We’ve all been there – you’ve got a deadline looming or a big task that needs to be completed, but for some reason you’re unable to find the motivation to do it and end up leaving work to the last minute.
You’re a procrastinator. Yes, us too! It can be tempting to put off tasks that we really don’t want to do, even though we know they’ll need to be done eventually.
You might feel that you need the pressure of a looming deadline to get things done, relying on that rush of last-minute adrenaline (and coffee!) to complete the work.
The bad news? Procrastination can lead to stress and anxiety – and leave you feeling generally on edge.
A 2007 study of university students found that procrastinators tended to delay tasks they didn’t like and were also afraid of failure.
The students who described themselves as procrastinators were more likely to feel anxious and experience physical symptoms of anxiety.
Take our procrastination test and read on to learn more about why we procrastinate – plus read our tips for stopping procrastination.
What is procrastination?
In simple terms, procrastination is what we do when we avoid working on a task which we know needs to be completed. This could mean putting off writing an essay by spiralling through YouTube, telling ourselves we’ll head to the gym tomorrow as we settle down with a new box set or even reasoning our way out of taking the first steps towards achieving a lifelong dream.
Speaking about this phenomenon in his 2016 TED talk, writer Tim Urban simplified the forces behind procrastination into three characters: the rational decision maker, the instant gratification monkey and the panic monster.
While we may not always be thrilled to complete certain tasks, the rational decision maker in each of us knows that it makes sense to be doing things that are harder and less pleasant, for the sake of the bigger picture. However, this causes conflict with the instant gratification monkey who, for procrastinators, can take over in an instant.
Procrastination is the thief of time
However, with the approach of a deadline panic steps in and pushes us to achieve what we need to and so, though the process may not be pleasant, we learn that it works. This means it can be difficult to break out of a cycle of procrastination, especially if it has always worked for you.
But, things are less clear when there are no set deadlines. How do we even get started if there is no set deadline? How do we push ourselves to get to the gym or start chasing our dreams? First we have to overcome procrastination.
Why do we procrastinate?
What is the main cause of procrastination? There are lots of reasons why we procrastinate and it doesn’t mean that you’re lazy.
One of the main causes of procrastination is underestimating how long it will take us to complete a task. We think we have enough time to do it, so we put it off until it’s too late, which can leave us feeling stressed out and anxious.
If you’re working on a creative project, it can be easy to delay starting work because you’re not feeling inspired at that particular moment.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by
Sometimes we avoid tasks we don’t like – or find boring – even when we know we really shouldn’t put them off. A lack of structure can make it easy to avoid doing a difficult tasks too – if your tasks are disorganised it’s easy to be distracted by social media or online news.
For some of us procrastinating is a natural response to pressure and low self-esteem – we may subconsciously put off a task we don’t feel we can achieve in order to prove ourselves right.
Similarly, if you tend to focus on the tasks which need to be done right now and relish in instant gratification, rather than putting your energy into future tasks, then you’ll often end up deferring work so that it never gets done.
Are some people just natural procrastinators?
In a 2018 study conducted by Axel Grund and Stefan Fries, it was found that people who procrastinate most simply have different priorities to those who are able to steam ahead with tasks in their path. Although many seem to view procrastination as a moral failure, the reasons why we procrastinate are more often than not situational.
You may be in the wrong environment or mood for work or, as the study found, you may just have different goals. Feelings of fulfilment only come alongside the completion of tasks we believe to be important and so it is these tasks which we tend to prioritise, procrastinating over ones we place less value upon. Therefore it’s probably the work we’re trying to achieve, rather than just our natural qualities, which make us procrastinate.
Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA, has also weighed in on this, explaining, “When making long-term decisions, [people] tend to fundamentally feel a lack of emotional connection to their future selves.”
He says that because we feel a distance from ourselves as we will be in one, five or ten years time, it is more difficult to make choices which will benefit the person we will be. Essentially we have to make choices which will benefit someone we regard as a stranger, over our present selves.
Therefore building better connections with our future can help us to procrastinate less. Making plans and visualising where we want to be in five or ten years is a great place to start.
Are people who procrastinate just lazy?
Laziness and procrastination may seem similar at a glance, but look a little closer and you’ll realise they’re different. A lazy person cannot be bothered to do work and has no intention to do so, while the procrastinator fully intends to do the work but can’t be bothered to do so. The difference is the procrastinator fully believes they will do it tomorrow.
And then tomorrow comes, and the work gets put off until another tomorrow, until the person is stuck in a loop of endless tomorrows, and the work never gets done. But the procrastinator believes it eventually will. In their mind they’ll just do it tomorrow.
The Columbia School of General Studies found that the basis of procrastination is postponing action and this is where the negative connotations come from. Not all action is progress. You might have lots to do, but decide to spontaneously tidy your desk or do some life admin instead – you’re busy, but not doing the task that you’re meant to be doing.
However, putting off an activity in favour of something else sometimes means when you finally get down to the work you are in a more focused mindset. It’s all about priorities.
Frank Partnoy, a Professor from San Diego University, notes that delaying an action for another which you think is more valuable is an example of active procrastination, such as putting off a work project to clean your house or take your kids on a day out. This is different to passive procrastination where you lie on the sofa and watch TV instead of doing some work.
Just because we're busy, it doesn't mean we're being productive
For Partnoy procrastination is a good thing, and was favoured by Romans and the Greeks. It was only considered a negative thing when the Puritans came along with their strong work ethic. Partnoy notes that procrastination is a natural state of being for humans and we shouldn’t be trying to stop it, instead we should be trying to procrastinate well.
One way to overcome procrastination is to simply accept it as part of your work process. If you can, try to make this time work for you. Procrastination has never been easier thanks to the internet, you could have your laptop open, fully intending to do work, and then find yourself distracted by the sheer volume of information out there.
Find something informative and enriching to do and it may just help you along your way to completing the task you’re putting off.
Why do perfectionists procrastinate?
Procrastination is linked more to perfectionism than laziness. Perfectionists want their work to be amazing, fantastic, inspiring, and so starting the task is immediately more intimidating than it would be to a non-perfectionist.
A perfectionist will have a vision in their mind about how they want a project to turn out, so the pressure that they put on themselves is immense.
They tend to hang their self-worth on the expectations of those around them, so the fear of letting these people down and ruining a perfect reputation leads to procrastination.
Procrastination can have a significant impact on our lives and is known to affect your work reputation, academic achievement, and even relationships. When we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of procrastination it can be very frustrating and cause us to feel low mood.
An anxious person may put off doing work as they are worried about approaching a difficult task and many people with anxiety disorders have some form of perfectionism. The more things we put off doing can make us more anxious and lead to feeling overwhelmed.
This feeling only increases the procrastination, which offers short-term relief and long-term problems. Some people, however, find that anxiety forces them to work harder because they’re afraid that they won’t everything done in time.
Someone with depression may feel too hopeless and not have enough energy to start a task. People with anxiety and depression are more prone to low self-esteem and may doubt their ability to complete a task, leading them to procrastinate.
Procrastination is also a symptom of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). People with ADHD may be more impulsive and easily distracted from tasks, meaning things get started but not finished.
How do I stop procrastinating and get things done?
Procrastination is a complex issue, but one of the most common issues is aversion – you just really want to avoid a particular task because it’s boring or difficult.
One way to get around this is to ‘swallow the frog’. This is not as revolting as it sounds we promise!
Swallowing the frog means getting the most unappealing task out of the way first, even though you really want to avoid it.
As Mark Twain once said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
No one wants to swallow the frog, but you’ll feel much better if you stop dithering get it out of the way as soon as possible, rather than dreading it and putting it off.
Mark Twain also said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
9 ways to be more productive and stop leaving work until the last minute
Break the task down into chunks
If you break down the intimidating task into small pieces, it’ll seem less terrifying. Think about how to split it into smaller parts and when you’ll need to do each part by.
Start with the easiest ones and you’ll feel as though you’ve made progress.
Identify your distractions
What takes your time and attention away from what needs to be done? If it’s Facebook or games on your phone, try keeping your phone out of sight or even deleting the apps.