Do you struggle to self-motivate for tasks that you don't want to do? Do you repeat the same patterns of leaving things to the last minute? You might be procrastinating. Welcome to the club!
Procrastination is an incredibly common behaviour pattern. In fact, a 2007 meta-analysis has shown that 80% to 95% of college students procrastinated on a regular basis, particularly on coursework (Steel, 2007). That's how 'not alone' you are in this. Moreover, an estimated 20% of U.S. adults are chronic procrastinators (APA, 2010). By definition, "Procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off tasks to the last minute, or past their deadline." (Prem, Scheel, Weiglet, Hoffman, & Korunka, 2018).
The behaviour itself is not inherently 'bad' or problematic. It becomes problematic when it interferes with your quality of life, hinders you from achieving other important goals, worsens your mental/physical health, or negatively impacts your relationships.
You can probably determine whether your procrastination cycles are problematic for you by having an honest conversation with yourself; "Is procrastination causing me more issues than not?"
- Fear of failure
- Depleted mental, physical, and emotional energy
- Overbooked schedule
- Underestimating time it takes to complete a task
- Poor time management
- Not caring about it
- Poor emotion regulation skills
- The task is not a priority
- Not "feeling" like it
- Little to no motivation
- Uncertainty or low competence
- Present bias
- Mental health issues
MYTH: You have to be motivated or inspired to start a task.
This is one of the most common misconceptions that people have when they compare themselves to their productive counterparts; "That person must be more energized and motivated than I am."
The reality is that no one has energy or motivation 100% of the time. We are human beings and we get depleted.
You will be better for it if you stop relying on motivation [which is a fleeting emotion like any other] and start relying on discipline and commitment to your goals. It helps to have clarity on exactly how and why the sometimes 'boring' progress steps are meaningful and connected to something bigger than you.
How to Stop Procrastination Summary
- Temptation bundling
- Break it down
- Be your own behaviour analyst
- Develop skills
- Identify the contexts you want to stop procrastinating in.
- Acknowledge that it's a problem, and you need to put effort into changing it.
- Reflect upon why it's important to you to change it now more than ever before.
- Cost/benefit analysis: identify costs and benefits of continuing the cycle and breaking the cycle. Which costs are you more willing to work on?
- Write a 'why statement'
- Understand your unique cycle of procrastination using:
- Speaking with a therapist
- Behaviour chain analysis
- Identify intervention points and develop your skills.
- Identify your barriers to using skills:
- Lack of skill
- Feeling disconnected from values or the reason for change
- Vulnerability factors (i.e., poor sleep, physical illness, mood altering substances, poor eating, lack of exercise)
- Concurrent mental health concerns
- Tell yourself how you will navigate barriers with:
- Collaboration with your therapist
- Skills practice
- Commitment to goals
- 'Jumping in'
Temptation bundling is "pairing a pleasurable indulgence with a behaviour that provides delayed rewards - combats present bias by making behaviors with delayed benefits more instantly-gratifying," (Kirgios et al., 2020). More simply put, it's pairing a pleasurable activity with a "should" or a delayed-reward activity.
- Only light a special candle while replying to work emails.
- Only listen to your favourite podcast/audiobook while working out.
- Only wear your favourite exercise clothes while working out.
- Only get a pedicure while doing necessary taxes prep.
- Only have a difficult phone call while going for a walk somewhere nice.
Break It Down
- Create a to-do list (daily, monthly and/or yearly)
- Prioritize items
- Be reasonable with your goals
- Accept that the only way you get anything done is by approaching it one step at a time
- Recognize your triggers and warning signs
- Set up your environment to eliminate distraction
- Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or place it in another room
- Put on focus music, white noise, or noise cancelling headphones
- Have accessible hydration
- Tell people you'll text them back after you're done
- Locate your chargers (if applicable)
- Give yourself small reinforcers
- Acknowledge pride or satisfaction in getting the hard thing started or completed.
- Pick out a movie you want to watch in the evening ahead of time that you can look forward to - or any other fun/leisure activity for that matter.
- Put money away each time you accomplish an undesirable task to save up for something special.
Need more? Be your own behaviour analyst and better understand yourself using a behaviour change strategy called, Behaviour Chain Analysis.
Behaviour Chain Analysis
A behaviour chain is a tool used for understanding a behaviour non-judgmentally. It's an objective and pragmatic approach to identifying the immediate antecedents leading up to a behaviour and short-term and long-term consequences that follow. This helps to build self-awareness and agency around behaviour change. It's also a core component of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).
Original Image Source: Linehan, M.M, (2014) DBT Skills Training Manual. New York. NY: The Guilford Press
As you can see from this brief behaviour chain, there are several possible points of intervention for future scenarios. It's easier to intervene earlier in the chain compared to closer to the behaviour.
Intervention Point 1
- Repair with your friend or write out what you'd like to say to your friend next time.
- Validate your emotions and allow yourself to feel.
- Give yourself permission for 10 mins of mental rest (close your eyes, turn off your phone, just let yourself be).
Intervention Point 2
- Catch guilt-eliciting language. Change it to, "I could do that" or "I will do that" or "I want to do that now, so that I can X".
- Remind yourself why it's better to start now than put it off (based on past experiences).
- Remind yourself that task initiation is the hardest part.
- Use your physiology; Wiggle your toes and fingers. Get up and stretch. Prepare your body for action.
- Give yourself something to make it a little better (e.g., make yourself a tea, light a candle, put on a light playlist).
Intervention Point 3
- Acknowledge and normalize these feelings.
- 'Notice the urge' technique: notice the urge to avoid the task. We don't need to act on every urge we have. Noticing the urge before acting on it provides an opportunity for agency to respond differently.
- Throw yourself into opposite action one step at a time: approach, move towards the task, open the computer, etc.
- Let yourself do the task while not feeling motivated.
Procrastination is not considered a mental health illness. However, it can be associated with mental health disorders, such as depression, ADHD, and OCD. If a mental health disorder applies to you, there may be additional considerations for helping you make desired changes.
For example, some people with ADHD have a tendency towards black and white thinking and thrive on a sense of urgency. Light-hearted competitions with yourself and manufactured deadlines are a couple strategies designed for creating a false sense of urgency. Your therapist will be able to collaborate with you to further minimize the hold that procrastination has on your life.
- American Psychological Association. The Psychology of Procrastination: Why People Put Off Important Tasks Until the Last Minute. 2010.
- Cherry, K. (2022, November 14). What is procrastination? Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-psychology-of-procrastination-2795944#citation-5
- Clear, J. How to Stop Procrastination and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling”. James Clear. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/temptation-bundling#:~:text=Here%20are%20a%20few%20common,ironing%20or%20doing%20household%20chores
- Prem R, Scheel TE, Weigelt O, Hoffmann K, Korunka C. Procrastination in daily working life: A diary study on within-person processes that link work characteristics to workplace procrastination. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1087. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01087
- Kirgios, E. L., Mandel, G. H., Park, Y., Milkman, K. L., Gromet, D. M., Kay, J. S., & Duckworth, A. L. (2020). Teaching temptation bundling to boost exercise: A field experiment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 161, 20-35.
- Steel P. The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol Bull. 2007;133(1):65-94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65