Why is it that we can sometimes find it so hard to get started with certain tasks or projects – even those we know will help our lives for the better? On the surface, goals such as changing our career, writing a novel or starting a new fitness regime sound achievable and exciting – but when faced with the reality of putting those wheels in motion, many of us suddenly become preoccupied with other activities, or convince ourselves that something else needs to be done first. You might tell yourself: ‘Oh, I can’t go for a run tonight, I need to buy some new workout gear first’, or put off updating your CV because you’re waiting to finish some training at work. Or, you may simply pick up your phone and become engrossed with a WhatsApp conversation debating the merits and shortfalls of the new Emily in Paris season. Either way, it seems procrastination has a lot to answer for.
“Procrastination is the thief of time – as the saying goes,” says Dr Zoe Cross, a clinical psychologist at My Online Therapy (myonlinetherapy.com). “It’s an unnecessary postponement of important tasks, actions or decisions, and has a negative impact on our ability to achieve our goals. In fact, endlessly putting things off means we never achieve the things we want to in life or reach our full potential.”
This may sound dramatic, but it’s true. Just think what you might be able to accomplish if you chose to follow your dreams of learning a new language, put the training in place to run a marathon, or applied for the exciting new role you discovered, instead of making up excuses and finding other things to do.
While we’re all guilty of procrastinating in some form or another, it’s worth knowing that many of us have these tendencies so ingrained in us that we are what’s called chronic procrastinators.
Dr Joseph Ferrari is a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of Still Procrastinating? The no-regrets guide to getting it done. He’s been researching the idea of procrastination for the past 20 years. “The research I’ve been doing shows that you can find chronic procrastination tendencies (people who do this as a lifestyle habit) in 20 percent of adults across the world. That’s a huge percentage – more than the number of people with depression, alcoholism and phobias, and yet still some people don’t see it as a big deal.”
But a big deal it can be. Not only can procrastination prevent us from achieving our goals in the short term, but it can also have far-reaching consequences in all aspects of our lives.
Zoe points out that the trait is associated with lower grades in school and lower salaries at work, and studies back this up. Researchers at Russia’s Higher School of Economics, for example, revealed that those in top management positions have lower procrastination levels than middle managers in a study published in 2019.
And that’s not all. “Procrastination can also lead to psychological problems such as increased stress, anxiety and depression; and even physical health problems – not least because you might put off going to see the doctor,” Zoe says. It can also impact your relationships with others if it leads you to break promises, and tear down your relationship with yourself by giving your inner critic more airtime.
An avoidance technique
So, why exactly do we do procrastinate? It is, after all, an irrational trait and one that isn’t productive or useful. Even the Greek word used to define this sort of behaviour – akrasia – refers to it as being an action against your better judgement.
“Procrastination doesn’t mean we’re lazy or unmotivated,” says Zoe. “It’s really a form of avoidance. We put off doing tasks we find difficult, unpleasant or just plain boring. In other words, we procrastinate to avoid negative or difficult emotions – if a task feels overwhelming, for example, it may provoke anxiety and it therefore seems easiest to avoid it. This is partly due to a disconnect between our ‘present self’ who wants to avoid short-term discomfort and our ‘future self’ who will benefit in the longer term if we get on with the task we’re putting off.”
Research just published in the journal Brain and Cognition has focused on this idea of procrastination being used as a tool to avoid unpleasant emotions. In their study, scientists found that those who were able to regulate their emotions more successfully and push through negative feelings were less likely to procrastinate than those that couldn’t. They even used MRI scans to show that the amount of grey matter in the brain region associated with a specific type of emotional regulation was larger in non-procrastinators.
The concept of social esteem
These unpleasant negative emotions can take many forms – with the fear of failure being right up there at the top. “Some people procrastinate due to wanting to achieve perfectionism, while others have a fear of failure or low self-esteem,” says Zoe. “We may also procrastinate due to over-thinking and indecision – both of which are linked to anxiety.”
That’s why it’s often our really important goals, and the ones we really want to succeed at, which are the ones we’re most likely to delay starting.
This fear of failure has strong links to our worries about how we are perceived too – something Joseph says is a big deal for procrastinators.
“The major underling thing that I’ve been able to show is that procrastinators are really concerned with what people think of them,” he says. “This is what we call social esteem. You might think this doesn’t make sense – people don’t like procrastinators or those who put things off, so if you’re concerned with what people think of you, you shouldn’t procrastinate. But often, we procrastinate because we’d rather someone think that we lack effort, rather than ability.”
Guilty of ‘procrasticlearing’?
Do you have the urge to tidy and re-organise your house whenever you’re faced with an important task? Believe it or not, ‘procrasti-clearing’ is a real thing. But how can you channel your desire to clean (which, funnily enough, doesn’t present itself at other times), into motivation to get cracking?
Just knowing that procrasti-clearing is a real phenomenon – and one that you might struggle with – can help you move forward. Ask yourself why you’re so desperate to clean out the fridge, reorganise your shoe cupboard or sort out the kids’ toys. If you know deep down that it’s because you’re putting off a task, this can give you the push you need to focus.
Achieve some order
Saying that, it is important to recognise that a certain sense of order is good for your productivity levels. Scientists from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, for example, found that when clutter is cleared from our working environment we are better able to focus and process information, and our productivity soars too.
Taking 10 minutes to tidy your desk is one thing, but when you think you need to re-order your wardrobe before starting something, that’s another matter entirely. Give yourself boundaries and limits and set yourself a specific time to get sorted. Understand what will actually help you work more productively too – if it’s not in your sight while you’re working at the task at hand, it can definitely wait till another day.
Taking the right steps
What this research shows is that getting over procrastination isn’t about becoming better at time management or learning new strategies for self-control, it’s about focusing on our emotions and the way we think. With this in mind, our experts have the below tips to help you stop making excuses…
Remind yourself of your goals
When we’re too busy making excuses as to why we’re unable to do something, we can easily forget the very reason we wanted to do it in the first place. But remembering this can help knock procrastination on the head. “Ask yourself why you want to achieve your task, goal or project,” Zoe advises. “What would it mean to you to complete it – and how would it improve your life? This will help you focus on your long-term goal and ‘future self’ rather than short-term avoidance in the present.”
“Have you heard the phrase don’t miss the forest for the trees? It means don’t miss the big picture by getting caught up in the detail,” says Joseph. “But when we procrastinate we’re thinking the opposite – we can see the big picture but we forget that it’s made up of smaller trees, and it overwhelms us.” In these cases, Joseph says we need to think about tackling one small element of the task at a time – or, in the metaphor above, cutting down one tree to begin with. “Is one tree too much? Just give me three branches,” he says. “You can’t do three branches? Just give me a handful of leaves then.”
Don’t strive for perfectionism
Remember, you can’t expect things to be perfect from the outset, as that’s why you work towards a goal. The important thing is to simply try. “Your work doesn’t have to be flawless,” says Zoe. “If you’re attempting to write a novel, for example, you could try to write a rough first draft that you can come back to and edit later. Focus on doing your best, instead of worrying about what others think.”
Know that failure can be positive
In the same way, it’s important to realise that failure isn’t something to be scared of. “We know from psychology research that failure is actually a good thing,” Joseph explains. “One recent study found that the recipe for optimum progression is to succeed 85 percent of the time, but fail 15 percent of the time.