As the coronavirus continues to hold many of us hostage behind closed doors, the ability to manage our own time has become a major-league asset. Being able to structure the day as much as possible, prioritise key tasks and knuckle down with minimal avoidable distractions can give us a sense of control during this extremely challenging period. It can be an opportunity to cross things off our to-do lists and gain a sense of accomplishment at a time when the outside world seems less tractable.
Of course, it can also be a ripe environment for procrastination! We all procrastinate to an extent, but some people find it easier to focus on their main objectives and stick to tasks than others. For some, the tendency to continually put things off can be a major challenge that not only prevents them making headway on their daily tasks but can also leave them feeling worse about the activities they’ve been putting off.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination can be defined as unnecessarily delaying a behaviour in a way that can’t be defended on the grounds of more urgent or important commitments. Think checking the latest video on WhatsApp, succumbing to clickbait or spring-cleaning your Dropbox before you can crack on with the day’s business. Studies suggest that procrastination can impact as much as 25% of the general population, rising to some 70% of university students.
As well as impacting performance, evidence suggests procrastination can negatively affect our health (it has been linked to anxiety, depression and perceived stress) and also our financial wellbeing (1) – areas that are already taking a hit for many. Feeling low about having procrastinated in the past can also promote further procrastination as people wind up in a cycle of rumination. So, given the negative effects, why do so many of us put off until tomorrow what can be done today and, more importantly, what can we do about it?
Some people believe they need the urgency of a deadline to get their heads down and pull off their best work. However, research (2) suggests that this arousal-based perspective on procrastination – where stress is needed in order to perform – is unfounded and is most likely to be used as a justification for procrastinating.
Researchers Sirois and Pychyl, 2013 (3) argue instead that procrastination is about mood regulation – a way of avoiding negative feelings associated with a task in the short-term rather than acting in line with our intentions over the longer term. This could mean avoiding a task due to fear about getting it right, frustration or boredom, for example, so that we can feel better in the moment. By not facing up to the bad feeling, we’re leaving the task to our future selves.
In an attempt to avoid a task that is important and urgent, yet unappealing, we might tackle other items on our to-do lists instead. This means we’re not ‘idle procrastinators’ and can feel good because we’re getting stuff done, even if it doesn’t help us achieve our longer-term goals. Prioritising our task-related actions based on how they make us feel rather than their importance might help explain why we decide to cruise Amazon for new home office equipment and leave the editing of a weighty report to our future selves.
We’re more likely to unnecessarily put off tasks when we struggle with self-discipline, are highly impulsive and/or fear seeming imperfect. Unsurprisingly, we also have a higher tendency to drag our heels on tasks we find unpleasant, or where the rewards are temporarily delayed.
However, the good news is that employing certain strategies can help us to manage a tendency to procrastinate (4):
- Break the task down into small, manageable pieces. Work out what the smallest possible step is that you could take; tell yourself it’s alright to only get started on that mini step and do it, even if it’s not done perfectly.
- Organise an immediate reward that you’ll receive if you succeed on getting started on the task. It can be a small reward but the point is that you’ll receive it in the very near future.
- Design your environment to be as conducive to taking action as possible. That means removing distractions, turning off notifications and minimising the risk of interruptions.
- Focus on your higher-level goals and what you want to ultimately achieve to help provide greater meaning and purpose to your tasks.
- If you’re aware you’ve procrastinated over a task, ruminating over the time wasted is likely to make you procrastinate more. Therefore, accepting the fact and moving on is likely to reduce further procrastination (5).
The desire to busy ourselves with appealing tasks and leave the less attractive ones to our future selves can be powerful, so it’s important not to judge ourselves too harshly, particularly in the current situation. However, the reality is that delaying tasks rarely pays off in the longer term and can ultimately make us feel worse. By understanding more about why we procrastinate and being aware of when we do, we can take positive steps to manage our tendencies and crack on with what needs doing today.
For more information about managing procrastination, listen to this podcast with Adam Grant.
- Klingsieck, Katrin B.1 (2013) Procrastination: When Good Things Don’t Come to Those Who Wait, European Psychologist, Vol.18(1), pp.24-34
- Steel, P. (2010). Arousal, avoidant and decisional procrastinators: Do they exist? Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 926–934.
- Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013). Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115- 127. doi:10.1111/spc3.12011
- Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T. A., & Bennett, S. H. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(7), 803-808.