Is waiting until the last minute an innocuous habit? Or does failure to act on your intentions have more serious health consequences? Here I take a look at procrastination and provide five evidence-based tips to help you stop putting things off until tomorrow.
We’ve all been there. The deadline is looming and you know it’s finally time to sit down and complete your annual tax return. Instead, it dawns on you that you haven’t walked the dog since yesterday, you haven’t had your morning coffee, and it’s been at least two hours since you last scrolled through the latest family news on Facebook. The prospect of abiding by tax regulations just doesn’t have the same immediate appeal as social media or caffeine.
Putting off until tomorrow what you could do today is commonplace.
Up to 46% of college students report they procrastinate on specific academic tasks, and about 10% to 20% of adults in the general population are chronic procrastinators.
Scientists who study procrastination define it as “a voluntary delay of an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay”.
They find that people who procrastinate have a tendency to choose short-term gratification over long-term more-worthwhile goals. And they may do so even when the delay has serious health, academic or financial implications.
Chronic procrastination is not a mental health diagnosis, but is associated with:
- increased stress and anxiety
- poor grades in school
- poor performance at work
- and reduced wellbeing.
Is procrastination just poor time management?
Procrastination is often attributed to poor time management.
However, Professor Joe Ferrari author of the book Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, disagrees. Ferrari explains chronic procrastination is due to poor self-regulation, not poor time-management. This might explain why learning time-management skills doesn’t typically help those afflicted.
Ferrari also notes that telling the chronic procrastinator to ‘just do it’ would be like saying to a clinically depressed person to ‘just cheer up.
Instead of trying to manage time, Ferrari suggests procrastinators learn to manage their mindset.
“If I have a dozen things to do, obviously #10, #11, and #12 have to wait. The real procrastinator has those 12 things, maybe does one or two of them, then rewrites the list, then shuffles it around, then makes an extra copy of it. That’s procrastinating. That’s different.”
A unique form of 21st-century procrastination.
Recently, Dutch scientists from Utrecht University described a new type of procrastination, one that has given insights into the psychology of the phenomenon.
Dr Floor Kroese, an assistant professor of health psychology and his team found that going to bed later than intended is a form of procrastination. Kroese explains,
“Bedtime procrastination is defined as failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.”
The study supported the notion that procrastination and self-control are closely related. Again, Kroese explains
“Bedtime procrastination occurs when people have little mental energy, or self-control strength, because the decision to go to bed is inherently made at the end of the day when self-control is typically weaker,”
Another interesting finding from the study is that while procrastination typically involves putting off unpleasant tasks, going to bed is generally not considered unpleasant.
Instead, the researchers speculated it is not so much a matter of not wanting to go to sleep, rather not wanting to quit other enjoyable activities especially TV watching or social media. They point out,
“With the development of electrical devices and the 24/7 entertainment industry, people may be facing many more distractions now compared to several decades ago,”
The tug of war between your present and future selves
Research points towards procrastinators engaging in a constant tug of war between their emotionally-driven pleasure-seeking ‘current self’ (who would rather watch TV than go to bed), and the rational, reasoning ‘future self’ (who is tired the next day). Carleton University professor Timothy Pychyl explains,
“In a sense, we’re passing the buck to our future self … Difficulty in bridging the gap between the present and future self is one factor that may contribute to the mood and behaviour regulation failure that are the precursors and products of procrastination.”
Here are five tips to help chronic procrastinators get started (today).
1. Bridge the gap between your current and future self.
Developing empathy for your future self is similar to developing empathy for others. Make a conscious effort to step into your future self’s shoes.
2. Turn a long-term goal into a project complete with micro-goals.
Treat yourself to a cup of coffee or scroll through social media after accomplishing your micro-goal, rather than wait until finishing the overall goal.
3. Put obstacles in your way.
For example, bedtime procrastinators are encouraged to turn off the TV and social media after eating dinner as a way to adhere to their planned bedtime.
4. Don’t use tough love.
The best personal remedy for procrastination might actually be self-forgiveness. One study of procrastinating students found those who forgave themselves after procrastinating on the first exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one.
5. Learn to feel discomfort.
Procrastinators tend to focus on how to make themselves feel happier at the expense of drawing insight from what makes them feel bad.
This piece was first published on the now-retired ABC Active Memory site.
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
download my free checklist
9 Daily Habits of Highly Healthy Brains
Learn how to use neuroscience in your everyday life.