How to stop procrastinating and the psychology behind it
We’ve all been there: current you leaves mounting deadlines to future you but a week later, you are future you. Panic ignites your gut and you realise with sweat-inducing clarity you’re no more in the mood for putting together a 50-slide presentation than the week previous. Only caffeine will get you through this self-sabotage.
In other words, you can’t stop procrastinating. To behavioural economists, that means you signed a mental contract which valued immediate pleasure (doing sweet FA) over long-term success (doing work). Other academics would say you’re just not very good at managing your priorities. Both camps would, in their own ways, be correct. But to a growing number of experts who study the health implications of procrastination, your mental gymnastics might be down to much deeper emotional triggers. What’s more, their research shows task-avoidance could be both symptomatic of, and responsible for, a whole host of maladies – from chronic stress and its secondary ailments (tension headaches, IBS, insomnia) to potentially fatal diseases.
We won’t skirt the point: chronic procrastination could take years off your life and negatively affect its quality on a daily basis. Which is why, after almost succumbing to another Netflix binge, we got round to putting together this guide to overcoming it for good. Best not put off reading it. Unless you’ve got something more pressing to do…
WHAT IS PROCRASTINATION?
It could be any mix of myriad emotional and behavioural issues getting in the way of getting sh*t done. A distinction needs to be made clear from the outset, and crystally so: to put off work from time to time is normal. It’s when you procrastinate a lot, or indeed all the time, as the case may be, that you fall into the category of chronic procrastinator.
“A lot of people think procrastination is just delaying things. But a colleague of mine explains it best: all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination,” says Dr Fuschia Sirois, a researcher at the University of Sheffield who specialises in the psychology of health, with a particular focus on the role procrastination plays on wellbeing.
“There’s strategic, sagacious task-delay (re-prioritising for efficiency or reacting to a change in workflow) and that’s not procrastination,” says Sirois. “True, procrastination is deciding to avoid a task that’s necessary, something that you really intended to do – like writing a paper or finishing the gardening. It’s also a task that’s important to you, not something trivial. The last part of the definition, as we see it, is you procrastinate despite knowing you’ll be worse off; despite knowing there will be negative consequences for you or others.”
WHAT CAUSES PROCRASTINATION?
This is where things get complicated. The number of potential triggers could be even longer than your to-do list. But Dr Sirois’ work shows procrastinators often avoid tasks due to negative emotions tied-up in the processes. Fear of failure, for example, or fear of judgement. You might think you’re distracted because finishing your presentation is tedious, when in fact you’re subconsciously scared of your boss’ beady eye.
“We’re wired to avoid pain and seek out pleasure,” says Sirois. “When you procrastinate and do something that makes you feel momentarily good, you get a reward. The problem is you never get to the source of the negative emotions that cause you to avoid the task in the first place.” That’s why we distract ourselves with TV, daydreaming, social media and WhatsApp chats.
Phones don’t help matters. Psychologists refer to the little dopamine hits you get from distractions like technology as ‘social temptations’. These are like mini sirens luring you off course, sinking productivity. Instagram scrolling is a vibrant neurochemical win when a stultifying task has been taking the colour out of your day. Your brain has no chance.
What happens then is a mental trade off. “Procrastinators have difficulty thinking of their future selves,” says Sirois. “You think: I’m having a hard time, but next week me will be brilliant, will have all the ideas and willpower.”
HOW DO I OVERCOME IT?
This underpins the procrastinator’s mindset. “The more psychologically different we feel from our temporal selves – whether it’s a past self we keep remembering or a future self we’re imagining – the more we see ourselves as not alike, and the more they feel less real,” says Sirois. “It’s easier to do that to a stranger.”
“People who are future-oriented tend to associate with positive feelings – the broad and abstract. You’re not in that state when you’re stressed,” begins Sirois. “Imagining a positive outcome or reward can actually be less motivating. Your brain convinces itself it’s done, which makes it harder to get around to starting. You end up daydreaming about success instead of achieving it.”
Ultimately it comes down to no longer kidding yourself there’s a superhuman version of you who’ll swoop in to save the day. Reconnect with the task at hand and exercise willpower like a muscle. And if you make only one change today, put ‘Place my phone in the other room’ at the top of your to-do list. Without removing today’s social temptations, you’ll never connect with tomorrow’s self.