What Is Procrastination & How Can We Solve It? An Introduction by One of the World’s Leading Procrastination Experts

I don’t know about you, but my ten­den­cy to pro­cras­ti­nate feels like a char­ac­ter flaw. And yet, no amount of mor­al­iz­ing with myself makes any dif­fer­ence. Feel­ing bad, in fact, only makes things worse. Per­haps that’s because—as Tim Pychyl, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in Psy­chol­o­gy at Car­leton Uni­ver­si­ty argues—procrastination is not a moral fail­ing so much as a cop­ing mech­a­nism for painful feel­ings, a psy­cho­log­i­cal avoid­ance of tasks we fear for some rea­son: because we fear rejec­tion or fail­ure, or even the bur­dens of suc­cess.

Pychyl should know. He’s made study­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion the basis of his career and runs the 20-year-old Pro­cras­ti­na­tion Research Group. Pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a “puz­zle,” he the­o­rizes (the title of one of his books is Solv­ing the Pro­cras­ti­na­tion Puz­zleA Con­cise Guide to Strate­gies for Change). Solv­ing it involves under­stand­ing how its pieces work, includ­ing our beliefs about how it oper­ates. Pychyl’s lec­ture above address­es grad­u­ate stu­dents charged with help­ing under­grad­u­ates who pro­cras­ti­nate, but its lessons apply to all of us. In his first slide, Pychyl out­lines four typ­i­cal beliefs about pro­cras­ti­na­tion:

It’s me

It’s the task

It’s the way I think

It’s my lack of willpow­er

Pychyl wants to debunk these notions, but he also argues that pro­cras­ti­na­tion is “some­thing we seem to under­stand very well” in pop­u­lar par­lance. One of his slides shows a typ­i­cal “successories”-type poster that reads, “Pro­cras­ti­na­tion: hard work often pays off after time, but lazi­ness always pays off now.” While Pychyl doesn’t use judg­men­tal lan­guage like “lazi­ness,” he does acknowl­edge that pro­cras­ti­na­tion results from ideas about short- ver­sus long-term gain. We want to feel good, right now, a dri­ve com­mon to every­one.

The next poster reads “if the job’s worth doing, it will still be worth doing tomor­row.” The notion of the “future self” plays a role—the you of tomor­row who still has to face the work your present self puts off. “What are we doing to ‘future self?’” Pychyl asks. “If we can just bring future self into clear­er vision, lots of times the pro­cras­ti­na­tion may go away.” This has been demon­strat­ed in research stud­ies, Ana Swan­son notes at The Wash­ing­ton Post, in which peo­ple made bet­ter deci­sions after view­ing dig­i­tal­ly-aged pho­tographs of them­selves. But in gen­er­al, we tend not to have much con­sid­er­a­tion for “future self.”

A final suc­ces­sories slide reads, “Pro­cras­ti­na­tion: by not doing what you should be doing, you could be hav­ing this much fun.” This is one of the most per­va­sive forms of self-delu­sion. We may con­vince our­selves that putting dif­fi­cult things off for tomor­row means more fun today. But the amount of guilt we feel ensures a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence. “Guilt is a par­a­lyz­ing emo­tion,” Pychyl says. When we put off an impor­tant task, we feel ter­ri­ble. And often, instead of enjoy­ing life, we cre­ate more work for our­selves that makes us feel pur­pose­ful, like cook­ing or clean­ing. This “task man­age­ment” game tem­porar­i­ly relieves guilt, but it does not address the cen­tral prob­lem. We sim­ply “man­age our emo­tions by man­ag­ing our tasks.”

The word pro­cras­ti­na­tion comes direct­ly from clas­si­cal Latin and trans­lates to “put for­ward” that which “belongs to tomor­row.” This sounds benign, giv­en that many a task does indeed belong to tomor­row. But pru­dent plan­ning is one thing, pro­cras­ti­na­tion is anoth­er. When we put off what we can or should accom­plish today, we invoke tomor­row as “a mys­ti­cal land where 98% of all human pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, moti­va­tion, and achieve­ment are stored.” The dis­tinc­tion between plan­ning or unavoid­able delay and pro­cras­ti­na­tion is impor­tant. When delays are either inten­tion­al or the con­se­quence of unpre­dictable life events, we need not con­sid­er them a prob­lem. “All pro­cras­ti­na­tion is delay, but not all delay is pro­cras­ti­na­tion.”

So, to sum up Pychyl’s research on our atti­tudes about pro­cras­ti­na­tion: “we think we’re hav­ing more fun, but we’re not”; “we think we’re not affect­ing future self, but we are”; and “it’s all about giv­ing in to feel good,” which—see point num­ber one—doesn’t actu­al­ly work that well.

While we might min­i­mize pro­cras­ti­na­tion as a minor issue, its per­son­al costs tell us oth­er­wise, includ­ing severe impacts to “per­for­mance, well-being, health, rela­tion­ships, regrets & bereave­ment.” Pro­cras­ti­na­tors get sick more often, report high­er rates of depres­sion, and suf­fer the somat­ic and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of ele­vat­ed stress. Pro­cras­ti­na­tion doesn’t only affect our per­son­al well-being and integri­ty, but it has an eth­i­cal dimen­sion, affect­ing those around us who suf­fer “sec­ond-hand,” either because of the time we take away from them when we rush off to fin­ish things last-minute, or because the stress we put our­selves under neg­a­tive­ly affects the health of our rela­tion­ships.

But pro­cras­ti­na­tion begins first and fore­most with our rela­tion­ship to our­selves. Again, we put things off not because we are moral­ly defi­cient, or “lazy,” but because our emo­tion­al brains are try­ing to cope. We feel some sig­nif­i­cant degree of fear or anx­i­ety about the task at hand. The guilt and shame that comes with not accom­plish­ing the task com­pounds the prob­lem, and leads to fur­ther pro­cras­ti­na­tion. “The behav­ior,” writes Swan­son, turns into “a vicious, self-defeat­ing cycle.”

How do we get out of the self-made loop of pro­cras­ti­na­tion? Just as in the fail­ure of the “Just say No” cam­paign, sim­ply shak­ing our­selves by the metaphor­i­cal shoul­ders and telling our­selves to get to work isn’t enough. We have to deal with the emo­tions that set things in motion, and in this case, that means going easy on our­selves. “Research sug­gests that one of the most effec­tive things that pro­cras­ti­na­tors can do is to for­give them­selves for pro­cras­ti­nat­ing,” Swan­son reports.

Once we reduce the guilt, we can weak­en the pro­cliv­i­ty to pro­cras­ti­nate. Then, para­dox­i­cal­ly, we need to ignore our emo­tions. “Most of us seem to tac­it­ly believe,” Pychyl says, “that our emo­tion­al state has to match the task at hand.” For writ­ers and artists, this belief has a lofty pedi­gree in roman­tic ideas about inspi­ra­tion and mus­es. Irrel­e­vant, the pro­cras­ti­na­tion expert says. When approach­ing some­thing dif­fi­cult, “I have to rec­og­nize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t mat­ter if I don’t feel like it.” Feel­ings of moti­va­tion and cre­ative inspi­ra­tion often strike us in the midst of a task, not before. Break­ing down daunt­ing activ­i­ties into small­er tasks, and approach­ing these one at a time, gives us a prac­ti­cal roadmap for con­quer­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion. For more insights and research find­ings, watch Pychyl’s full lec­ture, and lis­ten to him dis­cuss his research on the Healthy Fam­i­ly pod­cast just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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