The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Procrastination

Read Time : 8 minutes

“The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don't just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed"

(Pressfield 2002)

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Procrastination is a phenomenon that has afflicted mankind since at least the times of Cicero (Steele 2007). It is defined as 'the experience of time characterised by habitually - and often counterproductively - postponing the performance of tasks' (Klingsieck 2012).

 

Due to its 'potential negative influence on the autonomy of people' (Won 2018) the study of the 'dilatory behaviours, indecision, lack of punctuality and lack of planning' (Díaz-Morales et al. 2006) that make up procrastination have been the focus of study for many academic research teams and the data are disconcerting to say the least.

Procrastination is certainly an affliction that most of us encounter regularly and in almost all life domains. Klingsieck (2013) asserts that procrastination is typical of work settings, healthcare domains, everyday routines and habits, leisure, family and social life.

The data are clear and profound - with up to 70% of university students considering themselves procrastinators (Schouwenburg 2014), 50% of whom procrastinate consistently and problematically (Solomon 1984) with procrastination accounting for more than one third of their daily activities (Thibodeau 2000).

The data for non-students are equally startling with conservative estimations suggesting that this inefficient time management issue, which manifests as a maladaptive lifestyle, is the norm for around 25% of healthy adults (Harriott 1996). Steel's research (2007) asserts that men procrastinate slightly more than women and that procrastination decreases with age.

The Good

Procrastination is a totally understandable, yet irrational, phenomenon. Why would an individual procrastinate over filling a job application in favour of watching sport on television, playing video games or reading a suspense novel - even when the application is an activity of greater importance and urgency? Because it's more fun!

The brain prioritises instant gratification over long-term gratification - it's why we reach for the chocolate bar when we know we shouldn't, or stay up late watching Netflix when we have an important meeting the next day. We know the implications of a diet of excess are obesity and health issues and the ramifications of a lack of sleep are underperformance but those issues are a long way down the line and 'we can deal with those tomorrow'. Unfortunately, tomorrow rarely arrives.

Procrastination also serves a secondary function; it only appears when we're confronted with a task that is truly meaningful to us or a task that is totally meaningless to us. When procrastination arrives we must self-reflect and act appropriately:

  • Meaningful Task - Create a system to overcome the procrastination

  • Meaningless Task - Say no to the task!

If you fall into the second camp, the epiphany of realising you're engaged in unfulfilling, personally meaningless endeavours can be a daunting and stressful one but is one which will open up the possibility of a truly meaningful, rewarding and fulfilling life.

The Bad

The data are in and procrastination, in the long term, is a terrible decision. Procrastination is linked with 'reduced life satisfaction across all domains, including work and leisure time' (Beutel et al. 2016), reduced financial well-being (Elliot 2002), has a significant negative impact on health (Stead 2010) and in the academic sphere procrastination is linked to poor academic performance (Tice 1997), increased anxiety (Rothblum 1986), increased stress across the whole semester and increased agitation around examination periods (Lay 1993).

 

Procrastination is endemic in our current society, with the cost so abundantly clear. We concede long-term success in health, in relationships and in wealth as well as professionally and socially for the instant gratification this ailment bestows upon us.

The Ugly

Like an aggressive, irritated virus hell bent on destruction, procrastination has begun to mutate and take on another much more subversive form which I like to call 'productive procrastination'. Although not yet backed by the scientific literature, it is widely reported anecdotally.

'Productive procrastination' - a covert form of perfectionism - describes the act of doing seemingly beneficial tasks before the intended task which will directly lead to the desired outcome. Common examples include:

  • I will employ the help of a personal trainer as soon as I get fit.

  • I will start writing as soon as I read these three books on writing effectively.

  • I will start saving money as soon as I have a financial ten year road map drafted.

Not only does productive procrastination hide these time wasting activities but it deludes the individual into believing that these actions are productive. It lures them into the false sense that these unnecessary behaviours are the quickest, most efficient means of getting to the goal. Conversely to their intention, they have put barriers in the way of meaningful progress and these barriers tends to be the stumbling block to starting on the process and making real headway.

It's imperative to recognise this phenomenon early and treat it with the contempt it deserves. Go straight to employing the personal trainer, lifting the pen and pad or opening that new savings account and learn on the job as you progress on your health, writing or financial journey.

Reducing Procrastination

The antidote to procrastination lies in creating strategies that lead us to prioritise long term success over instant gratification. Clear (2021) asserts that we must employ strategies which address one or more of the following principles:

Make the rewards of long-term behaviour more immediate

Linking reward feedback loops into activities that you find difficult can have dramatic effects. Whether this allowing yourself to tick a 'Streak Sheet' after completing 20 minutes of writing or only allowing yourself a coffee only after you've completed your workout - they can work wonders for adherence.

Research undertaken by Brownlow (2000) attests that procrastination is less likely to occur when an individual is intrinsically motivated by the task. The easiest way to adherence therefore is to fill our time with things we love or at least enjoy. As a result, learning to say no is an effective tool to eliminate procrastination; 'find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life'.

Make the costs of procrastination more immediate

Immediate consequences resonate with us much more staunchly than those which are delayed. Loosing $1000 on the throw of a dice in Vegas has much more impact on us than wasting on $1000 on 200 Starbucks coffees over the course of the year.

The health consequences of not training or the regret of not developing your writing skills will take months, if not years to show themselves which can lead to a tendency to miss a workout or writing block. To tackle this we must use strategies to make the cost of non-adherence immediate - you need skin in the game.

These strategies can be as simple as planning to train with a friend, employing a mentor to hold you to account or as extreme as the strategy currently being used by Ali Abdaal to help him write his new book. He will give his flat mate £5000 for each day he doesn't hit his 2000 word count goal until the first draft deadline.

It really is that simple; real, immediate and tangible cost eliminates procrastination.

Remove procrastination triggers from your environment

Create an environment where success is inevitable. Master your habitual environment as well as your physical environment.

If you're struggling to train, tag it on to an already embedded habit which will make adherence easier. People who exercise after work have a much higher adherence than those who exercise in the evenings. The reasoning is simple, by tagging exercise to an already embedded habit, it has a set place and time to take place and there is little room between the office and the gym for distraction or temptation.

If your physical environment is filled with distractions keeping you from writing that masterpiece or learning that instrument, you must redesign your living space. Remove or at the very least make distraction devices more difficult to access. Put that television remote or PS5 controller in an upstairs bedroom; this small barrier to entry will ensure you only watch or play when you really want to and will have a huge impact on the amount of free time you now have for your real priorities.

Make no mistake about it, procrastination has the potential to derail your future and to diminish your potential exponentially. Luckily the solution is simple - make long-term rewards and the consequences of procrastination more immediate while engineering your habits and environment for success. These three principles hold the key to extreme and rapid personal and professional growth - the responsibility to implement them is yours!

Journalling Points

  1. What activities do I procrastinate around?

  2. Are they meaningful or meaningless?

  3. What would I gain by avoiding procrastination?

  4. What strategies should I employ to minimise procrastination?