Business of Well-being

Procrastination, A Modern-day Plague

Do you repeatedly procrastinate? Do you wonder why you don't just get on with it? If procrastination is a "gap between intention and action" what keeps you from putting your intention into action? You're in good company since virtually everyone procrastinates. But not everyone is a procrastinator.

Those reporting they procrastinate swelled from only 5 percent in 1978 to 20 to 25 percent today based on two recent large studies by psychologist Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University. Procrastination is impulsivity winning out over future rewards. This is probably why it's on the increase. Our modern world has limitless distractions: a plethora of TV channels, electronic games and Internet temptations.

Referring to all of these amusements, University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel speaking of procrastination says, "You couldn't design a worse working environment if you tried." Historically, it was said procrastination was caused by perfectionism, fear of failure, and rebellion against overbearing parents that one has never outgrown. Then there were the thrill seekers who profess they work best under pressure and use procrastination to create that pressure. Steel reviewed 553 studies of procrastination and concluded it has four related variables regarding your task:

  1. Your confidence in your ability to do it;
  2. Its value;
  3. Your need for immediate gratification and sensitivity to its delay;
  4. Impulsiveness;

He suggests about the task:

  • The more confident you are, the less you'll delay.
  • Its value is determined by how much fun it will be and its meaning to you. The more fun or the more meaningful the less you'll procrastinate.
  • The need for instant gratification considers both how much time will pass before you're rewarded for doing the assignment and how badly you need a reward to work on it. You're more likely to finish a job due next week if it results in an immediate reward. If the reward comes much later, dawdling increases.
  • Impulsiveness is determined by how easily distracted you are. The more distractible you are, the more likely you are to procrastinate.

He created a formula to predict your procrastination likelihood:

  • Your confidence multiplied by the task's importance and fun, divided by how badly you need the reward for finishing it, multiplied by how easily distractible you are.

Survival Instincts May Be Cause of Procrastination

Impulsivity, he says, is the most important part of his equation. "There's a huge correlation between procrastination and impulsivity that has to do with evolution. Procrastination reflects the difficulty of coping with some aspects of modern society with hunter-gatherer brains because our forebears lived in a world without delay.

For them meat kept for three days and danger lurked around every corner. It was a very immediate environment. We learned to value the now much more than the later to survive."Without going into the details about the functioning of our survival brain, he says we do less well planning for the future, where goals exist. "So, a second piece of chocolate cake wins out over a trim figure down the road."

Four Tips to Help Conquer Your Procrastination

In spite of our survival brains contributing to procrastination by living more in the moment to survive versus the future where goals reside, you can overcome your delaying habits. Timothy A. Pychyl, procrastination researcher at Ottawa's Carlton University suggests the following. Use his ideas in sequence since each follows on the previous one.

  1. Neutralize the irrationality of human nature: Researcher Piers Steel has shown that humans are predictably illogical. We perceive future rewards as less important than the task at hand, especially if the present task is more pleasant. To counter this, use specific mental images of your future as though it were happening right now. For example, if you've put off saving for retirement imagine your detailed, limited retirement budget and how difficult it will be to live on it. Include inflation and the toll it takes on just getting by. Imagine perhaps having to make a choice between eating tonight and taking prescribed medication. You can't afford both. How does this make you feel?
  2. Call on emotional intelligence: When willpower fails, it's often because short-term emotional needs become more important than long-term goals, like procrastinating on anxiety-producing tasks by indulging in pleasant distractions. The greater your emotional intelligence the more likely you can overcome this tendency by acknowledging your negative emotions but not giving in to them. Progress on goals provides the motivation for taking another step so just get started. The negative emotions will pass.
  3. Reduce uncertainty and distractions: How meaningful your task is helps determine your ability to overcome inertia. The less meaningful the goal, the less likely you'll get started. You're most likely to procrastinate:

      a.    On undesirable tasks

      b.    When you're uncertain how to proceed

      c.    When the task lacks structure

Along with making your task concrete (tip #1) you need to reduce the uncertainty about how to proceed. Planning is very important for movement. When it's time to act you'll also need to reduce distractions. Stop checking email, seek privacy as much as possible, and create an environment that supports your willpower and focus.

4.    Cultivate your willpower: Much recent research shows that willpower is like a muscle. You can extinguish it more quickly than you might imagine. When you do, a very negative consequence is losing some ability to control your behavior. To strengthen your resolve and stay on task:

a.    Identify a positive value that's relevant to your task at hand. Values are wonderfully motivating. If you value independence you won't want to depend upon anyone in retirement. Putting away more savings now would honor this value and strengthen your willpower.

b.    Mindfulness: Awareness is the first step in self-control, so keeping focused attention on your retirement savings goal will help you procrastinate less by strengthening self-regulation.

Other Ideas to Get You Going

Overcome "yes-but" and the procrastination it causes

To successfully procrastinate use the sure-fire "yes-but" technique: "Yes, I know that I need to get that done, but not now." It typically works wonderfully. "I'd love to apply for that job, but I'm probably not qualified." The "yes" indicates your interest in the job. The "but" is your excuse for not applying.Are you a yes-buter? Dr. Arthur Freeman and Rose DeWolf, authors of The 10 Dumbest Mistakes Smart People Make, say a common reason you may procrastinate in uncomfortable situations is because you have a low tolerance for frustration.

Since frustration is a fact of life you'll need to tolerate disagreeable circumstances better if you expect to overcome this very effective stalling practice. Acknowledging the unpleasantness of your task can help. But don't go overboard. If you exaggerate how distasteful the job is you'll be right back into "yes-but." Instead, consciously acknowledge the due date of your commitment and at minimum create a plan of action as described below.

To move forward change your "yes-but" to "yes-and." Instead of, "I'd love to apply for that job, but I doubt I'm qualified", say, "I'd love to apply for that job and I need to find out about the requirements." "Yes-but" gives you excuses. "Yes-and" shows you the steps you'll need to take."Delay is the deadliest form of denial," C. Northcote Parkinson said. So when you hear yourself use the "yes-but" as an excuse for procrastination immediately do the following:

  • Write your project's goal, e.g., "To land this job."
  • List all of the steps you'd need to take to get it, breaking them down

into bite-size pieces:

o    Get the contact information for the organization for which you want to work.

o    Find out the qualifications.

o    If you meet them, fill out an application.

o    Follow up with a phone call to the employer.

  • Write down a deadline for each and every step.
  • Commit to each step, one by one.

If you're unwilling to follow through with these steps, decrease your stress by admitting to yourself that you have no intention of looking into this job. Honesty requires being conscious of your choices. "I choose not to pursue this job because I assume I'm not qualified." Staying conscious increases the likelihood that one day you'll make a different choice. Perhaps you'll even pursue a job you fear you're not qualified for by throwing caution to the wind and researching whether or not you are.

Get out of the procrastination mode and instead focus on a starting point. Each time you hear yourself say "yes-but" stop and instead say "yes-and" to see what the implied required steps are so you can start your action plan. Often, overcoming procrastination is simply taking that first step.

Chronic Procrastinators: Just Get Going

"Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow."-- Mark Twain

Seriously, procrastination is a frustrating habit. Since it's a learned one it can be overcome but only if you become conscious when you're doing it. If you're a chronic procrastinator you need to acknowledge when you say "later" you really don't mean it. Thousands of "laters" create thousands of opportunities lost. To stay conscious, when you say "later" follow up with, "Later to me means never."

Do I really want to get this done or not?Also become very cognizant of your avoidance habits, which you've probably perfected to the point that you engage in them automatically and unconsciously whenever you face an unpleasant task. Keep a journal of your thoughts and emotions when you're delaying:

  • Choose something you procrastinate on regularly.
  • Describe the activity you put off. Is it unpleasant, confusing, uncomfortable or threatening?
  • Write what you're thinking and feeling when you begin to delay. For instance, "I can't concentrate enough right now." Continue to record what you say and/or what you do to prolong your postponement.
  • Ask yourself why you're avoiding action. Is it a legitimate reason or just an excuse? Also answer, "What discomfort am I evading?" Usually your answer is based on some unfounded fear.
  • What's your outcome?

To get going try these ideas:

  • Timothy A. Pychyl suggests, "Follow the 10-minute rule." Acknowledge your desire to procrastinate then do the task for ten minutes anyway. Initiating is the hardest step for chronic procrastinators. After working on it for 10 minutes decide whether to continue. Once you're involved, it's easy to stay with the task.
  • If you have something to do, do it now or schedule it. If it's not worth the amount of time it takes to schedule, it's not going to get done later.
  • For larger projects write out your goal and list each step you have to take to accomplish it. Schedule each step in your calendar.
  • Invest your energy on the important and ignore the trivial.
  • Don't demean yourself when you dally because it makes more likely you'll continue procrastinating.
  • Keep a next steps list for all projects with an estimate of how long it'll take to accomplish each one. If you have 15 minutes, look over your lists for something you can get done in less than 15 minutes. This furthers your progress in bits and pieces, which is great for those who procrastinate.
  • Put the task right in front of you to avoid "out of sight out of mind."
  • Public commitment: Tell someone what you're working on and when you'll have it finished.
  • Reward yourself when you've completed it. Do something just for fun. Give yourself a mental complement.

Ultimately you must put your energy where your goals are. If you don't attain them, make your goals smaller and easier to attain expanding them as you progress. Putting off the less pleasant for the more immediate and more attractive is very normal. We all do it sometimes. But for chronic procrastinators remember the most important thing to do is just start!

"The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step." --- Mao Tse-tung Move toward your goal by taking one step at a time. So what are you waiting for? Get going!

About The Author

In 1976, after returning from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She then worked for several years as a Program Director at a mental health center. In 1982 she founded InterAction Associates, her speaking and coaching firm.For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, workplace harassment, motivation, and communication skills.

Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you "wake up" to your responsibility in making your desired changes. Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs.Jackie is also a Stress & Wellness Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress.

Order her 2010 published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple and request her weekly, published, emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper, at can now follow Jackie on Twitter (

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