need to feel better first.

3. Oh noes

Instead of feeling better, we end up feeling worse. This often leads to even more procrastination!

How to fix it

Just start

Surprisingly, the easiest trick to beat procrastination is to just ignore the feelings and start. Even 10 minutes can make a difference.
3 Tips to Reduce Procrastination Today! – "Don't "give in to feeling good" such that you focus on short-term mood repair. ... You should not try to make yourself feel better. You should get to work."

How to Be a Productive Procrastinator (NPR)
  • "If you set a timer, it kind of puts you in a race against the clock, and it's sometimes actually kind of fun because you can wash a lot of pans in 15 minutes."
  • "...number one, just, you know, lie to myself, set my goals a little lower. Say, I'm only going to read two pages because two pages is better than none. And I end up reading all 40 pages."
  • "I found enormous value in sort of just ignoring the task that you're doing and recognizing that it's going to be over eventually. It's amazingly helpful!"

Just starting has important benefits:
  • We'll find out it's not as difficult as we thought.
  • We'll feel better right away. Making progress on our goals is an excellent mood booster.
    Goal Progress and Happiness – "To the extent that we're making progress on our goals, we're happier emotionally and more satisfied with our lives."
  • The next time we start, it will be even easier.

Stay on track

Sometimes the problem isn't starting – it's getting distracted. Sometimes a quieter location helps, such as the library. Experiment and find what works for you.
Easily distracted: why it's hard to focus, and what to do about it – "To inhibit distractions, you need to be aware of your internal mental process and catch the wrong impulses before they take hold. ... Manage what you focus on."

Mindus Interruptus: Distractions are Costlier than You Think! – "students who were interrupted by the instant messages took much longer ... turn off your alerts while reading"

Be specific

Replace vague plans ("write my paper") with specific plans ("ask the librarian for help with finding my sources").
Want to Start a Task Sooner? Make it Concrete! – "when we think of a task in a more abstract way we think of it as something that belongs more to the future"

Forgive yourself to stop the "what the hell" effect

The "what-the-hell effect" occurs when we slip up a little bit, think "what the hell" and stop trying altogether. One good trick for escaping the "what-the-hell effect" is to forgive ourself for slipping up and then getting back on track.
Forgive Yourself to Stop Procrastinating – "it's just about being a little kind to ourselves so that we can focus our energies on trying again and not on beating ourselves up"

Beware the "What-the-Hell Effect," Especially on Holidays! – "Oops! I didn't mean to eat that big piece of pie. There goes my diet. Oh well, what the hell! Since I've already blown my diet, I might as well have another piece. Uh-oh. Now I've really done it. What the hell! Might as well have a third piece...or was that my fourth piece?"

The What-The-Hell Effect: What pizza and cookies can teach us about goal-setting – "Although we've talked about the what-the-hell effect in dieting, it likely occurs quite often when we set ourselves certain types of goals. It could be money, alcohol, shopping or any other area where we've set ourselves a limit. If we blow that limit, it's like we want to release all that pent-up self-control in one big rush by going way over the top."

Changing our habits is a gradual process.

Myths about procrastination

I'll feel like doing it tomorrow

...but tomorrow, we'll wish we did it yesterday.

This myth is based on an even bigger myth:

We need to feel like doing it before we do it

...but the reality is: We can to do something even if we don't want to. There's no reason to wait until we feel like doing it (we might be waiting forever!).

I work better under pressure

...but at the last minute, we don't have enough time to do things well.

I'll feel more like it tomorrow – “The second reason some people offer up for their chronic last-minute efforts is that they like the arousal [excitement of working under pressure]. ... few chronic procrastinators are really happy with their chronic delay, even when they pull it off. In fact, many people who procrastinate confide in me that they are fed up with this delay and confused about why they continue with such a maladaptive way of being.

Perfectionism causes procrastination

There is some truth to this myth.

One kind of perfectionism is associated with procrastination: when a procrastinator is afraid of what others will think of their work, they're more likely to fall into their "it's too stressful to think about this" trap.
What Flavor of Perfectionist Are You? It Matters!
  • "Self-oriented perfectionists: Adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation"
  • "Socially-prescribed perfectionists: believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (and that they can't live up to this)"

It's a time management problem

Procrastination is an emotion management problem. Even the best plan won't help if you won't follow it!
Unnecessary Illusions and the Truth about Procrastination – "ILLUSION #3: It's just poor time management. No, it's about self-regulation and willpower."
How Are You Managing Your Time? – "Procrastination is NOT a time management problem. However, if you're procrastinating, chances are you're managing your time very poorly."

In fact, making a schedule can make procrastination worse! Why? It can give us the illusion “it's all under control” and make us feel like we're productive even when we're not making any progress.

If we don't fall into this trap, then some time management activities can help reduce procrastination, such as:
  • breaking larger goals into smaller steps
  • making the next steps very clear and specific
This helps because it's easier to procrastinate about abstract things. When our thinking about tasks is concrete, it can help switch us into action mode.