The Psychology of Procrastination (And How to Flip It)

What is the psychology that underpins our procrastination? And how can we flip the script to make our time more productive?

I’ll level with you: I fall down YouTube rabbit holes too often.

Exhausted from a day at work, it begins with a quick sports video. Then the recommendations roll. Then one thing leads to another.

If you’ve experienced the YouTube rabbit hole, you’ll know that time takes on a different form here. In this time-defying underworld, the minutes pass at a seemingly extraordinary rate. Before we know it, we’ve lost hours of our lives.

The thing is, I have better things to do with this time. I suppose we all do. But try as I may, I’ve struggled to overcome this form of procrastination unless there’s a pressing sense of urgency about the tasks that await.

How then, you ask, does it come to pass that I should write an article on procrastination offering solutions if I am myself prone to its clutches?

Well, that one’s easy. This article and the scientific research that follows is an evidence-based approach to overcoming it. It’s a bit of motivation for anyone else dithering too much, as well as a kick up my own backside.

So with that, let’s get to it.

Why We Procrastinate

In order to stand any chance of addressing our procrastination, we need to understand its causes. Decades of research have demonstrated that procrastination is not just a question of willpower.

Put simply, we procrastinate because our self-control and motivation are outweighed by other factors. These factors vary from person to person, but some common denominators show up in research.

Task importance

Research suggests we procrastinate more over tasks we deem to be particularly important, because they tend to require more effort to complete. In other words, we put off the hard stuff. As I’ll show in a moment, though, sometimes our estimates of difficulty can be greatly misjudged.

Fear of evaluation

The threat of impending evaluation can also have an adverse effect on procrastination levels. Research published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that the threat of evaluation was significantly associated with higher procrastination in a sample of university students.

Abstract goals

Studies have also shown we are more likely to procrastinate when our goals are abstract or vaguely defined. For example, if I set a goal to read more, this is much more likely to feed into procrastination than a more specific goal to read for 30 minutes each evening.

Distant rewards

The long-term nature of a task can also lend itself to procrastination. Research has shown that we tend to discount rewards far in the future, known as temporal discounting. This can lead to a bias for the present, whereby we favour rewards that are achievable in the short term rather than long term.

Indecisiveness and decision fatigue

Indecisiveness also elevates procrastination. When faced with a plethora of options, we may struggle to make decisions, as famously illustrated in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (UK, US). Similarly, the countless decisions we confront during a typical day can also lead to decision fatigue, depleting our level of self-control. This is something I set out in more detail in my article on minimalism and decision making.

Distractions and distraction residue

A list of procrastination causes would be incomplete without mention of one of the modern productivity killers: distraction. Just the mere buzz of a notification (e.g. an email or mobile notification) can have consequences for attention and error rates for some time after. When our attention on a task is compromised, distraction residue leaves us prone to procrastination.

Perfectionism

Though perfectionism has been associated with both higher and lower levels of procrastination, there would be an obvious gap here without its mention. Perfectionism can, of course, delay our completion of work. A perfectionist author may never get his or her book to the editor for want of getting every sentence perfect before submitting.

Other factors

The list of potential causes is extensive. Studies have also shown that depression, anxiety, low self-efficacy (belief in our ability to successfully complete tasks), low energy, among other demotivating factors, can drive up procrastination levels.

Mistaken Reinforcers of Procrastination

You get the idea. The causes of procrastination can be multilayered. Though much of this isn’t rocket science, it does help us begin to crystallise the root causes of our own procrastination.

Procrastination may be caused by these factors, but it’s also exacerbated by some mistaken beliefs. In an excellent section on procrastination, Professor Paul Dolan outlines three common mistaken beliefs about our task management in Happiness by Design (UK, US). Let’s look at them in turn.

Myth 1: “I know exactly how long it will take.”

The truth of the matter is that we’re terrible at estimating the length of tasks. As Dolan points out, research has shown that we seem to overestimate the time required for shorter tasks and underestimate the time required for longer tasks. We also struggle to recall how long tasks took in the past, so even if we are repeating an activity, we can carry forward mistaken projections.

Myth 2: “I work better under time pressure.”

While we may think we thrive under time pressure, research suggests the opposite. Dolan highlights a review of 24 different procrastination studies, involving close to 4000 students, which concluded that this is unlikely to be true. Those putting off their work tended to have lower performance levels than non-procrastinators.

Myth 3: “I’m more creative under time pressure.”

Again, research suggests the opposite. In a survey of 200 employees from US business, The Harvard Business Review found that far from stimulating creativity, a higher sense of time pressure seemed to hinder it. It appears that our creativity does not thrive by pushing tasks further down the road.

How to Reduce Procrastination

Now we know the potential causes and mistaken beliefs that reinforce procrastination, we can begin to think about how these can be addressed. Psychology offers some positive lessons on how we can rewire our brains to address procrastination.

Edit your primers

Our positive and negative habits are so often symptoms of our environment. For example, I tend to waste time watching YouTube videos when I’ve just returned from work and sat on my sofa. Conversely, for the last year, I have consistently dedicated my Saturday mornings in a café to researching and writing for this blog. Both contrasting habits are under the influence of psychological primers. In other words, a sustained pattern of behaviour within these environments is reinforcing the habits.

By adjusting the primers in our life, we can begin to address negative habits. If I return from work and get changed to go straight to the gym, I’m unlikely to fall down the YouTube rabbit hole and I’ll return more energised. This is a conscious avoidance of a negative primer (sitting down with my mobile in my lounge) and the creation of a new primer (arriving home after work means going to the gym). To make the changes, we just need to identify the primers that work for us and against us, and then exercise the self-discipline to see it through for a sustained period.

Change your habit loops

This idea can also be seen as changing a habit loop. When we form habits, we do so based on a cycle of cue, routine and reward. The best way to change habits is to retain the cue and reward but change the routine.

So in the instance of my switch from YouTube to the gym, I would retain the cue (arriving home) and the reward (disconnecting from work) but replace the routine.

Tackle distractions

Environmental change to combat procrastination must also deal with the elephant in the room: distraction. The modern world is rife with it. Introducing some disciplined rules to help us avoid the perils of distraction can help us fight the lure of procrastination by distraction. Something as simple as leaving our phone in another room can have a profound impact on productivity and happiness.

Break down goals

As we already know, abstract and long-term goals are procrastination’s friend. The solution should be obvious. By clearly defining our goals and breaking them down into smaller component parts, we stand a much better chance of beating procrastination around those tasks.

Take the example of a commitment to lose weight. A goal to lose a few stone in 6 months is unlikely to carry much weight (pardon the pun). If we instead break that goal into an initial goal of doing cardiovascular exercise for 1 hour after work 3 times per week, we have a clearly defined and shorter-term commitment. Such commitments are far more psychologically powerful.

Coupling such clearly defined short-term goals with sufficient incentives is a useful way to counter procrastination. Short-term rewards, as we’ve already shown, are a more potent weapon against procrastination than long-term rewards.

Get feedback

Don’t underestimate the wisdom of crowds. To counter our tendency to make incorrect projections on timescales, we can seek out feedback from some sensible heads in our lives. This is likely to realign our expectations and stop us from kicking the can down the road for longer tasks.

Hang out with people that get stuff done

People around you influence the way you are, whether you like it or not. If we spend our days with workaholics, we’ll probably work more. If we spend our days with innovators, we’ll probably create more. And if we spend our days with procrastinators, we’ll probably dither more. Social norms can have a pervasive impact on our own approach to tasks. Take a hard look at your relationships and think about how you can change your social environment for the better.

Eat that frog

In his book of the same name, Brian Tracy (UK, US) suggests we must take on the most important task of the day immediately, even if it’s the hardest. It’s difficult to disagree with this common sense advice. By getting the ‘frog’ out of the way early, we gain immediate momentum.

Don’t be so hard on yourself

Finally, it’s worth noting that beating yourself up when you do procrastinate is likely to achieve nothing. In fact, one study showed that those who didn’t fully forgive themselves for procrastinating appeared to be more likely to procrastinate again for a second time. Beating ourselves up can therefore do more harm than good.

Go On, Change Something

And so we’re armed with some new information on the psychology of procrastination. But the truth is that we will only use this information to change things if we want to.

Since I compiled this article, I’ve changed some of the primers in my life to address my YouTube habit. I’m not procrastinating as much, but there is a way to go until I can say I’m fully over it.

My changes are a recognition that if we try to change too much immediately, we’re likely to fall back on old habits. Small, incremental changes to our environment and habits are the key to bigger long-term habit changes.

So go on, join me. Change something.

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