Procrastination is a frustrating problem which can lead to practical difficulties (like missed deadlines), as well as emotional hardship (such as stress and guilt). So why do we do it? It can be difficult to pinpoint the benefits of procrastination, but if we think of the function of this behaviour, it makes more sense. Procrastination is a form of avoidance and avoiding experiences that we perceive will be difficult is quite a natural action to take. But avoidance is a short-term fix, and while procrastination can give some temporary relief, it may create more long-term problems. Let’s explore how to minimise procrastination.
External factors that influence procrastination
We tend to procrastinate on tasks we see as overwhelming or unpleasant. Procrastination can also arise if we feel that we lack the skills or resources to complete a task. First, we’ll discuss how we can adapt a task so that we view it as less aversive.
Change the task: Break the task down
Many goals we have may seem insurmountable if we view them as a whole. For example, if a goal is framed as ‘receive a high grade for this essay,’ this is a big task which may prompt an emotional response of stress or anxiety.
Breaking tasks down to small, manageable steps is one way to tackle feelings of avoidance that arise. When breaking a task up we might ask the following questions:
- What is the overall goal?
- What are the components of this goal? What steps can I break my task into?
- What is the logical order of these steps?
For example, a generic breakdown of an assignment might be:
- Goal: Complete essay
- Components of goal
- Define topic and figure out what information is needed
- Research and take notes
- Complete dot point draft
- Write rough draft
- Logical order: As above, need to make sure to define topic and information needed first, need to research before writing.
This order might seem obvious, but when we feel overwhelmed it can be useful to remind ourself of these steps, rather than setting ourselves the big task of ‘write an essay.’ Stress and procrastination can also lead us to complete steps of tasks erratically (e.g., trying to take short cuts and not getting the information we need first).
Change the environment: Make your space conducive to work
Where we work can play a part in whether we procrastinate. If you’ve ever tried to work in front of a TV or with your phone nearby you may have found that the temptation to avoid tasks can be hard to resist. To simplify life, removing temptations can be one way to limit procrastination.
Even putting your phone slightly out of reach (so you have to get up from your seat to use it) can help raise your awareness of procrastination. Some people find disconnecting from the Internet can be useful if the task does not require this access. Having a designated space where you complete work can help prime your brain that it is time to focus. Try to avoid clutter as this not only can offer distractions, but has also been found to produce anxiety.
Distractions often come in the form of other people. If you find certain people prompt you to go off task, try to avoid working around these individuals, or set boundaries (e.g., don’t interrupt me if the door is closed). Simple tools like earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones may assist if background noise is a factor in procrastination. For example, if you can hear your family or housemates’ conversations then this may lead you to socialise and procrastinate.
Managing internal factors that lead to procrastination
Aspects of our self like our thoughts, ability to tolerate discomfort, and our working style, can all contribute to how much we procrastinate.
Watch your thoughts
As stated above, procrastination tends to occur when we perceive a task as unpleasant. Note the word ‘perceive’ suggests that the ‘unpleasant’ nature may not actually exist in the task, but may be a product of our thinking. Have you ever avoided something only to find the task was not so bad once you commenced it? This is not uncommon, and shows that our thoughts do not equal reality.
Even if a task is difficult or boring thoughts like “I hate this,” or “I can’t do it,” are not helpful. Asking yourself if a thought is true and helpful is a way to notice and reframe unhelpful thoughts. This doesn’t mean we have to be enthusiastic about undesirable jobs, just that we don’t want our thinking to fuel avoidance behaviour. See examples below for an idea on how to alter your thinking:
|Thinking that may increase procrastination
|Thinking to get the job done
|Why do I even have to do this? (about a required task)
|It sucks that this is needed, so I’ll just get it over with
|What if I mess it up?
|I’ll just do my best and then deal with whatever happens
|This is so boring; I’ll just do it later
|There’s never going to be a good time to do this, so I’ll give it a try now
Build distress tolerance
How much discomfort can you tolerate? Sometimes completing goals requires us to push past feelings of anxiety, frustration, and stress. If you tend to avoid these emotions this may fuel procrastination. For example, Kate tries to do her maths homework but starts to procrastinate when she can’t figure out the first question. Her frustration and anxiety prompt her to procrastinate, and it’s likely some thoughts also triggered the avoidance (e.g., I can’t do this).
We can build up our ability to tolerate difficult emotions, which can help us to persist with challenging tasks. One way to build up emotional strength is to have a healthy attitude to emotions. This involves recognising that emotions are neither good nor bad, and that all feelings have some purpose. For example, anxiety is useful in keeping us aware of threats, and frustration may help us to know when we are going in the wrong direction.
Accepting out emotion and letting it pass is one way we can tolerate distress. Other strategies may include calming activities, problem solving, and positive self-talk. For example, Kate may recognise her anxiety and frustration, accept these feelings and that it’s difficult to feel that way, and persist with the task. She might do a brief calming activity (like controlled breathing or going for a walk) and boost herself up with her thinking (I bet I can get it if I just take it one step at a time. I’ll ask for help if it’s too hard – it will be ok). Sometimes our ability to tolerate distress can be so low that we will procrastinate on even planning to do a task. For example, Kevin doesn’t understand content in his chemistry class. When he thinks about his difficulty understanding the content, he will immediately dismiss these thoughts, thinking ‘I’ll sort that out another time.’
If you are procrastinating on a task to this extent, then it’s useful to ask yourself what it is about the task that you’re concerned about. For example, Kevin may realise that he is avoiding feelings of shame. Then you can use distress tolerance and changing thought strategies to work with these emotions. So, Kevin might recognise and name that he is feeling shame, and be gentle with himself (It’s hard to feel this way. This feeling won’t last forever). He may also challenge his harsh self-criticism thoughts (Everyone struggles with some subjects).
Have an effective working style
How you work will affect your level of procrastination. Your attitude towards work time will influence your likelihood of procrastination. If you do not have a clear boundary between work and relaxation time (e.g., you think you can relax and work at the same time), then procrastination may creep in. For example, if you think you’ll be able to concentrate with the TV on in the background then you may end up procrastinating by watching the show and not working. Multitasking has been found to impair our performance on both tasks.
Believing that you should always be working may also fuel procrastination, as you’ll start to try to create a break for yourself due to feelings of fatigue and resentment. Procrastination is not as refreshing as a planned, proper break, as it tends to come with feelings of guilt. Take time to schedule in breaks and relaxation activities, even if they are short.
You might also avoid working at times of the day where you are more likely to procrastinate. If you feel that Saturday mornings should be spent outside having fun, you are going to be more likely to procrastinate at this time because the task will feel more unsavoury. We may also be more likely to procrastinate when we are feeling physically or mentally weak (e.g., tired, hungry, emotional). Including appropriate self-care (eating well, enough sleep and exercise) may reduce our procrastination.
Get the skills or ask for help
Another internal factor that can lead to procrastination is if we do not have the requisite skills to complete a task. If we simply don’t know how to do something, then avoiding the task is an easy solution. A more useful solution would be to gain the skills we need to complete the task, and to ask for help. For example, if John was procrastinating on a work presentation, he might realise that this avoidance is driven by his limited research and public-speaking skills. He might then ask others to help give him tips on researching and speaking, and he may practice these behaviours repeatedly to improve his ability.
Procrastination is a problematic behaviour many of us face. We have explored ways to change our environment so that procrastination is less likely. Breaking a task down into manageable steps, as well as creating a workspace that enables you to focus, were suggested. We also explored how to change internal factors that lead to procrastination, including building distress tolerance, changing unhelpful thinking, and optimising our working style. If you think you could benefit from further working on struggles with procrastination, please contact us.
By Erica South, Psychologist at Young Minds Health and Development Network