Key Takeaways

  1. Procrastinating can help you feel better in the moment, but it leads to greater stress, a higher likelihood of illness, and worse overall performance on the task over the long-term.
  2. You’re most likely to procrastinate when you perceive the task as boring, frustrating, or difficult, if the deadline is far in the future, and if you’re easily distracted and have trouble concentrating.
  3. Keep reading to learn the four most effective ways to conquer procrastination (#1 and #4 are particularly helpful for starting a new workout or diet plan!)

Have you ever thought to yourself . . . 

“Do I really have to do this now?”

“I can just do this tomorrow.”

Or like me “Let me clean the entire kitchen first, before I write this article.”

Procrastination is extremely common, and it’s likely impossible to find someone who never procrastinates. Even when it involves things we truly enjoy doing we still find ourselves procrastinating.  (I love writing, but it still took me way too long to sit down and write this article.)

In fact, research done on college students tells us that 50% procrastinate on academic tasks at least half the time.

And in the overall population, 20% are chronic procrastinators.

This isn’t a new phenomenon.

Even prior to Instagram’s pulling us into unconscious scrolling, procrastination existed.

In 800 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod, cautioned against the dangers that come with “putting your work off till tomorrow and the day after.”

Not only does procrastination present issues for getting work done in a timely manner, but research done in the field of economics and psychology describes how procrastination negatively influences performance and well-being.

In this article, we dive a bit deeper into why, as humans, we so frequently procrastinate and where procrastination comes from.

Further, we will leverage the research to outline some strategies you can use to beat procrastination and be more productive, less anxiety-ridden, and happier with your workflow. 

Let’s get started.


The Science of Procrastination

science of procrastination

So, now you know that both task and person play a role in whether or not we procrastinate.

You likely began this article knowing procrastination isn’t the greatest thing, but if you’re a chronic procrastinator yourself, you might argue the old “I work best under pressure” belief.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but even if you find yourself working more efficiently as a deadline creeps up, you’re still probably suffering from the negative effects of procrastination.

So what are the negative effects of procrastination?

This was the question that researchers at Case Western Reserve University set out to test during one of the first ever studies on procrastination in 1997.

The scientists had 101 college students complete an assessment at the beginning of the semester that rated their levels of procrastination.

Then, throughout the semester, researchers assessed students’ stress levels, health care visits, and physical symptoms.

Ironically, the results of the study indicated that procrastinators were less stressed and reported fewer illnesses than non-procrastinators early on in the semester.

This may seem surprising, but researchers actually anticipated this result, because procrastinators tend to be less stressed at the outset of the semester, as they put off their work in exchange for more enjoyable (and stress-relieving) activities.

However, as the semester progressed and the procrastination intensified, the opposite became true.

Later in the semester, procrastinators reported more stress and illness compared to the non-procrastinators. They also received lower grades on all assignments and suffered worse overall health.

In sum, procrastinators suffer more and perform worse.

The results of this study raised further questions.

Do procrastinators simply have poor time management skills?

What mechanism underlies the stress and illness associated with procrastination?

Could emotions affect procrastination?

In another study with 45 students at Carleton University, researchers evaluated emotions related to procrastination.

Students were given a pager and were tracked over the course of five days leading up to a school project deadline.

Each day, students were alerted eight times to report on their level of procrastination, mood, and emotions.

As the deadline approached, students that chose to engage in more enjoyable activities (procrastinators) reported high levels of guilt, hidden behind a mask of immediate gratification.

This study provided evidence that students are conscious of how procrastination is making them feel, but still can’t overcome the urge to do something else, rather than getting to work and alleviating negative feelings.

It’s studies like these that led researchers to realize that procrastination isn’t a time management problem, but is more related to things like our perception of the task or our personality traits (more on this in the next section). 

Another interesting aspect of procrastination is that instead of avoiding it, and the discomfort that follows, we find ourselves procrastinating over and over again.

As humans, we typically learn from mistakes and avoid bad feelings by changing our behaviors in the future, but this doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to procrastination.

People who procrastinate continue to do so, despite the negative feelings and detriments to well-being that procrastinating promotes.

This has to do with our basic human tendency to prefer instant gratification over long-term reward: Our brains are hard-wired to take care of our current selves, even if it’s at the expense of our future selves.

If we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, this feeling is most salient, and therefore takes priority over considerations of future outcomes.

In a study at Bishop’s University, researchers assessed levels of procrastination in 80 participants and then had them read through a stressful scenario about returning from a tropical vacation and discovering a suspicious mole on their skin.

In this scenario, the participants were to imagine putting off going to the doctor to get the mole inspected for a long time, creating anxiety about possible skin cancer. 

Researchers then asked participants how they would feel in response to a situation like this.

Procrastinators commented in ways that reflected the desire to improve their mood in the moment such as, “At least I went to the doctor before it got any worse.”

However, non-procrastinators more frequently made comments that embraced the anxious situation and prepared them for better outcomes in the future such as, “If only I had gone to the doctor sooner.”

Summary: Procrastination is generally caused by a desire to feel better in the moment, rather than considering what the “future self” will face if we don’t get to work. However, people who procrastinate in the hopes of making themselves feel better often end up suffering more due to suppressed feelings of guilt and anxiety.

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Why We Procrastinate

procrastination psychology

Hesiod was definitely on to something—procrastination is far more than just putting things off.

Procrastination is defined as the tendency to delay initiation or completion of important tasks to the point of discomfort.

And according to researchers at Grant MacEwan College , procrastination stems from far more than time management issues (although this could exacerbate the issue).

Whether or not we procrastinate depends on a variety of factors, such as perception of the task, the nature of the task, and our personality traits.

Let’s look at each of these issues.

Perception of the Task

How we interpret the work we want to accomplish plays a huge role in whether or not we delay getting it done.

Our perceptions can include a wide variety of thoughts and feelings, but there’s a few evidence-based perceptions that determine likelihood of procrastination: boredom, frustration, meaningfulness, and self-belief.

For example, it’s probably not surprising that when we find a certain task boring, it’s hard to keep our attention on it. In fact, the likelihood of procrastination increases as boredom increases.

We are also more likely to procrastinate if a task frustrates us. Previous research from Carleton University explains that frustration leads to a lack of focus on the task at hand and thus, procrastination ensues.

The researchers at Carleton also noted a few things that decrease the chances of procrastinating.

For instance, the more meaningful the task is, the less likely we will procrastinate getting it done. If you’re struggling to complete a project, it might be worth trying to make it more fun, finding passion in it, or making yourself more aware of how it might help others.

And simply believing in yourself can go a long way in combating procrastination. If you truly think you are competent enough to complete the task, you’ll be more likely to put effort in and set realistic, attainable goals.

Summary: If you perceive a task as being boring, frustrating, or impossible to accomplish, you’re more likely to procrastinate. If you perceive a task as meaningful and you believe you can accomplish it, you’re less likely to procrastinate.

Nature of the Task

How a task is structured or presented in our lives can also impact our ability to get it done.

The further away a deadline is, the less likely we are to consider it at all—let alone procrastinate on it. However, we very often have project deadlines set very far in advance, so it might be helpful to set some smaller goals and benchmarks leading up to the primary due date.

In addition to timeline, the structure of the task is also crucial when predicting the likelihood we’ll procrastinate.

In study conducted by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 99 students were monitored over the course of a semester.

The students completed three papers during this period. Of the 99 students, 51 were told to choose when their papers were due throughout the semester (the “free choice” group) and 48 were assigned evenly spaced deadlines for each paper by the professor (the “no choice” group).

At the end of the semester, the researchers calculated the students’ average score for all three papers in both groups. 

They found that the free choice group scored 85% on average, and the no choice group scored 89% on average, a statistically significant difference.

If you look at the final paper the results are even more striking. Students in the free choice group scored 77% on average, whereas students in the no choice group scored 86% on average.

Now, why would students score better when they’re assigned a deadline by their professors instead of following one they set for themselves?

Well, the researchers believe it was because the students were less likely to procrastinate when they were told to follow a deadline set by someone else. The researchers were also careful to evenly space the deadlines for all three papers, whereas the students didn’t necessarily plan as systematically (it’s likely many of them tried to finish all three papers at the end of the semester).

All very interesting, but what if you don’t have a professor standing over your shoulder to set deadlines for you?

Well, this study offers an answer to that question, too.

After further analysis of the data, the researchers discovered that who set the deadlines actually didn’t matter. The important thing was that the deadlines were evenly spaced—allowing students enough time to do a good job on each paper. 

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t apply this principle in your own life as well. 

When confronted with a looming project, one of the most effective ways to defeat procrastination is to break the project into smaller tasks, and give each task a deadline.

Summary: You’re more likely to procrastinate if you’re facing a large task or series of tasks with a far-off deadline. You can decrease your chances of procrastinating by setting benchmarks—basically mini-deadlines—that lead up to your main deadline, as well as creating a list of steps for completing your task.  

Personality Traits

In addition to what we think of a certain task or how that task is organized, research provides evidence that some personality traits are actually associated with procrastination.

On the one hand, if you’re a strong “sensation seeker,” you’re more likely to favor exciting activities, take risks, and avoid boredom at all costs. This means you are also more likely to be a procrastinator, because you’ll always be seeking out new hits of dopamine instead of focusing on the boring but necessary work you should be doing.

On the other hand, those who score high on “conscientiousness” and tend to be more orderly and organized are less likely to procrastinate.

“Fear of failure” can also play a role in determining procrastination. However, how much this affects your tendency to procrastinate depends on your self-belief. 

If you don’t believe you can actually accomplish the task or do it well, (and this might take some time on your part to look inward for a second), then the probability of failing, in your eyes, will be high, which—you guessed it—will lead to procrastination.

On the other hand, if you do believe you’re entirely competent to complete the task, fearing failure can light a fire inside you, decrease the chances of procrastination, and increase your level of effort to avoid failing.

Summary: If you’re easily distracted, lack self-belief, or tend to be a sensation-seeker, you’re more likely to procrastinate, whereas if you’re more focused and conscientious and have strong self belief about your ability to complete your tasks, you’re less likely to procrastinate. No matter your personality, though, you can use the techniques in this article to procrastinate less.

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4 Strategies to Stop Procrastinating

overcoming procrastination

Okay, great. We can confidently confirm that procrastinating isn’t in our best interests, and it has many negative effects.

So what do we do to break this self-destructive behavior?

Here are four strategies I’ve found work particularly well that are also backed by research: 

  1. Set small deadlines for yourself
  2. Block distractions and optimize your environment
  3. Find meaning in the task
  4. Use the Pomodoro Technique

Let’s go over each one.

1. Set Small Deadlines for Yourself

Here’s the long and short of this strategy: 

  • Set more deadlines.
  • Set more manageable deadlines.
  • Set evenly spaced deadlines.

Previous research with 212 participants at Brooklyn College noted the strong links between procrastination and a variety of other behaviors such as impulsivity, self-monitoring, planning and organization, activity shifting, task initiation, and general orderliness.

So, although difficulty with time management might not be the root cause of procrastination, those who procrastinate might benefit from setting more (and more manageable) deadlines on the way to the specified goal, project, or activity.

For example, rather than having just one daunting deadline such as, “Lose 10 pounds before trip to Hawaii in 5 months,” you should set mini deadlines that build toward your ultimate goal. For example, you could set a mini goal of losing 4 pounds per month leading up to your Hawaii trip.

And better yet, build some flexibility into your goals (especially when it involves an unpredictable process like weight loss). For example, you could set a goal of losing 2 to 4 pounds per month leading up to your Hawaii trip.

Finally, make sure your mini deadlines are evenly spaced. In this example, the deadlines leading up to the trip to Hawaii are spaced out from month-to-month—this is an ideal set-up.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone is different when it comes to what works best.

You might find you need more frequent mini-deadlines or you might realize more specific deadlines are required for you to stay on track. Using these basic, evidence-based guidelines, you can experiment with different strategies to find what works best for you and your goals.

Summary: If you find yourself suffering from chronic procrastination, you can break down the task into smaller, more manageable tasks with shorter, evenly spaced deadlines leading up to when you want to finish the project.

2. Block Distractions and Optimize Your Environment

Here’s the long and short of this strategy:

  • Decrease temptations
  • Create a good working environment
  • Set a routine
  • Make yourself comfortable

If you’ve read much about habit change, you know that our basic human tendency to seek instant gratification over long-term reward can be rewired to help us act in ways that are more beneficial for our well-being. In other words, we can change our habits for the better.

And procrastination can become a habit.

If your first inclination is always to put off till tomorrow what could be done now, then you’ve made procrastination a habit.

Lucky for you, the same strategies used to eliminate bad habits and promote good ones can  help reduce procrastination.

A simple method to reduce procrastination and increase productivity is to decrease temptations that pull you away from work and create an environment that produces strong workflow vibes.

It’s important to note that temptations and distractions are different for everyone, just as an optimal environment is.

For this reason, you should first determine what your biggest distractions are, and then make them more difficult to do.

  • Binge watching your favorite show? Unplug the TV or remove the batteries from the remote.
  • Gossiping in your group chat? Put the chat on silent or place your phone in a different room.
  • Shopping online? Download an extension that prohibits you from visiting specific websites or unplug your WiFi router (if you’re doing something that doesn’t require the Internet).

In addition to blocking distractions, adjust your surroundings so productivity is easier or more enjoyable.

For example, my workflow vibes are always super strong on airplanes. Knowing I’ll be stuck in one spot, I plan my work ahead of time and grab a coffee. Once seated, I’m bulletproof to distractions, comfortable with my task, and happily productive. As a further benefit, since I travel frequently, this formula has become a positive habit.

Why does this work for me? 

Well, I’m stuck in one spot without any temptations or distractions, I enjoy traveling and do it frequently, and flights also have a definite beginning and end, so I know exactly how long I have to finish my work.

Plus, I always get a coffee at the airport, which improves my mood. And better mood = less likely to procrastinate. Not to mention, caffeine is a fantastic cognitive booster.

Of course, I’m not on planes all the time, and I don’t expect you to be either.

But this personal experience highlights the power of having a routine and a happy place to go to when you want to eliminate procrastination.

Instead of a claustrophobic airplane seat, perhaps you can dedicate a spot in your house to getting work done. Only sit down at that spot if you are planning to be productive.

You might not be a coffee person, but if you can set up that dedicated work space with everything you need to feel and perform your best (e.g. water bottle, fresh pot of tea, classical music, a window/sunshine, etc.), it will be much more inviting, maybe even a place you look forward to working in.

And if you like being in that spot, you’ll use it more, which will lead to more work accomplished, which will feel good, which will then become associated with your workspace, etc., etc. 

You now have yourself a beautiful, productive, feel-good cycle, thanks to a workflow-happy environment.

Summary: Setting yourself up for success often requires an environment conducive to success. Creating a spot that’s dedicated to getting work done and is comfortable, based on your own personal standards, is one way to avoid procrastination.  

3. Find Meaning in the Task

Here’s the long and short of this strategy:

  • Find the passion
  • Focus on the purpose
  • Enjoy the process

Although setting mini-deadlines and blocking other distractions are great methods for eliminating procrastination on a task, the self-regulation required to do these things is often lacking in people that fall in the “chronic procrastinator” category.

Instead, tapping into the emotional aspects of procrastination might be the most effective route.

In order to reduce the desire to increase our mood short-term and ignore the outcomes our future selves will face as a result, finding personal meaning in the task is a beneficial strategy. 

Is some aspect of this project you’re delaying something you feel passionate about?

Would completing this task help someone you love?

If you were to make headway on this project, would that make you feel good?

Taking time to assign or discover meaning within the task you’re struggling with can help to avoid further procrastination.

Summary: If you find you aren’t motivated to begin a task, take a moment to understand why completing the task is important to you, what it brings to your life, and how it will help you accomplish other goals. 

4. Use the Pomodoro Technique

Here’s the long and short of this strategy:

Commit to work for small units of time.

A specific, tactical solution that you can apply right now is the “Pomodoro Technique.”

With this technique, you commit to 25 minutes of uninterrupted work time, followed by a five minute break. 

Most people can commit to 25 minutes of work; it’s the many hours/days/weeks/months a large project requires that’s daunting. But working for 25 minutes? Easy.

The hardest part of getting over the procrastination hump is just getting started. And that’s exactly what this technique aims to solve. Often, once you get started, the work builds its own momentum. So, you might not even need that five minute break!

Although there isn’t much research on this technique, it’s widely used and recommended by experts in the field, like Dr. Phill Oakley—creator of “Learning How to Learn,” an online course completed by 1.8 million people in over 200 countries.

If you’re interested in trying the Pomodoro Technique, you can use an app called Forest. It incorporates the Pomodoro Technique using a timer that locks your phone from being used for the 25 minute period. (Note: If you work from your phone, this might not be your best option).

I love this app, because it also “gamifies” your productivity and loyalty to the timer by *growing* a tree for every 25 minutes you complete, with the ultimate goal of curating a “forest,” hence the name. 

So, if you’re looking for something you can immediately implement into your daily work routine, set your timer and give the Pomodoro Technique a try!

Summary: The Pomodoro Technique involves working for 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. This helps break projects into more manageable chunks of work, which makes it easier to get started. You can also experiment with longer work periods if you like.

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The Bottom Line on Procrastination 

Procrastinating is something that most of us have in common.

Our brains are hard-wired to make our current emotional state and well-being a priority, which makes it difficult to pass up dinner with friends (providing instant gratification and stress relief), even if our future selves may suffer from the delay in writing that article, finishing that project, completing that assignment, etc., until a day before the deadline.

Not only does procrastination make for a stressful situation, but research indicates that procrastinators experience both more emotional discomfort, in the form of stress, guilt, and anxiety, as well as more physical health symptoms and illness.

Although procrastination seems to alleviate stress in the very short-term, it still causes guilt and discomfort. And it’s hard to ignore the long-term effects on our health.

We also can’t forget that procrastinators tend to perform worse on tasks and are less likely to learn from their procrastination.

The truth is procrastination is harmful—to our health, our productivity, and our achievement.

Negativity aside, there are some evidence-based ways to reduce your procrastination, such as breaking up the task into mini-deadlines, blocking distractions, and recognizing personal meaning in the task.

Time is the most valuable resource we have.

Instead of convincing yourself that you “work best under pressure,” putting effort into using your time wisely will likely leave you healthier, happier, and more successful.

What do you think of procrastination? Have anything else to add? Lemme know in the comments below!

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