It's not controversial to aver that procrastination is bad. Most would agree without giving it a second thought. But what about procrastination is so harmful, and why do we procrastinate when we readily agree we shouldn't?

When I talk about procrastination, I'm talking about delaying an important task despite knowing we will suffer as a result. Why would we do this? The problem seems to have its roots in an inability to manage emotions, and from an overweighting of short-term benefits over long-term costs.

In a landmark 1997 study, Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister rated college students on an established scale of procrastination, then tracked their academic performance, stress, and general health throughout the semester. Initially the procrastinators reported lower levels of stress, presumably because they were enjoying more pleasurable activities in lieu of the work they should have been doing. By the end of the semester, however, the procrastinators earned lower grades and reported higher cumulative amounts of stress and illness. The quality of their work and their own well-being suffered.

The balance of evidence increasingly suggests that procrastinators gain a short-term emotional benefit from procrastinating. Dianne Tice and Joseph Ferrari found that procrastinators put off a task when it is described as a cognitive evaluation, apparently because they prefer others to think they lack effort rather than ability (which is a form of self-handicapping). Timothy Pychyl found that as preparatory tasks become more difficult and stressful, students put them off for more pleasant activities. In a follow up study, Tice found that students do NOT procrastinate when primed to believe their mood is fixed, but DO procrastinate when they believe their mood can change. Taken together, these studies suggest procrastination is the result of a desire to feel good now - even if doing so is likely to result in feeling stressed later. 

The immediate gratification of feeling good now is often self-reinforcing and comes at the expense of figuring out how to relieve stress over the long-run. Fuschia Sirios found that chronic procrastinators are more likely to explain procrastination in ways that make them feel better in the moment (e.g. "At least I did some studying the night before the test."), rather than ways that allow them to learn something for the future (e.g. "If only I had allowed more time for studying, I would have done better."). This explains why the behavior tends to repeat - procrastinators often focus on the benefits of having procrastinated. 

The good news is there are a number of strategies we can all use to overcome procrastination. We can chop up tasks into smaller pieces that make the task more manageable. We can set personal deadlines. The best are those enforced by someone other than ourselves, but Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch have shown that even self-imposed deadlines can help. We can block access to desirable distractions (see Willpower & Learning) - hide our smartphones, move to another room without a TV, limit ourselves to having only one or two tabs open in our browsers at a time. But the best strategy is to find something positive or worthwhile about the task itself. In The Power of Mindful Learning, I talk about how simple things like attending to novelty in the situation and considering the task from multiple perspectives can have a dramatic impact on our subjective experience. It's much easier to complete a task when you can find something about it that you enjoy. That's simply a matter of perspective, and we have the ability to change our perspective at will. That's one of the amazing gifts of the human mind. 

All of this may sometimes feel like hard work, so this last piece of advice is essential: learn to forgive yourself when you do procrastinate. No one is perfect, and at one time or another we all do it. The key is not to rationalize the behavior, but rather to try to learn from it. Over the long run, you will produce higher quality work AND feel less stressed as a result.

Feel free to share your experiences and/or suggestions in the comments section below!


Peter A.

Harvard PhD Student | Expert SAT, ACT, & GRE Tutor

900+ hours
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