Procrastination psychology (and how to stop)

Procrastination, productivity killer!

procrastination
Procrastination leads to us putting off jobs we should be getting on with.

Procrastination, as we all know, is a productivity killer. I have a list of jobs (sometimes written down, and sometimes in my head) I need to do on a day to day basis. Some jobs – particularly ones I am worried about, or where a poor outcome has dire consequences- seem to sit on that list for a long time. This often makes them more difficult when I finally get to them! Why do we do this to ourselves? What is the psychology which underpins it, and how can we avoid getting bogged down in procrastination?

‘I don’t get stressed and I work best under pressure’

Early work on procrastination[1] suggested it can actually reduce stress – to a point. Students who scored higher on procrastination had, over a semester, lower levels of stress. Interestingly, both high and low procrastinating students got about the same number of assignments done, but the high procrastinators started their work much later. However, they also did significantly less well gradewise. Moreover,their total stress (after getting poor grades)was much higher. They also experienced poor health outcomes such as increased illness. In summary,they enjoyed the ride up to the point of submission, but paid dearly for it after….

So, why do we do it to ourselves? One explanation is that it a form of self-handicapping. Self-handicapping involves creating unfavourable conditions for oneself in a advance of doing something we are worried about. We then perform sub-optimally in the task, but can blame it on our prior behaviour, and rest easy in the knowledge we could have done better if circumstances differed. We basically trade the highest chance for good performance with a way to save face if we fail.

Self-handicapping as an explanation is supported by experimental psychology evidence. For instance, students (who were identified as procrastinators or not) were told they would be doing a test which was either ‘for fun’ or diagnostic of their intelligence. In the fun condition, both took the opportunity to practice with the same frequency. When the test was diagnostic, procrastinators preferred (and undertook) other tasks more often[2]. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that this also suggests some people are more prone to procrastination than others. Whilst this is true, it is a combination of circumstance (high stakes or undesirable tasks) and high baseline procrastination which makes people delay.

’I always seem to do it!’

Why do some people procrastinate over and over again? One explanation is that the focus on avoiding negative moods and feelings stops high procrastinators from learning from their mistakes. Indeed, procrastinators tend to be try and find some good in the outcome, making statements along the lines of ‘at least it wasn’t worse’ in contrast to more reflective ‘it would have been better if I had…’ type ones. The former favours an immediate mood gain at the expense of the opportunity of future improvement. The latter does the reverse. It could be that this is an attempt to prepare for the future by making us emotionally equipped to deal with adversity [3]. Much of the research field also suggest that people who procrastinate are generally more impulsive, relying more on ‘fast’ than ‘slow’ decision making[4] (you can read more about this on my recent post on running on autopilot.

OK, what do we do?

There are ways to reduce procrastination. I have noticed in myself that once I realise I am procrastinating, I find it harder to sustain. I think the knowledge I am putting off the inevitable (combined perhaps with a slightly obsessive attitude to deadlines) makes it more likely I will get on with things. More concretely, a colleague of mine always puts a dot next to a to-do list item when she skips something. Over time, things she are trying to avoid get very noticeable. Other techniques with some evidence supporting them is making a habit of honestly reviewing poor performance and making a verbal (or written) commitment to doing things by a specific date.

None are magic bullets, but are all worth a go. So – your homework for the week – find one task you have been putting off and get on with it. You need to do it anyway, and you’ll feel better (and do better) if you get cracking!

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References

[1] Tice, D., & Baumeister, R.F.(1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science, 8, 454–458

[2]Ferrari, J. R., & Tice, D. M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in Personality, 34(1), 73–83.

[3]Sirois, F.M., & Pychl, T.A. (2013).Procrastination and priority of short term mood regulation: Consequences for the future self.Social and Personality Compass, 7, 115-127.

[4]Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 65–94.

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