How to stop procrastinating (now).

SCULPTURE & ART

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.

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12 Comments

  1. Josh Roitberg on December 18, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    I think number 1 and number 4 on this list are huge

  2. Jasmine Phull on March 30, 2018 at 12:19 am

    Interesting article. Especially in terms of the possible causes of procrastination. I myself am a university student and can relate directly to the impact of technological advancements and hindering students in thinking about their future self rather than spending time on short-term goals and satisfaction. And so micro-goals are extremely important to achieve those long term goals.

  3. Martins Okere on April 3, 2018 at 9:32 am

    My attention is drawn on “Reduced Wellbeing”. You know as people age their
    brain powers diminish, this results in memory loss that also cause procrastination. Aging is a natural phenomenon that can’t be avoided but it can be minimised. While applying the instances you gave to stay focused to overcome procrastination its also important to give attention to internal welbeing, this also suffices – https://bit.ly/2Gtr1Kn

  4. Julie Mair on May 10, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    Wonderful.

    • Julie Mair on May 10, 2018 at 2:03 pm

      1 and 5

  5. Susie Hopkins on October 22, 2020 at 12:45 pm

    Some psychologists include task initiation as an executive function and we all have different profiles in terms of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executive skills. But for those of us with ADHD – and there are a LOT of people out there with undiagnosed ADHD – we have huge challenges in these areas. Environmental modifications are the best for us. So yes, obstacles I find are most useful. 🙂

  6. Cheryl Grant-Gamble, MA., RCC on October 22, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    I have been a lifetime procrastinator and have managed to improve to a large degree but the tendency remains, especially when I reach a stage in the situation Im avoiding where Im uncertain of what to do next. In his book Compassion and Self Hate, Theodor Isaac Rubin says that procrastination is a form of self hate. In my experience this was a helpful insight that in many ways fit my own experience and I found it helpful to examine and re-frame my experience and approach procrastination from both a more loving and practical perspective in terms of addressing it constructively.

    • Sarah McKay on October 23, 2020 at 7:50 am

      Interesting framing of this. Thanks Cheryl.

  7. Lily Regan on October 22, 2020 at 9:53 pm

    Some interesting points in relation to procrastinating.
    I think there are many different types of procrastinators or many different reasons why people procrastinate, if that makes sense. For example, some may have a perfectionist type personality e.g. like No.1 on the Enneagram personality type model, and defer doing some task, for example, like starting or finishing an assignment, because they don’t have time to do it perfect! I was that soldier but have learned that ‘good enough’ is fine, just get it done.
    A piece of advice I once read comes to mind: Action leading to mood works better than mood leading to action ..i.e. rather than waiting until you are in the mood/have the energy to do something, do it and the mood/energy will follow!

    • Sarah McKay on October 23, 2020 at 7:51 am

      Thanks Lily. Definitely more to taking action that I covered in this piece, and I love your advice: Action leading to mood works better than mood leading to action.

  8. Athina on October 22, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    I think the procrastination and the people suffering from it deserve a more thorough and holistic research. The conclusions in this article are good but I also find them a bit narrow (or maybe partial truth).
    The research has to factor in how people feel about what they need to do. Do they have passion for the work they do? Do they feel fulfilled in their lives? etc.

    • Sarah McKay on October 23, 2020 at 7:49 am

      Fair point. The scope of this article was pretty narrow and looked only at procrastination as a reason for ‘not’ changing, versus all research on behaviour change.

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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.

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