Why we Procrastinate and How to Stop

“Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday.” (Napoleon Hill)

Procrastination, to some degree, is practiced by all of us. But when procrastination gets out of hand it can severely limit one’s enjoyment of life. In this article, we are going to examine what procrastination is, why we procrastinate, and tips for overcoming it.

What is Procrastination?

Procrastination is defined by Timothy Pychyl in his book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle as:

“the voluntary delay of an intended action despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of the task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him- or herself.” (Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Timothy Pychyl)

For many people procrastination becomes a habitual, self-reinforcing behavior – the more we procrastinate the more likely we will do so in the future, instigating a vicious cycle of unproductive behavior. Procrastination not only decreases one’s ability to accomplish their goals, but also negatively impacts one’s feelings of self-efficacy and in general leads to a more stressful life.

Why We Procrastinate?

Some people believe that their inability to get things done is a direct a result of their procrastination. However, it is important to realize that procrastination is not the root cause of one’s unproductive behavior, rather it is better characterized as a habit we form in an attempt to avoid fears and stresses that certain activities elicit. As Neil Fiore puts it in his classic book The Now Habit:

“In my work with thousands of procrastinators I have discovered that there is one main reason why we procrastinate: it rewards us with temporary relief from stress … The main reason we learn any habit … is that even a seemingly counterproductive habit like procrastination is immediately followed by some reward. Procrastination reduces tension by taking us away from something we view as painful or threatening … In a sense we become addicted to using procrastination as a way to temporarily reduce the anxiety associated with certain tasks.” (The Now Habit, Neil Fiore)

Overcoming Procrastination

The first step in overcoming procrastination is becoming aware of what triggers such behavior. For most people what triggers procrastination are certain thoughts that arise to justify delaying action. Procrastinators usually have a variety of excuses on hand, examples include, “That can wait until tomorrow” or “I am not feeling in the mood today”. It is important to spend some time becoming familiar with one’s trigger thoughts as many people justify their procrastination without even realizing and before they know it they have wasted a whole day.

When one begins to notice their triggers they will be in a better position to break the habit and use a little bit of willpower to just get started on the task at hand. Some may be tempted to stop reading here thinking “well that’s just the problem, I can’t get started”, but as Timothy Pychyl writes in his Solving the Procrastination Puzzle:

“You think you are not able to get started, probably because you are focused on your feelings (which are negative), and you are thinking about the whole task, about “getting it done” as opposed to “getting started.” The trick is to find something that you can get started on.” (Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Timothy Pychyl)

In a related manner, Michael Epstein in his book Three Minute Therapy recommends using a technique he calls the Three Minute Procrastination Buster. To explain the value of this technique Epstein uses an analogy to the concept of inertia, i.e., the tendency of an object to remain in its state of motion unless affected by external sources. As Epstein writes:

“This illustrates the basic rationale of most anti-procrastination techniques: make inertia work FOR you. We all, in varying degrees, have a tendency to inertia; we all find it easier to continue what we’re doing than to change gears and start doing something different. But once we have started doing that different thing, inertia begins to work in favor of sticking to it. . . This principle can be taken to its ultimate in the Three Minute Procrastination Buster. In this technique, you simply decide that you will spend three minutes working on something, even though three minutes seems not worth doing. Suppose that you have been putting off an unpleasant chore for some time. Then you decide to give it three minutes.” (Three Minute Therapy, Michael Edelstein)

Making a decision to do something for three minutes requires little willpower and, as Epstein and many others have noted, once you get started you will likely continue on the task for more time than you anticipated.

Another reason why the “just getting started technique” is so effective is because attitudes often follow behaviors. We might get anxious when thinking about the need to complete an entire task, but if we just get started and focus on the process our attitude will change and the initial small accomplishments will often provide the needed motivation to tackle more difficult things. It may seem counterintuitive, but often we do not need to wait until we are motivated to act, rather motivation will follow action. As Oliver Burkeman explains in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

“…who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realize that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated, or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings, and act anyway.

It is illuminating to note, here, how the daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasize the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood.” (The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman)

When breaking the habit of procrastination it is very helpful to reinforce the new behavior with rewards. Rewards are crucial to the formation of both good and bad habits. Simply congratulating oneself or devoting a small amount of time to a ‘guilty pleasure’, such as spending 5 minutes on social media, can help reinforce productive behavior.

Finally, in the process of making changes to our behavior patterns and ridding ourselves of procrastination there will be times when we give in to temptations and decide to watch YouTube videos, for example, rather than being productive. When this happens it is crucial not be too hard on oneself. Many studies have shown that self-criticism decreases willpower, inhibits self-control, and is strongly associated with depression. Instead of self-criticism it is better to recognize that we are not perfect and that setbacks are only temporary. When we practice self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, it will be much easier to “just get started” the next time we are confronted with a procrastination trigger.

Books Referenced in the Article