It’s Thursday, the day before your deadline, and you haven’t even begun your project. You frantically get started with one goal in mind: I have to get it done by tomorrow. But on the way, goldmines of distractions await you: various tabs open on your browser, notifications buzzing on your phone, and, before you know it, you’re halfway out of your chair laughing at a hilariously relatable cat video. Does this scenario seem familiar to you? Yes, the nitty-gritty details may differ, but it’s possible that many of us struggle with reasons for delaying tasks beyond our control. This article unpacks the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of procrastination, and how you can improve your understanding of this common habit.
What is procrastination?
We ordinarily define procrastination as the act of delaying or putting off important tasks until or after their deadline. Researchers define it as “a form of self-regulation failure that is characterized by the needless delay of things one intends to do despite the expectation of negative consequences.” Procrastination is complex because, regardless of the many negative repercussions we may face, it doesn’t stop us from procrastinating. It’s no wonder researchers include “self-regulation failure” in their attempts to define procrastination.
But wait, what does self-regulation have to do with procrastination?
Before we move on, let’s break down self-regulation. There are multiple ways to define self-regulation, but in essence, it’s our ability to control our response to our emotions, our behavior, and our thoughts. When researchers call procrastination a “self-regulation failure,” what it really means is that we lack impulse control. Procrastination researchers say task aversion “leads to unpleasant feelings or negative mood” and argue that “self-regulation failure has a great deal to do with short-term mood repair and emotion regulation.” The connection between procrastination and self-regulation is that when we procrastinate, we don’t act in accordance with our values; rather, we unknowingly follow our emotional impulses and attempt to avoid a task in order to regulate our mood.
Think back to a time when you’ve dreaded doing a task, whether that’s doing the dishes, studying for an exam, or giving a presentation. In such an event, you could have felt stress, fear, anxiety, etc. Unknowingly, you may have distracted yourself from the negative emotion and attempted to self-regulate by doing something else unrelated to your task. In this scenario, you might have procrastinated in order to self-regulate. Has this ever happened to you before? Don’t fret — you’re not alone. But before you think it’s all gloom and doom, let’s look at the other side of procrastination, or rather, pre-crastination.
What is pre-crastination?
Adam Grant is the bearer of good news for all the guilt-ridden procrastinators out there. Professor of organizational psychology, Adam Grant has a unique perspective on procrastination. In one of his Ted Talks, he speaks about his experience as a pre-crastinator: a person who feels inclined to start a task straight away and get it out of the way as soon as possible. Grant was, without a doubt, the epitome of a pre-crastinator; he submitted his dissertation two years before its due date, handed in tasks long before their submission dates, and completed his thesis four months prior to its deadline. While this may look like efficiency on the surface, there’s more to this story
Grant discovered that pre-crastinators and procrastinators are not that different; just as procrastinators actively look for ways to delay work on their projects, pre-crastinators compulsively work on their projects almost immediately so they don’t have to think about their projects for days on end. The disadvantage of being a pre-crastinator is that you may rush through projects, putting less effort into tasks, which, ironically, can make you less productive. Procrastination and pre-crastination are two sides of the same coin, and both require a balanced approach.
The upside of procrastination
Once Adam Grant came to terms with his habit as a pre-crastinator, he was determined to challenge himself to become a procrastinator. This is what he discovered through his experiment:
- Originals like Martin Luther King Jr., Leonardo da Vinci, and Frank Lloyd Wright procrastinated on some of their greatest works: King’s I Have a Dream speech, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting, and Wright’s architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater.
- The first ideas we have for a project can be unoriginal, but if we delay our projects, we allow our minds to wander and find unexpected connections between ideas.
- When you complete a project early, you’re less likely to continue to think about it, whereas if you procrastinate a little, your project lingers at the back of your mind, which leads to more creative ideas.
This doesn’t mean that we should encourage procrastination habits per se. We can, however, delay finishing tasks too early to make room for divergent thinking, as Grant encourages. But there’s a dark side to being on the far end of the spectrum of procrastination, which we also need to keep in mind before diving too deeply into the pool of procrastination. The main objective is to find a healthy balance.
What does the research say about procrastination?
Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., professor of psychology and researcher of procrastination, says that “everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator”. In his body of work, he reiterates that 20% of adults may be chronic procrastinators; despite this, many adults who are not chronic procrastinators do procrastinate in many areas of their lives. In his book, Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, he discusses procrastination as a cognitive-behavioral problem and maladaptive lifestyle that has been learned. Dr. Ferrari says that procrastinators not only procrastinate on tasks but also in their daily lives, which affects their homes, relationships, and work.
Dr. Ferrari identifies 3 types of procrastinators:
- The Thrill-Seeker is the last-minute procrastinator who leaves everything until the very last minute. People who fall under this category often say things like “I work best under pressure.” In reality, these people are wasting time with something else and then, right before the deadline, they scramble through their tasks and get them done at the last minute. These procrastinators are arousal seekers who live for the exhilarating rush of completing their tasks on time.
- The Avoidant is a procrastinator that delays or puts off tasks because of fear. The avoider wants to avoid a particular outcome because of possible underlying fears: imposter syndrome, social isolation, or of success or failure. The avoidant is a procrastinator who dreads getting feedback and has a chronic fear of caring too much about what people think of them.
- The Indecisive is a decisional procrastinator who delays tasks by being indecisive. These procrastinators tend to be perfectionists, but in reality, have developed a coping strategy of indecisiveness that frees them from taking responsibility for their performance.
What are some consequences of procrastination?
Procrastination can make you vulnerable to stress
Rushing to finish a project that you’ve procrastinated on when time is working against you can be stressful. In Procrastination, Health, and Well-Being, Fuschia M. Sirois writes that stress activates our fight-or-flight response and “is involved in changes in heart rate, respiration rate, blood flow to the muscles, and suppression of digestive functioning all for the purpose of mobilizing the body’s resources to be in a preparatory state to respond to immediate threats.” A whole host of reactions are activated when our bodies are under stress, including our immune systems. In short, stress makes us vulnerable to illness because of its impact on our immunity. So when we procrastinate, we’re putting our bodies through unnecessary stress.
Procrastination can decrease your overall life satisfaction
In one study, a group of researchers discovered that the level of life satisfaction of participants correlated with their levels of procrastination. In another study, researchers found similar results. A group of Germans from ages 14 to 95 partook in a study where researchers measured their levels of procrastination using what they call the General Procrastination Scale. The researchers examined the participants’ perceived levels of anxiety, fatigue, depression, stress, and life satisfaction alongside the self-reported answers. The results conveyed two things: groups aged 14 to 29 were the biggest procrastinators and males procrastinated more than females. The results also showed that procrastination corresponded with increased levels of stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and lower levels of life satisfaction. What’s telling is how procrastination can influence many areas of our mental health and how it covers a broad scope of our lives, including how satisfied we are with our lives.
Procrastination can be a potential health risk
Procrastination isn’t only limited to the tasks we do at university and work; it also muddles its way into health-related tasks, such as delaying doctor’s visits, skipping exercise routines, or putting off changing our diets. When procrastination manifests in our lifestyle, it can be a major health risk long-term. “Health problems that are not treated promptly or at all may linger or worsen, and may contribute to a poorer overall state of health,” says Sirois. While putting off seemingly unimportant checkups at the doctor may seem harmless at face value, there’s a risk of an illness going undetected, or developing chronic illnesses due to proper preventive methods. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that “unhealthy diets and low physical activity are among the key risk factors for major chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes.” Due to the impact on our health, procrastination can be a holistic health problem, but on the flip side, focusing on our holistic health can help with procrastination.
You find out you may have a procrastination problem. What now?
Here are some tips that could help you prevent procrastination or improve how much you procrastinate! This is just a guide, not an exhaustive list: try and see what works for you.
- Reflect and journal — Notice what you procrastinate on. Which tasks do you delay, and why? Understanding what you procrastinate on can give you insight into why you procrastinate. Are you the Thrill-Seeker, the Avoidant, or the Indecisive? As Nic Voge, director of Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and developer of self-worth theory, says, “to understand the roots of procrastination helps us weaken it.”
- Notice your self-talk and bodily sensations — Before we even attempt to look at strategies to help us procrastinate less, it’s vital to become aware of what comes up in our minds and bodies before we procrastinate. Fear, for example, can talk us into delaying a task without us fully realizing it. Learning to sit with our fears instead of using procrastination as a form of self-regulation can empower us.
- Figure out what motivates you — At times we’ll be faced with a task that we’re uninterested in or that challenges us. This is the perfect opportunity to gain clarity on what motivates you to take action. When a task seems too daunting or challenging, try Nic Vogue’s perspective question: “How does this fit with my mission?” Challenging ourselves with “bigger picture” questions can be helpful to override uncomfortable feelings that trigger us to procrastinate.
- Create structure — People often procrastinate because they have no strategy or objective for how they intend on doing a particular task. Instead of starting right away with a task, it might be helpful to create a structure or plan for how you’ll execute your task. Try breaking up your task into micro-tasks and create a timeline for how you’d like to tackle your task.
- Time-track — People who procrastinate tend to underestimate the time it takes to complete a task. Lack of time management and accountability can cause us to miss deadlines. Using a system that tracks the time on your project and someone who will hold you accountable for reaching your deadline could help us circumvent this problem.
- Delete tasks from your to-do list — Sometimes we overwhelm ourselves with endless to-do lists. It’s important to know what your priorities are and extract tasks from our to-do list that are unimportant.
- Be realistic — Avoid setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and consider the time needed to complete a task. Account for time spent on micro-breaks, appointments, lunch breaks, and meetings.
- Visualize your futureself — Srini Pillay, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, suggests visualizing all the steps needed to accomplish the task. He recommends dedicating 15 minutes of visualization because “tinkering with your imagination turns on this unfocused circuit and helps you put together the missing puzzle pieces.” There’s no harm in trying, right?
Side note: people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), and other mental health disorders like depression may struggle with procrastination. Along with those who are chronic procrastinators, people with these disorders are advised to seek professional assistance.
Although procrastination has been researched extensively, there are still gaps on what the consequences entail. While the growing body of research seems to study procrastination mostly in academic contexts, more research is exposing the various health risks related to procrastination. Nevertheless, self-inquiry about why you procrastinate can be beneficial to your holistic health. Understanding your impulses and why you procrastinate can provide you with helpful information to unlearn thoughts, habits, and behaviors that trigger procrastination.