How to Stop Procrastinating

How to Stop Procrastinating

Learn about the science of procrastination and how to change one’s ways.

Guess what? Psychologists are far from immune to procrastination, which might explain why they have done tons of research on the topic. Accordingly, there is a comprehensive definition of procrastination. All these details are worth including, because as we’ll see, some behaviors that look like procrastination can actually be helpful.

Klingsieck (2013) says that for somebody to be procrastinating, they must be doing the following:

a) Not doing something that they intend to do.

b) Intending to do something important to them.

c) Not restrained by any external circumstances from doing the thing.

d) Facing negative consequences if they do not do the thing.

e) Experiencing negative emotions as a result of not doing the thing.

To put all of that into a sentence, procrastinating is voluntarily delaying an important task, even though it feels bad to delay and it will make things worse for you (Steel, 2007). When people procrastinate, they are behaving illogically – they have no rational excuse for delaying the task, and any benefits that come from delaying the task are outweighed by the negative consequences of doing so (Klingsieck, 2013).

When we procrastinate, we have an intention to do something but are not in action, so it is often described as a failure of self-regulation (Steel, 2007). Interestingly, it wasn’t until a couple hundred years ago that the word “procrastinate” acquired this connotation. The Latin verb procrastinare simply means “putting forward until tomorrow”; it is only in modern industrial times, with our strong emphasis on working hard, being punctual, and being as efficient as possible, that procrastination has acquired such a negative meaning (Ferrari et al., 1995).

“Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.”
― Charles Dickens

Causes of Procrastination

Okay, so now that we know all about what procrastination is, why do we do it so much? Psychologists have a couple theories.

As mentioned before, one idea is that people who procrastinate are not practicing effective self-regulation at the moment (Wolters et al., 2017). Indeed, lots of evidence shows that people who procrastinate more are less able to self-regulate in general (Ferrari et al., 1995).

Specifically, people may be having trouble regulating their responses when they find certain things aversive (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013). When faced with a task that is frustrating or unpleasant, procrastinators turn to a different behavior that feels better – this helps them regulate their moods (Harrington, 2005; Sirois & Pychyl, 2013).

This pattern may be compounded by unhelpful thoughts. In fact, we may even unconsciously self-sabotage through procrastination in order to confirm our negative beliefs to ourselves (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013).

In personality terms, people who procrastinate more also tend to have higher levels of neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions) and lower levels of conscientiousness (the tendency to follow rules and honor commitments) (Johnson & Bloom, 1995). This intuitively makes sense – the more negative feelings you experience, the more likely you are to try to avoid them, and the less conscientious you are, the easier it is to justify delaying a task.

How to Stop Procrastination

Formal interventions like therapy or skills groups focus on three approaches: learning how to self-regulate, building self-confidence and a “can-do” mentality, and building social support (Schouwenberg, 2004). There is research evidence to suggest that procrastination interventions based in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) seem to be helpful (Rozental et al., 2018; Steel, 2007; van Eerde & Klingsieck, 2018). Let’s look at some CBT-style actions you can take to reduce procrastination through each of those three approaches (Schouwenberg, 2004);

Self-regulatory skills

Self-regulatory skills often look like creating a work environment that triggers the desire to procrastinate less often. For example, one can reduce the number of distractors in one’s work environment by eliminating notifications from email, text, and social media apps, or even choose to block Internet access entirely during tasks that do not require the Internet. Another method is to use more active time management techniques, such as blocking out certain times of day for certain tasks, establishing deadlines, and creating systems for tracking and celebrating incremental progress through a task.

Changing one’s attitude

Changing one’s attitude toward work typically means identifying the unhelpful thoughts that keep one procrastinating and working to replace them with more helpful thoughts. For example, if you notice that you often say to yourself, “I will never finish this,” you might help yourself by responding to that voice with, “When I work at things, I always make some progress, so it’s worth it to try right now.”

Social support

Finally, having the support of other people can help in two ways. First, procrastinating behaviors often leave us feeling ashamed and isolated, but hearing that other people go through the same challenges can reduce our negative feelings. Second, social support can be very practical, such as asking a friend to be your accountability buddy or making a commitment to send a check-in text about task completion at lunchtime each day.

Taking steps like these, which may be easier with the help of a mental health provider or academic coach, can improve your time management skills and your psychological flexibility – the ability to respond adaptively to tough situations – which can further decrease your drive to procrastinate (Hailikari et al., 2021).

In Sum

The urge to procrastinate may always be there, whether you’re about to start a task or about to finish it. Try my best not to judge yourself for when these thoughts come up or if you act on them at times. Procrastination is a natural human behavior, one that we hope you now feel slightly more ready to accept – and change – in yourself.

References

● Ferrari, J. R., Johnson, J. L., & McCown, W. G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. Springer Science & Business Media.

● Hailikari, T., Katajavuori, N., & Asikainen, H. (2021). Understanding procrastination: A case of a study skills course. Social Psychology of Education, 24(2), 589-606.

● Harrington, N. (2005). It’s too difficult! Frustration intolerance beliefs and procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(5), 873-883.

● Johnson, J. L., & Bloom, A. M. (1995). An analysis of the contribution of the five factors of personality to variance in academic procrastination. Personality and Individual.

● Klingsieck, K. B. (2013). Procrastination. When good things don’t come to those who wait. European Psychologist, 18(1), 24–34.

● Rozental, A., Bennett, S., Forsström, D., Ebert, D. D., Shafran, R., Andersson, G., & Carlbring, P. (2018). Targeting procrastination using psychological treatments: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1588.

● Schouwenburg, H. C. (2004). Perspectives on counseling the procrastinator. In H. C. Schouwenburg, C. H. Lay, T. A. Pychyl, & J. R. Ferrari (Eds.), Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (pp. 197–208). American Psychological Association.

● Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013). Procrastination and the priority of short‐term mood regulation: Consequences for future self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115-127.

● Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94.

● van Eerde, W., & Klingsieck, K. B. (2018). Overcoming procrastination? A meta-analysis of intervention studies. Educational Research Review, 25, 73-85.

● Wolters, C. A., Won, S., & Hussain, M. (2017). Examining the relations of time management and procrastination within a model of self-regulated learning. Metacognition and Learning, 12(3), 381–399