Sometimes the urge to put off something unpleasant like homework or calling to make a doctor’s appointment is just too strong to resist. Even though you know you’re going to have to do it eventually, and you can feel the pressure building.
Let’s face it: procrastination affects all of us and we want to stop procrastinating. At least a little bit. But procrastination is more complex than just laziness or bad time management. In fact, every subfield of psychology has a slightly different way of looking at it.
A neuropsychologist might call it a failure of executive function, or how you plan ahead and prioritize things. A social psychologist, on the other hand, might see it as a problem related to emotion regulation or trying to avoid bad feelings like stress. And evolutionary psychologists think it could be partly genetic.
Even though all their approaches to studying it are a little different, researchers can agree that procrastination is not so great for us.
So what is procrastination, how to stop procrastinating
Procrastination has been around for quite a while. A Greek poet even wrote about it in 700 BCE, basically warning not to put off your work, or your life will be boring. And according to a 2014 study by researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, it might even be part of our evolutionary makeup.
To try to figure out if there’s a genetic component to procrastination, researchers asked pairs of twins about their work habits. And the key thing is: they compared fraternal twins, who only share some of their DNA like any set of siblings, with identical twins, who share all of their DNA.
Because each set of twins grew up together with basically the same environmental influences comparing their responses could help see if their genetics corresponded at all to their procrastination habits. The researchers developed a mathematical model to calculate whether procrastination seemed to be inherited.
Researchers found that about half the time, differences in procrastination habits could be because of differences in genetics.
Which is the case with lots of inherited behavioural traits they have some variation due to environmental factors. Not only that, but they reproduced a finding from other studies that genetic variations in procrastination habits are related to genetic variations in another trait: impulsivity.
In other words, the researchers found that putting things off and acting impulsively are behaviours that might be inherited together. Both these traits are also probably related to goal-management, which they said could be something to focus on in future research. They also suggested an evolutionary reason why the procrastination and impulsive behaviours might be linked.
Are our ancestors responsible for procrastinating?
Early human life was focused mainly on short-term survival. You don’t have time to think about next month when you don’t know if your tummy’s going to be full tomorrow.
So our ancestors who prioritized short-term goals making rash decisions and putting off the things with more distant and uncertain rewards could’ve been better at surviving. And then they might’ve passed down some
of their behavioural traits to their kids. But these days, our world of skyscrapers and smartwatches places far more importance on long-term goals.
Save for retirement! Plan your vacation six months in advance! Know what you’re gonna do with your whole life by the time you turn 18! So that genetic factor that prioritized the short-term over the long-term is suddenly not so much in our favour, but it still makes us prone to procrastination.
But, hold up. You can’t just blame your procrastination on your genes.
There are lots of related psychological factors to procrastination and impulsiveness, like how you manage your goals and self-regulate. On a neuropsychological level, procrastination can be described as a problem with the executive function, which is the skill set that allows us to plan, prioritize, and carry out tasks.
Executive function is basically the ability to say “I’m gonna do the thing!” And then do it.
Procrastination is the opposite: “I know I need to do the thing, but I’m not going to do it right now.”
Procrastination is often seen as a failure of the executive function.
In 2010, researchers from the City University of New York found that undergraduate students’ own reports of their executive function could predict their tendency to procrastinate.
There are lots of different types of executive function skills, which provide multiple steps where procrastination can happen. For example, one student might sit down to get started on an assignment, but then spend ages getting their study materials together. Another person might plan to work, but have trouble getting focused enough to just sit down and start.
They get stuck at different points in the process, but they both end up putting off work.
One social psychology researchers describe procrastination as a failure of mood regulation.
Canadian psychology professor Timothy Pychyl says that procrastination is “giving in to feel good.” We’re cashing in a short-term good feeling even though we can be pretty sure it’s going to come back to haunt us later.
In other words, procrastination is an attempt to avoid bad feelings, like the stress or unpleasantness of the task itself. We can rationalize this to ourselves pretty easily. You may not want to start writing a big essay when you’re tired, so you tell yourself you’ll do it later when you’ve had some rest. Nothing wrong with that.
Researchers like Pychyl argue that the trouble is when you do this all the time, with smaller excuses habitually putting off tasks and pushing off those bad feelings. But in future, you will eventually have to confront that stress.
Procrastination isn’t just about time management and setting goals.
Mood regulation comes in when you accept those feelings of stress and recognize that they’re not going to just disappear later. It sounds like basic self-discipline, but it can be tricky to deal with emotions that come with large or difficult tasks. And we’ve all avoided negative feelings at some point or another.
Mood regulation and executive function both relate to what psychologists call self-regulation, so these definitions are just slightly different approaches to studying procrastination.
But is procrastination really that bad, though?
Lots of people claim they procrastinate on purpose because they work better under pressure. And certain kinds of procrastination do have some benefits.
Like if you go to the gym to avoid starting a paper. Sure, you didn’t get the paper done, but hey, you went to the gym! But you’ll be hard-pressed to find psychology researchers who are in favour of procrastination. Everyone puts things off every now and then, but people who do so chronically are sometimes found to have higher levels of stress. And
there may be a complex link to things like depression and anxiety.
In fact, there might even be physiological consequences of procrastination.
One 2015 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine even found that serial procrastinators had trouble managing high blood pressure and heart disease. Mainly since it’s not a good idea to procrastinate taking care of your health.
And because there are so many different approaches to studying procrastination, there are also a lot of suggestions for how to beat it. So don’t be surprised if someone’s list of anti-procrastination tips on Tumblr doesn’t work for you.
What makes people more likely to overcome their procrastination.
Most of these studies are conducted on undergrad psychology students, and focus on academic procrastination — basically, putting off school assignments until right before they’re due.
The authors of the City University of New York study the one that focused on executive function suggested ways instructors could work with students to help them engage with big tasks.
Instead of assigning one big project at the end of the semester, for example, it could be broken up into periodic deadlines or quizzes. People tend to procrastinate less when the deadline is closer. And when the task is broken up into small chunks, they feel like they’ve accomplished something every time they turn in one of those chunks.
This makes students feel generally more positive, and it could make getting started easier because the task seems less intimidating.
Breaking up a task into bite-size pieces could be a good strategy
Remind yourself that you don’t have to do it all at once tackle it a bit at a time, and reward yourself for making progress. Dr Pychyl’s research group the one that studied mood regulation also studied how academic procrastination could be linked to how students viewed their future selves.
In an earlier study, a group of researchers at Stanford had asked people to imagine their future selves. They also asked them to picture their present selves, as well as a stranger. And the whole time, the team monitored the
subjects’ neural activity. When some people pictured their future selves, neurons were activated in a similar pattern to when they pictured their present selves. They felt a high degree of continuity with who they would be in the future.
But other people’s mental images of their future selves activated a pattern of neurons that looked like they were picturing a stranger.
People with less future self-continuity tend to procrastinate more.
So maybe you can try to beat your procrastination by remembering that future you is also you. It sounds kind of silly when you put it that way, but it just means that you should remember that you’re going to have to do it sooner
or later whether it’s present-you or future-you.
And you’re probably not going to like to do it anymore later. This also means acknowledging your bad feelings
about doing whatever it is you have to do.
Have anxiety about getting started?
These researchers recommend accepting that feeling rather than using it to avoid your work and understanding that getting things done is a way to help get rid of that bit of stress. There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all cure for procrastination yet. Different studies can offer different advice, and since we’re all different people, it can help to have multiple perspectives and strategies to try.
In the end, though, all of this research seems to boil down to self-regulation and confronting something you don’t want to do instead of avoiding it. It may sound easy in theory, but it isn’t always. Hope this article helps you to stop procrastinating and help you do things in time.