Between 1978 and 2002, procrastination quadrupled, according to Piers Steel, business professor at the University of Calgary. Whether more people are simply admitting to procrastination or the hectic pace of our modern lives is causing more of us to struggle to keep up with deadlines, we don’t know.
Either way, procrastination is a serious problem for many people and can get in the way of building good habits and being more productive at work. To overcome it, we need to understand where it comes from, and treat the root cause.
Why we procrastinate
Though most of us believe procrastination comes from bad time management, laziness, or lack of willpower, scientists believe it’s more closely related to our emotions.
As Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University in Ottawa says, “A lot of teachers think that kids have time-management problems, when they procrastinate. And they don’t have a time-management problem. … What they have is an emotion-management problem. They have to learn that you don’t feel good all the time, and you’ve got to get on with it.”
Procrastination comes from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow.” We do this when we want to avoid something. And, according to Pychyl, we avoid things because they make us feel bad.
It could be boredom, anxiety, or frustration. The negative feelings aren’t always the same, but work that incites negative feelings is the kind of work we procrastinate on. Of course, nobody likes feeling negative feelings. They’re uncomfortable, and if we could go through life without ever being bored or frustrated, we would.
So when work is looming and just the thought of it stirs up those negative feelings, we avoid it. And we do so by doing other things that encourage positive feelings. We watch funny videos, lose ourselves in the adventure of video games, or chat with friends.
Thus, according to researchers, procrastination is a form of “mood repair” or emotional regulation. We avoid work that makes us feel bad and do things that make us feel good instead.
Unfortunately, this only makes things worse in the long run. Procrastinating on a task increases the negative feelings we have about it by increasing the time pressure to get it done, for instance, or adding feelings like guilt and shame about putting it off in the first place.
So procrastination encourages procrastination, since it creates more negative feelings about the same task we avoided in the first place.
And the reason we keep doing this, despite experiencing how procrastination has made things worse for us in the past, is that humans have a very hard time relating to our future selves. Studies show we use the same part of the brain when thinking about our future selves and celebrities we don’t know personally. But we use a different part of the brain when thinking about our current selves. We see our future selves as different people.
This is dangerous because it causes us to think our future selves will be different from us: more motivated to do the work we’re putting off, less lazy, more productive, less frustrated by the task we’re stuck on. We put things off for our future selves to deal with, expecting that version of us won’t want to procrastinate. But of course, our future selves do want to procrastinate, and they have to deal with the extra negative feelings that come from us already procrastinating.
Studies have found college students who procrastinate tend to experience more stress, get sick more often, and get lower grades. So not only do we make our work harder, we’re also putting ourselves at risk of stress and illness by procrastinating.
How to overcome procrastination
Procrastination is clearly a dangerous habit to get into. So how can we overcome this habit? It starts by not beating yourself up every time you do it.
It may be surprising, but studies have found procrastinators who feel bad about their habit of putting things off and beat themselves up about it are more likely to procrastinate in future. Those who forgive themselves for procrastinating, on the other hand, are actually less likely to procrastinate in the future.
This may be because forgiving yourself for procrastinating is often done alongside a commitment to avoid procrastination in future, but self-compassion seems to be key in getting past this habit.
Focus on taking action
Researchers suggest breaking down work you want to put off into small chunks, and focusing on taking action rather than thinking about how the work makes you feel.
Pychyl said focusing on what the next step is, rather than our feelings, can help us overcome the urge to procrastinate.
“Most of us seem to tacitly believe that our emotional state has to match the task at hand,” he says, but that’s not how we get things done. “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it.”
Bargain with yourself
According to game theorist Thomas Schelling, we have a “divided self” made of several inner selves. Philosopher Don Ross suggests that procrastination comes from the ever-raging battle between our inner selves. One self wants to get the work done, and the other wants to do something more enjoyable. When we procrastinate, that’s our more hedonistic self winning out.
The good thing about this idea of multiple selves is that they can be bargained with. If you have a self that wants to watch TV and a self that wants to work, you can bargain with the TV self by offering a TV reward after the work is done. Think of your procrastinating self as a child that can be bargained with: you may need to offer to give them what they want, but only in return for doing what needs to be done first.
As more of us struggle with procrastination, we need to understand what causes it. Knowing that procrastination is an emotional management problem, rather than a lack of willpower or a struggle with time management, we can take steps to address the emotions that are causing us to put our work off for later.
Focusing on taking action rather than thinking about how our work makes us feel, bargaining with our inner selves, and forgiving ourselves when we do procrastinate can help us overcome this habit and get our work done on time.