In-depth: What is Procrastination and How to Overcome it !

Procrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth.

But in real life, you can’t avoid doing things. We have to earn a living, do our taxes, have difficult conversations sometimes. Human life requires confronting uncertainty and risk, so pressure mounts. Procrastination gives a person a temporary hit of relief from this pressure of “having to do” things, which is a self-rewarding behavior. So it continues and becomes the normal way to respond to these pressures.

If you fail to believe you will procrastinate or become idealistic about how awesome you are at working hard and managing your time you never develop a strategy for outmaneuvering your own weakness.

Procrastination is an impulse; it’s buying candy at the checkout. Procrastination is also hyperbolic discounting, taking the sure thing in the present over the caliginous prospect some day far away.

You must be adept at thinking about thinking to defeat yourself at procrastination. You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality.

The now you may see the costs and rewards at stake when it comes time to choose studying for the test instead of going to the club, eating the salad instead of the cupcake, writing the article instead of playing the video game.

The trick is to accept the now you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future you – a person who can’t be trusted. Future-you will give in, and then you’ll go back to being now-you and feel weak and ashamed. Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both parties.

This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.

Capable psychonauts who think about thinking, about states of mind, about set and setting, can get things done not because they have more will power, more drive, but because they know productivity is a game of cat and mouse versus a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul. Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into a calendar or setting deadlines for push ups.

The most important point to remember here is that procrastination (especially of the chronic kind) is not based on laziness but on the avoidance of anxiety. Overcoming procrastination will always involve taking action—whether it is action coming from you, or from the help of others. Take action now, and start living, and enjoying the life that you really want. You can do almost anything you set your mind to achieve.

First, to overcome procrastination you need to have an understanding of the REASONS WHY you procrastinate and the function procrastination serves in your life.
There are some time management techniques that are well suited to overcoming procrastination and others that can make it worse. Those that reduce anxiety and fear and emphasize the satisfaction and rewards of completing tasks work best. Those that are inflexible emphasize the magnitude of tasks and increase anxiety can actually increase procrastination and are thus counter-productive. For instance, making a huge list of “things to do” or scheduling every minute of your day may INCREASE your stress and thus procrastination. Instead, set reasonable goals (e.g. a manageable list of things to do), break big tasks down, and give yourself flexibility and allot time to things you enjoy as rewards for work completed.

To overcome procrastination it’s critical that you stay motivated for PRODUCTIVE REASONS. By productive reasons I mean reasons for learning and achieving that lead to positive, productive, satisfying feelings and actions. These reasons are in contrast to engaging in a task out of fear of failing, or not making your parents angry, or not looking stupid, or doing better than other people to “show off.” While these are all reasons – often very powerful ones – for doing something, they are not productive since they evoke maladaptive, often negative feelings and actions. Remember to focus on your own reasons and your goals. Other people’s goals for you are not goals at all, but obligations.

Self-talk —Notice how you are thinking, and talking to yourself. Talk to yourself in ways that remind you of your goals and replace old, counter-productive habits of self-talk. Instead of saying, “I wish I hadn’t…” say, “I will…”
Un-schedule — If you feel really stuck, you probably won’t use a schedule that is a constant reminder of all that you have to do and is all work and no play. So, if your many attempts to make a schedule have failed miserably, make a largely unstructured, flexible schedule in which you slot in only what is necessary. Keep track of all the time you spend working toward your goals, tally it up, and reward yourself for it. This can reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and increase satisfaction in what you get done. For more see the bookProcrastination by Yuen and Burka.
Swiss Cheese It —Breaking down big tasks into little ones is a good approach. A variation on this is devoting short chunks of time to a big task and doing as much as you can in that time with few expectations about what you will get done. For example, try spending about ten minutes just jotting down ideas that come to mind on the topic of a paper, or skimming over a long reading to get just the main ideas. After doing this several times on a big task, you will have made some progress on it, you’ll have some momentum, you’ll have less work to do to complete the task, and it won’t seem so huge because you’ve punched holes in it (like Swiss cheese). In short, it’ll be easier to complete the task because you’ve gotten started and removed some of the obstacles to finishing.
Here is an excerpt of James' most poetic writing for your reflection (taken from James, 1908; Vol 2, p. 547; emphasis added).

"Here we get the obverse of the truth. Those ideas, objects considerations, which (in these lethargic states) fail to get to the will, fail to draw the blood, seem, in so far forth, distant and unreal. The connection of the reality of things with their effectiveness as motives is a tale that has never yet been fully told.The moral tragedy of human life comes almost wholly from the fact that the link is ruptured which normally should hold between vision of the truth and action, and that this pungent sense of effective reality will not attach to certain ideas.
Men [people] do not differ so much in their mere feelings and conceptions. Their notions of possibility and their ideals are not as far apart as might be argued from their differing fates. No class of them have better sentiments or feel more constantly the difference between the higher and the lower path in life than the hopeless failures, the sentimentalists, the drunkards, the schemers, the ‘dead-beats,' whose life is one long contradiction between knowledge and action, and who, with full command of theory, never get to holding their limp characters erect.
No one eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge as they do . . . and yet their moral knowledge, always there grumbling and rumbling in the background . . . never wholly resolves, never gets its voice out of the minor key into the major key, or its speech out of the subjunctive into the imperative mood, never breaks the spell, never takes the helm into its hands." END OF EXCERPT
I don't think we've ever gotten past these sorts of moral connotations in relation to self-regulation failure. It's time we did. We might actually learn something.

Theories of Procrastination

Sometimes there seems to be as many theories on a topic as there are people researching it. Fortunately, over the last 30 years, we have been testing these theories, trying to determine which one works best. Here I review four of the most popular theories of procrastination and consider the evidence for and against them. Much of the empirical evidence comes from my recent meta-analysis, The Nature of Procrastination, which is a systematic review of all the literature written on the topic. The theory with the most support is Temporal Motivation Theory, which is presented last.

1. Anxiety: Fear of Failure, Perfectionism, etc.

There is a host of anxiety-related reasons that have been thought to cause procrastination. Essentially, people are believed to procrastinate on tasks because the task itself is aversive or stressful. Consequently, those who are more susceptible to experiencing stress should procrastinate more. There are a variety of conditions that make people anxious, especially irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs, cognition, or thought is a broad term that includes several dysfunctional or anxiety-provoking worldviews. Ellis (1973) characterizes them as: (1) almost certainly hindering the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment of desires, and (2) almost completely arbitrary and unprovable. Some examples of irrational beliefs are fear of failure and perfectionism.


This theory is not supported.

First, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more anxiety is typically experienced closer to the deadline, so procrastination appears to be a way of increasing anxiety, not reducing it.

Second, empirical evidence indicates a weak or even no relationship between anxiety or irrational beliefs and procrastination. For example, on average, perfectionists actually report slightly less procrastination than other people.

2. Self-Handicapping

There is dispute over whether self-handicapping should be considered a form of procrastination. Self-handicapping is when people place obstacles that hinder their own good performance. The motivation for self-handicapping is often to protect self-esteem by giving people an external reason, an “out,” if they fail to do well. However, self-handicapping isn’t necessarily a form of procrastination, which is: “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.” Self-handicappers appear to be acting in their own self-interest, thinking they are protecting themselves from shame and humiliation. Consequently, Dr. Clarry Lay, one of the first researchers into procrastination and developer of the General Procrastination Scale, concludes “to intend to put off some activity to protect one’s self-esteem in not procrastinatory behavior.”


This theory is not supported.

Self-handicapping is still an important issue and can share some commonalities with procrastination (i.e., delaying a task can be a way to self-handicap). However, because the motivations for delaying are not the same, the two will differ regarding causes and treatments and so it is best to study them separately.

3. Rebelliousness

According to the clinical literature, rebelliousness, hostility, and disagreeableness are thought to be major motivations for procrastination. For those with these personality traits, externally imposed schedules are more likely to be experienced as aversive, and thus avoided. Also, by delaying work and starting it on one’s own schedule, autonomy is reasserted.


This theory is not supported.
First, like anxiety, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more autonomy might be expressed by not doing a task at all instead of just delaying it. By doing it at the last minute, procrastination may appear to express capitulation, “caving in,” rather than autonomy.
Second, empirical evidence indicates an extremely weak relationship, virtually nil, between rebelliousness and procrastination.

4. Temporal Motivation Theory: Core theory of The Procrastination Equation

Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) represents the most recent developments in motivational research; it is an integrative theory from which most other motivational theories can be derived. It suggests that the reasons why people make any decision can be largely represented by the following equation:

Motivation indicates the drive or preference for a course of action, what economists call utility. Naturally, the higher the utility, the greater the preference. On the top of the equation, the numerator, we have two variables: Expectancy and Value. Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring while Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is. Naturally, we would like to choose pursuits that give us a good chance of having a pleasing outcome. On the bottom of the equation, the denominator, we also have two variables. Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to delay. The more impulsive you are, the less you like to delay gratification. Finally, Delay indicates how long, on average, you must wait to receive the payout, that is the expected reward. Since delay is in the bottom of the equation, the longer the delay, the less motivated we feel about taking action.
How does this theory relate to procrastination? Essentially, we are constantly beset with making decisions among various courses of action. Should we go to the gym or watch TV? Should I make dinner or order-in? TMT suggests, unsurprisingly, that we are more likely to pursue goals or tasks that are pleasurable and that we are likely to attain. Consequently, we are more likely to put off, to procrastinate, difficult tasks with unenjoyable qualities.
Even more important regarding procrastination is the effects of delay. We like our rewards not only to be large but also to be immediate. Consequently, we will most likely procrastinate any tasks that are unpleasant in the present and offer rewards only in the distant future. In other words, we would be more likely to put off higher priority tasks if there are options available that are immediately pleasurable (even if they have sizeable but delayed costs). We tend to call such options temptations.
An Example

To help illustrate these elements of TMT, the following example is put forth: the college student’s essay paper. A college student who has been assigned an essay on September 15th, the start of a semester and it is due on December 15th, the course end. This student likes to socialize but he also likes to get good grades. The figure below maps the changes in expected utility for him over the course of the semester regarding his two choices, studying vs. socializing. Since the reward for socializing is always in the present, it maintains a uniformly high utility. For writing, its reward is distant initially, diminishing its utility. Only towards the deadline do the discounting effects of time decrease and writing becomes increasingly likely. In this example, the switch in motivation occurs on December 3rd, leaving just 12 days for concentrated effort. During this final stretch, it is quite likely that earnest but empty promises (i.e., intentions) are made to start working earlier next time.


There is strong evidence that TMT provides a good summary of why we procrastinate.
First, procrastination is strongly associated with expectancy. Specifically, those people with low self-efficacy, that is feelings of incompetence, are more likely to procrastinate.
Second, procrastination is strongly associated with the value of the tasks. The more unpleasant people find a task, the more likely they are to put it off. Also, those low in need for achievement, that is how much pleasure they get from achieving, are more likely to procrastinate.
Third, procrastination is strongly associated with sensitivity to delay. Specifically, people who are more distractible, impulsive, and have less self-control tend to procrastinate more.
Fourth, procrastination is strongly associated with time delay. The closer we are to realizing a goal, the harder we work at it.
Fifth, TMT predicts an intention-action gap, where we intend to work but fail to act on these intentions. As expected. procrastinators tend not to act on their intentions.
Sixth, observed work behavior matches what is predicted by TMT.
See “Integrating Theories of Motivation” published in the Academy of Management Review, as it shows that most motivational theories are converging on an integrated model of motivation. TMT concludes that many of the previous theories were right, but only in part. They typically touch on only one piece of the puzzle, such as task aversiveness, and then only certain forms of it. For example, consider rebelliousness. If you are a rebellious individual and feel some work is foisted upon you, then you will likely also find it more aversive. Since anything that makes work more unpleasant increases the likelihood of procrastination, rebelliousness would indeed be one contributor to procrastination, though in general its contribution is extremely small.

Quit procrastinating, already. How to stop

Do you dawdle when you should be toiling? Perhaps you're a perfectionist, or maybe you had an overbearing dad. Regardless, this bad habit is one worth breaking.

“Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,” says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of “Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.” And this year, it's a procrastinator's dream: three extra, government-given days to put off your taxes, since they're due Monday instead of today.

It’s not a time-management issue. For the vast majority of us, it’s usually about doing a task we’d rather put off, like taxes or scheduling a colonoscopy. But a significant (foot-dragging) minority of us are chronic procrastinators — people who wait until the last minute to start virtually everything from emptying the dishwasher to updating their life insurance policy.

Scientists insist there aren’t any benefits of procrastinating for any of us. Procrastinators are great excuse makers, but the reality is that you won’t really feel more like doing it tomorrow; you don’t work best under pressure; and it isyour fault.

Here’s why you keep putting things off and how to quit procrastinating:

Procrastination mantra: All-or-nothing thinking
Rationalization: People have this all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to cleaning closets or losing 20 pounds. “They think of the 20 pounds rather than the day-to-day struggle of chipping off the weight and gradually reaching a goal,” says Judith Belmont, a psychotherapist in Allentown, Penn., and author of the forthcoming “The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life; How to Get through Life’s Holes without Getting Stuck in Them.”
The fix: It’s a big project — pace yourself. Break the task up into small chunks and just get started. Once people get started, the perception of the task changes. “Progress fuels motivation, so it’s priming the pump,” says Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of “The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.” If you have a 40-page report to write, start with a page. If you can’t do that, start with a paragraph. Can’t do that? Start with a sentence.

Procrastination mantra: Perfectionism
Rationalization: Procrastinators think it’s all about them. “They’re afraid if they finish and the thing comes out terribly, they look bad and are no good,” says Ferrari. Some people want success, cerebrally, but they undermine it. Either they’re afraid of it, afraid of failing or afraid succeeding might not be all its jacked up to be.
The fix: Get over yourself. Surround yourself with people who are doers, who help you get things done or are good non-procrastinator role models. Find someone at work and say, ‘I see how much you accomplish and it’s so impressive, can I shadow you or take you to lunch and talk about how you do it?’ Then learn from them.

Procrastination mantra: Pleasure principle
Rationalization: Freud said people were guided by the pleasure principle, which means, essentially, that we like to have fun. And it’s hard to do something you don’t want to do. “We give in to feel good,” says Pychyl. We focus on short term mood repair by procrastinating on tasks we don’t like.
The fix: What if you had incentive to get projects done early? “We don’t give the early bird the worm,” says Ferrari. He suggests the IRS give you five percent off the money you owe if you file by Feb. 15. Since that won’t happen, reward yourself for not procrastinating. ‘If I work for two hours, I can check Facebook for 10 minutes. If I exercise now, I’ll watch ‘The Biggest Loser’ later,’” Ferrari suggests.

Procrastination mantra: Learned it from family
Rationalization: “No one is born a procrastinator; there is no gene for it,” says Ferrari. Procrastinators learn the behavior from their family. Either their parents procrastinated or they grew up with a stern, demanding dad. Ferrari says studies found it’s the father that causes kids to become procrastinators more than mothers. Impersonal, demanding dads can produce children who learn to cope by procrastinating. When you’re young, you rebel by learning to respond late, take your time and put off doing what you are supposed to do.
The fix: Move away from vague intentions that lack clarity to a more specific, what you are going to do when. “Put the cue in the environment,” says Pychyl. Saying, "I’ll schedule my annual physical this week" is vague as opposed to something like, "After I get the kids off to school, and get the dishes done, I’m going to sit down and call the doctor’s office." The cue triggers your action.

Procrastination mantra: Just my personality
Rationalization: Procrastinators are bad judges of time . They overestimate or underestimate how much time things take. Sometimes procrastination is related to depression and there is a small link to attention deficit disorder. “One of the things you have to do to stay on task is to pay attention, so if you are impulsive or have ADD, you will have a harder time,” says Pychyl.
The fix: Willpower is like a muscle. It can be strengthened to help you beat procrastination, no matter your personality. Reaffirm your values. Remind yourself that you really do need to work out, see the doctor, sign up for your 401K. Validate that these things are important to your life, your health and wealth, and when you put them off, you aren’t living your best life.