Procrastination is the habit of putting off important, often less pleasurable tasks by doing something that is easier or more enjoyable. This habit has been described as self-harm because not only are we aware that we are avoiding the task in question, but we also realise that avoiding it is bad for us. Often, our awareness about the ills of our procrastination is what makes us feel so rotten about it.

Is procrastination a result of laziness or a lack of self-control then? If you have ever tweaked your Instagram feed or cleaned your room when you were supposed to be studying, then you know that it is probably not fair to chalk up procrastination to laziness or lack of self-control. After all, it takes a lot of effort to clean up and manage one’s feed too!

For a humorous view on procrastination, watch Tim Urban’s TED talk to learn about the ‘instant gratification monkey’ and the ‘panic monster’ that reside in the procrastinator’s mind.

Some combat procrastination by having to-do lists or elaborate task management systems to aid them in their ability to manage time. The pomodoro technique of splitting your day into short bursts of 25 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break has promised to help us tackle distraction and to get things done. However, if procrastination is not linked to time management or laziness, then these systems have little use in effect.

Negative Emotions to Blame?

Research has found that we engage in this endless cycle of procrastination because we are unable to manage our negative emotions around the important tasks that we have to complete. These negative emotions include boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration and resentment. For example, when faced with the task of writing a GP essay, perhaps we experience some insecurity staring at the blank paper thinking that we might not be good enough to write this. These (false) thoughts can lead us to procrastination.

However, by procrastinating, we just tend to have more negative thoughts and associations with the tasks that we are supposed to complete. We tend to blame ourselves for our acts of procrastination. When we return to our tasks later, we then face greater stress and anxiety which then contributes to further stress. Thus, the vicious cycle of procrastination continues.

Yet, if procrastination causes us so much harm, why do so many of us still struggle with procrastination? It turns out that we are rewarded when we procrastinate. We experience a temporary relief or pleasure when we procrastinate on other less important activities. When we are rewarded for procrastination, we tend to repeat the same actions.

Our procrastination is also a result of a short-termism with regards to our emotions. We tend to prioritise our present emotions and those in the short-term compared to those in the future. For instance, watching a video on YouTube is more pleasurable than working now, but we forget that we might have to burn the midnight oil to finish the essay that is due the next day. If we could remember our future selves when we are tempted to procrastinate, then we would be less inclined to do so.

Are There Benefits to Procrastination?

Given how much procrastination takes away from our productivity, can there be any benefits to this chronic habit?

There are some people who work more efficiently under time pressure – or at least they say they do. For such people, they can be more productive focusing their working hours till the last few moments before the deadline. This means that they would have to fight the negative emotions that come with not tackling the task when there was the luxury of time. You may recognise this in some of your friends who insist that they are the type who work better under pressure.

If the time spent in procrastination is used wisely, a better outcome may be achieved if there is time for ideas to simmer. Even when one is procrastinating, the mind is still aware of the important task that needs to be done. The subconscious mind can then think of innovative ways to get this task done.

Regardless, procrastination is a chronic habit which relies on fear as a motivator. This perhaps explains why we work more efficiently under time pressure. When faced with an important task, you can decide if you want to be motivated by fear or to learn how to deal with the initial negative emotions that come with writing an essay. After all, motivation tends to follow action and our first step could be simply to date the assignment.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. How do you deal with procrastination? Would reading this article change how you deal with procrastination? 
  2. Do people of today struggle more with procrastination than people in the past? Why or why not?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. ruminations’: reflections; contemplations; meditations
  2. short-termism’: excessive focus on short-term results at the expense of long-term interests

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Mental Floss: An interesting history of procrastination

We tend to think of procrastination as a very modern phenomenon, and one that has come into its own in the age of html. In some ways, it is a modern phenomenon. But procrastination was also an ancient issue, likely having unfolded with the emergence of a division of labor in which failing to complete a job no longer spelled immediate doom, and with the invention of diversions with which to enact the procrastination—village gossip, say, or a board game, the earliest known of which was played around 3500BC. It’s reasonable to posit that the first bout of procrastination arrived the same day as the first assigned task.

Today, we understand procrastination not only as the putting off of something until tomorrow, but also undertaking other, less important tasks as a means of putting off the more important ones. Procrastination rarely involves doing nothing, but it does involve doing the wrong thing for that moment. It is very different from working on something slowly, or over a long period of time. This explains why someone like Ralph Ellison, who worked on his second novel for several excruciating decades, leaving it unfinished at his death, does not necessarily qualify as a procrastinator—he was working all along on the thing he set out to work on, he just couldn’t get it right.

  1. The Atlantic: Designing deadlines to defeat procrastination

People often schedule reminders to complete a project significantly before the deadline, so they have time to complete it. But this strategy often backfires. Some practiced procrastinators are both “present-biased” (they choose or BuzzFeed over work every time) and overconfident about their ability to remember important tasks, according to a new paper by Keith M. Marzilli Ericson. As a result, they often put off assignments, only to forget about it until long after the deadline. Procrastination and forgetfulness are bad, independently. Together, they’re a double-headed meteor hammer smashing your productivity to tiny little bits.

To hack your way to productivity, you could schedule one-shot reminders as late as possible—even slightly after you were supposed to start the project. Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task.

For pathological procrastinators, recognizing that we need deadlines to bind ourselves to our responsibilities is the first step. The second step is recognizing that our own deadlines are less effective than other people’s deadlines.

Finally, procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded that it’s not actually work. In one study reviewed by Jaffe, students were asked to complete a puzzle, but first they were given a few minutes to play Tetris. “Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation,” he wrote. When scientists described the puzzle as a game, they were just as likely to practice as anybody else.