There are perils and power in procrastination – so how can we harness it to our advantage?
Hamlet, the procrastinating prince; Shakespeare’s poster boy for ditherers.
Despite explicit instructions from the ghost of his father to avenge his murder at the hands of his own brother, Hamlet hesitates, juggling indecision with inaction for most of the play. He eventually offs Uncle Claudius in the final scene, by which point the total body count has reached nine.
Procrastination, a pervasive and pathological delay – or putting things off intentionally and habitually – can be a barrier to living life as we would like to live it. In Hamlet’s case, it has been described as his ‘fatal flaw’ – the defect in his personality that leads to chaos and tragedy.
While our dilly-dallying is likely to prove less costly than Hamlet’s, procrastination is still (largely) believed to be a self-defeating behaviour that undermines our effectiveness, decimates our goals and sabotages our potential.
As (arch procrastinator) Samuel Taylor Coleridge admitted: "No brilliant intellect can be considered valuable if one withdraws from action.”
A failure of self-regulation
Studies show that a fifth of adults, and half of the student population, perceive themselves to be severe and chronic procrastinators – a practice that is mired in both self-awareness and self-deception.
Procrastination is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare – ‘to put off until tomorrow’ – but also from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgement. We know that delaying something will have negative consequences, but we do it anyway.
On the self-deception side, humans are terrible at affective forecasting (predicting how we’ll feel in the future), yet many procrastinators continue to put things off, secure in their belief that they really will exercise or do that paperwork tomorrow. They are indulging in a cycle of ‘happiness now – pay later’, where the payment is always deferred. Since we tend to perceive our ‘future selves’ more like strangers than part of us, any negative consequences seem further removed.
Such repeated behaviour can undermine our health and wellbeing (for example, allowing us to delay a health check ad infinitum and potentially contributing to chronic health conditions) while procrastination is also a common symptom of depression.
At its most destructive, it is a failure of self-regulation, creating a ‘maladaptive lifestyle’ that can derail careers and cause cumulative stress and illness.
Writing in Psychological Science in 2013, Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at Chicago’s DePaul University, and a pioneer of modern research on this subject, argued that “while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator”. He added: “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
For clinical psychologist Stephen Berglas, severe procrastination is linked to an unconscious fear of negative judgement and failure and harks back to childhood conditioning. Where parents continually give their child undeserved praise and make excuses for their failures, the child grows up with an exalted opinion of their abilities – and fears losing this. If our procrastination is chronic and damaging, we may need to unpick our learned behaviour with the help of a professional.
Social scientists are continuing to study the neuropsychology of procrastination, as it relates to executive functioning, but for those at the less extreme end of the shilly-shallying spectrum, it is possible to overcome it – though only if we understand what it is, and what it is not. For example, procrastination is not a synonym for laziness; rather it is a problem of emotion regulation.
We often put things off when we struggle to tolerate a feeling that the activity evokes in us. Procrastination is therefore a way of coping with challenging emotions (such as frustration, anxiety, boredom, insecurity, resentment and self-doubt) induced by certain tasks. If we put the task aside, we immediately regulate our mood. For some perfectionists, the fear of failure or producing work with which they are not satisfied, can be so overwhelming they never actually get around to starting anything.
Meanwhile, decision paralysis – the complete inability to decide, when faced with a range of choices – can also lead us to procrastinate, especially when options are difficult to compare.
It may sound like a good thing that we have more individual freedom and autonomy than ever before, but too much choice can lead to psychological stress, as highlighted by psychologist Barry Schwarz in The Paradox of Choice. “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all,” he explains.
In truth, this is something we have always known. In the fable of The Fox and the Cat, the fox boasts of "hundreds of ways of escaping" while the cat has "only one". When they hear the hounds approaching, the cat scampers up a tree while "the fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds". The fable ends with the moral: "Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon."
Time and discipline, vision and habits
Compounding issues of decision paralysis and emotion regulation is poor self-discipline, combined with our tendency to undervalue time and time-management. "
While we waste our time hesitating and postponing, life is slipping away,” warned Seneca. However, the following steps can enable us to acknowledge and overcome our own procrastination habits.
- Identify your procrastination type. There are different types of procrastinator and varying drivers. For example:
- ‘the avoider’ puts things off to side-steps pain or discomfort; we may need to counter this by breaking down a dreaded task into smaller steps, or outlining the pros of completing it.
- ‘the optimist’ believes (wrongly) that tasks take less time they do, or that they have plenty of time available to commit to them. Requesting scheduling input from others and setting unobtrusive alerts might help us to pace ourselves better.
- ‘the pleasure seeker’ waits until they feel like doing something before tackling it – which doesn’t always happen. Acknowleding that action often stimulates motivation, rather than the other way round – and rewarding ourselves when we tackle a disagreeable task – might help us to get started.
- Recognise when you’re procrastinating. For example, filling our time with low-priority activities, waiting for the right mood to manifest before attempting a task, or starting something important – then going off to make a cup of tea.
- Understand motivation. The type of motivation that is most effective and long-lasting is intrinsic motivation. In this context, it’s about linking tasks to a long-term personal vision (rather than transitory goals), focusing on actions rather than outcomes, and on the journey, rather than the destination.
- Develop your personal vision and practical strategies. Our vision or ‘bigger purpose’ is our ‘why’ for committing to specific tasks. The ‘how’ revolves around creating positive habits, including time-management.
- Cut down your to-do list and break tasks into smaller elements, prioritising important and urgent activities; commit to doing one tiny thing and build from there.
- Write a ‘to-don’t’ list; for example, no scrolling through social media after posting something for work.
- Create a conducive working environment, reducing distractions and making temptations inconvenient.
- Identify your productivity cycles – your peak and slump times (and your prime times for procrastination).
- Increase accountability: set concrete deadlines, tell others about your goals and buddy up with somebody who will keep you accountable.
- Use commitment devices to lock yourself into behaviour change by linking it to a reward or punishment.
- Reward yourself for making progress, avoiding a perfectionist mindset; you could even gamify your behaviour .
- Develop self-compassion, forgiving yourself for past procrastination (without continuing it!).
- Visualise your future self fulfilling your potential and living a rewarding life.
In an episode of his TED Work/Life podcast with Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood, organisational psychologist Adam Grant describes how acknowledging our ‘dual identity’ can help us to beat procrastination.
“Psychologists have long observed that we have two selves: the ‘want’ self and the ‘should’ self,” he explains. “Your ‘want’ self runs on emotions. It’s drawn to whatever avoids pain or brings pleasure in the short term. The ‘should’ self is more concerned with doing the right thing in the long run. In the moment, the ‘want’ self is often stronger. But the ‘should’ self is smarter. You can outwit the ‘want’ self by planning ahead. You don’t have to worry about resisting temptation if you remove temptation. You take willpower out of the equation.”
Atwood takes this a step further, embracing an alter ego to keep her competing drives at bay. "I had another name that I grew up with… so I had a double identity," she says. While “Margaret does the writing”, her alter ego (Peggy) “does everything else” from the laundry to bullying Margaret off Twitter when she needs to be working. Thanks to Peggy, Atwood has never yet missed a deadline, despite her predisposition to procrastination.
The potential power of procrastination
We’ve so far learned that procrastination is a self-limiting and dysfunctional behaviour – “the thief of time”, according to Charles Dickens. But not all social scientists agree that this is always the case.
To start with, five sub-types of procrastinator have been identified – from mild through to well-adjusted and severe. If procrastination is not causing you any problems, it’s not something to lose sleep over.
To take this a step further, research published in the Journal of Social Psychology divided procrastinators into passive and active, the former putting off tasks and then feeling miserable about it, the latter preferring to work under pressure, and making a deliberate decision to procrastinate. In other words, for this second type of procrastinator, procrastination is no time thief, but a time-management strategy. Like non-procrastinators, active procrastinators were shown to control their time, demonstrate self-efficacy belief and use effective coping style to achieve their desired outcomes.
An Active Procrastination Scale was later developed, and in 2019, a study of active and passive procrastination in terms of temperament and character, concluded that “active procrastination can be an adaptive and productive coping style”. The authors found it to be “associated with dependable temperament, well-developed character, and high emotional intelligence and predicts meeting personal goals”.
For those of us who need feel pressure to get things done, delaying a task until the last minute may force us to focus on it more intently – perhaps even propelling us into the state of ‘flow’ propounded by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in which people experience complete immersion and involvement in an activity.
Active procrastination might also help ‘paralysed’ perfectionists to accept a high standard of work, rather than striving for perfection, in the sure knowledge that they can blame any shortcomings on a tight deadline, rather than their intrinsic ability.
But perhaps the best thing about active procrastination is that some tasks actually disappear; we delay them so long that circumstances render them obsolete.
While the jury remains out on the concept of active procrastination, advocates signpost the benefits of ‘productive (or structured) procrastination’ – avoiding one thing, but doing something else that is productive in its place; for example, not doing our tax return, but cleaning our entire house instead.
For those of us who really struggle with procrastination, this means that we are at least doing something useful, even if it’s not the task we’re supposed to be tackling. "Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he's supposed to be doing at that moment,” jokes humourist Robert Benchley.
It’s a behaviour championed by philosophy professor John Perry in The Art Of Procrastination: A Guide To Effective Dawdling, Dallying, Lollygagging And Postponing. He admits that it’s self-deception but views it as a way of getting the best out of an ingrained personality trait.
But while this may have its uses, we must be wary of filling our time with insignificant tasks at the expense of long-term goals and aspirations, warns professor of psychology and behavioural economics Dan Ariely. With structured procrastination, we may fool ourselves that we’re making tangible headway by ticking off trivial wins on our to-do list, while undermining any meaningful long-term progress towards important or cherished goals.
To live by the priorities that are important to us – and ultimately avoid “deathbed regrets” –we need to make room for them in our calendar, learn to say “no” to other things that eat in our time, and curb our tendency to put them off, he stresses.
As Grant points out in his podcast: “The task you’re putting off isn’t always the one you hate. It might be the one you fear. The one that’s most worth pursuing.”
The value of delay management
One area in which this might hold less true is decision-making. For ex-Wall Street derivative trader Frank Partnoy (author of Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination), procrastination is “delay management” and something to be embraced in this context.
Although modern technology drives us to speed up our decisions, he recommends waiting until the last possible moment to do so. From a review of hundreds of scientific studies and interviews with wide-ranging experts, he concludes that the choices we make – unconsciously and consciously (in time frames varying from milliseconds to years) – benefit profoundly from delay.
For example, in tennis, Novak Djokovic’s advantage over other players is “his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball” wrote Partnoy in a 2012 article for the FT. “That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light.”
The decision-making framework that elite athletes use is precisely the same framework we should use for all kinds of non-sport decisions at slower speeds he argues. Gut reactions are dangerous because “we are biased. We overreact. We don’t understand when we are experts or novices”. By contrast, waiting as long as possible to choose our course of action ensures we have the maximum possible information available to influence our decision.
The key lies in knowing how long we can afford to delay before committing. In military strategy, fighter pilots learn a pattern of decision making along the lines of ‘observe, orient, decide and act’ (OODA).
Delayed decisions are particularly relevant when we lack adequate data. For instance, in 2008, leaders at Lehman Brothers dismissed rumours about derivatives losses as a “tempest in a teapot” and made disastrous knee-jerk decisions before the full picture became clear, helping to cause the global financial crisis. Of course, true expertise lies in knowing whether or not an increase in data will make a situation clearer.
Under Partnoy’s simple two-step model, when faced with a decision to make, we should therefore work out the longest delay that is possible and then hold off making our decision until the very last moment before that point. The time in between is spent preparing, observing and gathering information, which enables us to make a better decision. In this way, we put our natural procrastination to excellent use, making a virtue out of a perceived vice.
Finally, the right kind of procrastination can also work wonders for creativity, allowing the mind to wander, summoning up fresh thinking and enabling us to spot unusual patterns.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, entitled Why I taught myself to procrastinate, Adam Grant describes a small study conducted by a former student, under which people were asked to come up with new business ideas. While some were randomly assigned to start right away, others were given five minutes to play Minesweeper or Solitaire first. Everyone submitted their ideas, and independent raters graded them for originality. The procrastinators’ ideas were deemed to be 28% more creative.
Following this, he tested the theory on creative projects of his own, concluding that, even for longstanding ‘pre-crastinators’ such as himself, “it may be worth mastering the discipline of forcing yourself to procrastinate”.
Or as the writer Mark Twain put it: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
Test your understanding
- Explain what procrastination is and why can it prove so negative in the workplace?
- Describe what we mean by ‘structured’ (or productive) procrastination?
What does it mean for you?
- Consider whether you are prone to procrastination, noting any personal examples of this behaviour. What type of procrastinator are you and what might drive your behaviour?
- Note down practical ways in which you might reduce procrastination in the workplace – for yourself and direct reports – or put ‘structured procrastination’ to good use.
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