Everything you need to know about procrastination in 5 minutes or less

🎯 What Is Procrastination, Exactly?

Procrastination is the tendency to delay or put off a task despite knowing that you’ll be worse off for it in the long-run. Like all addictive behaviors, procrastination has short-term benefits (e.g.: relief from stress and anxiety) that lead to long-term costs (e.g.: decreased quality of work and low self-esteem).

👀 Examples of Procrastination

  • Waiting until the last minute to finish a report for work.
  • Avoiding a difficult conversation with your spouse or partner.
  • Putting off exercising in the morning like you had planned.

😬 Problems Associated with Procrastination

  • Low self-esteem. When you repeatedly avoid or put off meaningful goals and activities, you’re essentially teaching your brain that you’re not reliable or trustworthy, and over time, this belief erodes healthy self-esteem and confidence.
  • Poor productivity. Despite post-hoc rationalizations that “I work better under pressure,” procrastination consistently leads to lower quantity and quality of work. Procrastination is especially harmful in the early stages of creative endeavors that often require consistently producing work despite feeling inadequate or insecure about the quality of work.
  • Anxiety and stress. Procrastination gets reinforced because it provides a small amount of immediate relief from stress and anxiety. But long-term, procrastination tends to cause chronic worry and much higher levels of overall stress and anxiety.
  • Lack of trust in relationships. When you consistently procrastinate on or avoid doing things that are important to the relationship, your partner understandably loses trust in you. This loss of trust has cascading effects that lead to all sorts of negative relationship outcomes from increased conflict and fighting to lowered intimacy and poor communication.

🌀 Origins and Causes of Procrastination

The most compelling research suggests that there are four primary causes of procrastination:

  • Low self-efficacy. A person’s belief and expectation that they are capable of completing a task. When you don’t have much confidence in your ability to complete a task (or to complete it well), your likelihood of procrastinating goes way up.
  • Low value. How enjoyable and meaningful is the task at hand? In general, the more enjoyable and meaningful a task, the less we procrastinate on it. Although, it seems that mildly painful and boring tasks are actually more likely to lead to procrastination than extremely difficult tasks—which helps explain why we tend to procrastinate so much on busywork.
  • Impulsivity. Difficulty maintaining focus in the face of immediate and more appealing distractions. If you’re vulnerable to lots of distractions—or work in a highly distracting environment—and have a hard time resisting those distractions, you’re much more likely to procrastinate.
  • Delay. How much time there is in between the decision to take on a task and the point when it must be completed. The longer you have to finish a task, the more likely you are to procrastinate on it.

💡 Key Insights About Procrastination

  • Self-criticism makes procrastination much, much worse. When you habitually criticize yourself for procrastinating, you further erode your confidence and self-efficacy, which only increases your tendency to procrastinate.
  • Procrastination is usually a values problem, not a productivity problem. The answer to chronic procrastination is rarely more productivity hacks, fancier gadgets, or better time management apps. Instead, reframe procrastination as a message from your brain about values: That is, we tend to procrastinate on tasks where we don’t have a compelling vision for why they’re valuable or meaningful.
  • Context and environment matter more than you think for procrastination. Often the tendency to procrastinate is tied less to the tasks itself and more to the context or conditions the tasks is typically associated with, which means one of the best ways to deal with procrastination is to get creative about changing your environment (see the “Environmental Design” section below).

🛠️ Tips and Tools for Dealing with Procrastination

  • Chunking. A simple but effective technique for overcoming procrastination is to split large (and therefore overwhelming) tasks into smaller pieces or chunks. For example: Instead of “submit report by Friday” you might chunk that task into three smaller ones… “Draft part one of report Monday,” “draft part two of report by Wednesday,” and “finalize and submit draft by Friday.”
  • Environmental design. One of the simplest but most powerful ways to break through the urge to procrastinate is to drastically change the environment where you typically work: instead of writing in your home office, try taking your laptop to the park and writing there; instead of working out at the gym, try working out at home (or the reverse).
  • Emotional endurance. One way or another, we tend to procrastinate because getting started on a task feels bad emotionally—we feel anxious, overwhelmed, annoyed, etc. But often that feeling is relatively short-lived, meaning if you can tolerate that feeling (instead of avoiding it, and as a result, procrastinating on the task), your tendency to procrastinate will decrease dramatically. Improving your emotional endurance is one of the best ways to address procrastination long-term.
  • Values clarification. As we saw above, the tendency to procrastinate is greatly influenced by how much you value the task. But just because you procrastinate on something doesn’t mean you don’t value it at all—instead, it’s often a sign that you lack clarity about what the value really is. Values clarification can help you discover previously unknown sources of intrinsic motivation within any task—even seemingly boring or aversive ones.
  • Distinguish procrastination the feeling from procrastination the behavior. We all experience the urge or desire to procrastinate. But this is different than the decision to procrastinate. Somewhat counterintuitively, one of the best ways to stop the behavior of procrastinating is to get better at acknowledging and validating the urge to procrastinate.
  • Procrastinate productively. Rather than rigidly resisting the tendency to procrastinate on everything, consider intentionally procrastinating but on things that are less aversive but still productive. E.g.: Rather than just avoiding writing that report, try deliberately procrastinating on the report by working through your backlog of unanswered emails, or drafting that new blog post.

💬 Quotes About Procrastination

  • You have to show up before inspiration will. — James Clear
  • Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. — Gustave Flaubert
  • We make the road by walking. — Antonio Machado
  • One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now. — Paulo Coelho
  • How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. — Annie Dillard

🔬 Selected Research on Procrastination

  • The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel (Book). A comprehensive examination of procrastination using a formula: Motivation = Expectancy x Value / Impulsiveness x Delay. The author looks at the components of this equation and gives practical advice for understanding and overcoming the tendency to procrastinate.
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear (Book). A book about the power of small, everyday habits and how they contribute to the achievement of our long-term goals. The book offers practical strategies for formulating, tracking, and maintaining habits that can lead to success in personal and professional life.
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport (Book). Newport introduces and advocates for the concept of deep work which is focused, undistracted, high-value work that generates significant output. The book provides tactics to increase one’s ability to work deeply, improve productivity, and enhance job satisfaction.
  • Solving the Procrastination Puzzle by Timothy A. Pychyl (Book). A concise and accessible guide to understanding and overcoming procrastination, emphasizing its roots in negative emotions.
  • Good Procrastination, Bad Procrastination by Paul Graham (Essay). “You can’t look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.”