Everybody suffers from procrastination from time to time. Even the most disciplined people. And unfortunately, I’m no stranger to these reasons for procrastination either. Before actually writing this article, I’ve been “thinking” about doing this for about three weeks. In the meantime, I had to save the galaxy in a Starwars game, which seemed very important to me at the time. And before I started this article? It seemed like a very good idea to look for funny monkey pictures to use for my site. So how can we better deal with procrastination in our lives? Here’s some background on procrastination and tips on how to stop procrastinating.
What is the definition of procrastination and why do we do it?
Procrastination is the unwanted and “unintentional” delay of work that we need to do at times that are not always necessarily appropriate. Procrastination is also a habit, which can be influenced if we are intentional about it. There are lots of reasons to do it. I’ll note the 3 most important reasons that we procrastinate here, which are:
- Instant gratification
- Low self-esteem and protection of our ego
- Self-regulation failure
I discuss these 3 reasons for procrastination in some more detail below.
Instant gratification monkey
The human brain likes to get what it wants right away. This is also called instant gratification. This happens when the oldest part of the brain, the Amygdala, takes over. Or when the “Instant Gratification Monkey” takes over, according to Tim Urban in a very funny Ted talk (see bottom of the page for the talk).
And from an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense. When we still lived out in the steppes of Africa, we had to eat food when we saw it and relax and sleep whenever there was an opportunity. However, in the modern world where we have to plan to work towards deadlines, pay mortgages etcetera, this is kind of dysfunctional.
Oh my god, it’s so difficult!
Another reason we procrastinate is that we have to do something that we find difficult. We do not have the confidence we can actually pull it off. Therefore, we find nice excuses to do it later. So in work, we could first handle all of our email, which is quite easy, and only then start the hard task. However, at that stage we probably do not have enough time anymore to everything before the deadline. Then, if we fail at the task of finishing a report or whatever, we can always say we had too little time. And if we succeed we claim additional credits because the deadline was so tight. That way, our ego is always protected.
Tiredness makes us procrastinate
Also remember that willpower is a limited resource. In the morning, when you’re rested and you’ve had proper breakfast, it is way easier to force yourself to do an important and difficult task. However, after a day’s hard work, self-regulation is way harder. When I come home for instance and I’m really tired, I’m less inclined to go for a run. Even though this probably will help me feel better.
Procrastination can actually make us sick
Procrastination can feel great in the moment as it functions as mood repair. When we face a difficult task for instance, we don’t feel good about it. If we start doing something else, we instantaneously feel better. However, when we procrastinate at a time that we shouldn’t be procrastinating, we feel guilty in the moment. Moreover, there’s a host of negative consequences when we procrastinate, such as:
- Feeling bad about ourselves
- Negative health impact due to stress – for example, because of missed deadlines
- Feeling unhappy
- Achieving less
As you can see, procrastination can actually make us sick. Stress related to procrastination reduces the effectiveness of our immune system and our longevity. So indirectly it makes us sick.
Also, life is short. It would be a waste when we are old and looking back at our lives, we mainly see missed opportunities. Simply because we were too lazy and giving in to our urges. It shouldn’t be that way.
Are there also positive aspects of procrastination?
Yes, procrastination does also have a positive side. When working on a bigger task or a difficult problem which seems impossible to solve, it may be a good idea to stop what you are doing. Once we’ve thought long and hard about a problem, the brain needs some rest and sleep. During sleep our brain rearranges seemingly disparate ideas and information to come up with a new solution. This doesn’t happen when putting a lot of additional effort in the problem. So in this way, being lazy can actually pay-off! Great to know. Remember though, this only works when you’ve already invested some time in figuring out what you need to do.
Always “eating the lemon” sucks
A nice remark in the book “solving the procrastination puzzle” is that if you always do the things you dislike first and when you want to get it over with quickly, this is also a form of procrastination. I recognized this from my own life. I tend to do everything I don’t feel like doing immediately to just get it over with. The downside of this is maybe not doing the specific task properly, risking mistakes. Also, if we do not take our time to finish a certain task, we do not take our time to learn and to evaluate all options. Lastly, I personally do not feel relaxed if I want to finish as much as possible in a short time. This way, not procrastinating is not really beneficial.
3 Tips to stop procrastinating
Fortunately, there are multiple strategies we can apply to combat the seductive voice of procrastination. The tips are:
- Being mindful
- Make a decision upfront to not procrastinate
- Do something even if you don’t feel like it
When you want procrastinate less, it is a good idea to be mindful about this. See what happens when you start to procrastinate. What are you thinking? Are you coming up with rationalizations? When you notice this happens, be firm with yourself and do the difficult task anyway. Practicing meditation can really help with building this skill.
Making decision upfront not to procrastinate
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it is actually very effective. When you make a “pre-decision” that you are going for a run in the evening, you don’t have to make that decision at the moment you are weakest – for instance, coming back from your job. When you will decide to go for a run upfront, it is way easier to just put your running shoes on. It doesn’t really matter how far you run, but at least you will start which is the most important thing and the most difficult. Often, after we’ve started it is way easier to just run that additional mile or so. Trust me, this really works.
Do something even if you don’t feel like it
We are very bad at affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is how we predict how we will feel later at a difficult task. Often our mind will come up with excuses like “I will feel more like doing this tomorrow”. However, the truth is that we don’t. Therefore, do the task straight away.
Procrastination can be a very destructive habit if left unchecked. It will make us feel bad about ourselves, cause stress and even affect our overall health. There is plenty we can do about procrastination, such as being mindful about it, making a pre-decision not to procrastinate and doing stuff we don’t feel like doing anyway.
Life is too short to waste, so if you feel you procrastinate too much: start today!
I added a link to a website with a lot of further reads on procrastination. This is maintained by an actual research group on the topic. Moreover, I embedded a great and funny TED talk on procrastination.
Thanks for reading this blog. Give me thumbs up and share this article if you liked it. And I’ll see you back here next week for my new blogpost.
Further reads and sources: