The perils and potential power of procrastination – and how to harness it to your 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 the majority 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 Samuel Taylor Coleridge said: "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.”
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. 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. Knowing why you default to procrastination will help you to address your behaviour.
- Recognise when you’re procrastinating. For example, filling your 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. Your vision or ‘bigger purpose’ is your ‘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
- create a conducive environment, reducing distractions and making temptations inconvenient
- identify your productivity cycles – your peak and slump times
- increase accountability; set concrete deadlines, tell others about your goals and buddy up with somebody who will keep you accountable on a daily basis
- 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.
The 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 thief of time, but a time-management strategy.
Like non-procrastinators, active procrastinators were shown to control their time, demonstrate self-efficacy belief and use effective coping styles in order 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”.
Decision making and flow
While the jury remains out on the concept of active procrastination, advocates point out the benefits of ‘productive procrastination’ – putting off one thing, but doing something else that is productive in its place; for example, not doing your tax return, but cleaning your entire house instead.
In addition, 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.
And 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 ability.
For ex-Wall Street derivative trader Frank Partnoy (author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay), procrastination is “delay management” and something to be embraced, particularly in decision making.
Although modern technology is driving us to speed up our decisions, he recommends waiting until the last possible moment to do so, concluding (from a review of hundreds of scientific studies and interviews with wide-ranging experts) that the choices we make – unconsciously and consciously, in time frames varying from milliseconds to years – benefit profoundly from delay.
Under his simple two-step model, when faced with a decision to make, we should 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.
It has been said that the art of diplomacy revolves around delaying decisions.
Finally, the right kind of procrastination can 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, psychologist Adam Grant described 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.”
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