There are days when procrastination comes for us all. You wake up, thinking about a project at work or the life admin you can no longer put off and feel a swell of dread fill your chest. You know you have to deal with it today but you start puttering around and somehow end up deep-cleaning the bin instead of replying to emails or watching sitcom bloopers rather than putting on your running shoes. The putting off of tasks is time-wasting and mindless but sometimes it feels inevitable.
The word 'procrastination' has deep historical roots. It derives from the Latin 'procrastinare' – meaning 'to put off until tomorrow' – but is also derived from the ancient Greek word 'akrasia', which means 'acting against one's better judgement'. The etymology says that when we procrastinate, we are well aware of what we are doing, which implies that the negative consequences of this delay rest solely on our shoulders. And yet...we do it anyway.
Why procrastination happens – and why it can feel like an inevitable part of our day – is a question that has plagued people for centuries. It’s generally assumed that this behaviour is down to a failure to self-regulate in some way: that a combination of poor time management, laziness and a lack of self-control leads us to procrastinate. In other words, it is because an individual isn’t trying hard enough. This is not just a cultural assumption but one explored by many researchers and institutions too, with studies such as this one from the University of Valencia which found that no matter how long students are given to do their work, procrastination will likely occur.
However there is a growing number of researchers countering this view. Dr Tim Pychyl is the author of popular self-help book The Procrastinator's Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle and the writer behind the Psychology Today column Don't Delay. He believes that procrastination runs far deeper – that it is influenced by biology, our perception of time and our ability to manage our emotions.
On the biological front, procrastination comes down to ongoing tension in our brains between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, according to the neurosurgery department at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The limbic system is a major primordial brain network and one of the oldest and most dominant parts of the brain. It supports a variety of functions, including emotions – particularly those which evolved early and play an important role in survival. This includes feelings of motivation and reward, learning, memory, the fight-or-flight response, hunger, thirst and production of hormones that help regulate the autonomic nervous system.
On the other hand, your prefrontal cortex is linked to planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behaviour. This is where decisions, forward-planning and the rationalising of the impulsive, stimulus-based behaviour of the limbic system is centred. As the prefrontal cortex is the newer, less developed (and therefore somewhat weaker) portion of the brain, the instinctual limbic response will often win over rationalising.
This all feeds into the psychology at the heart of procrastination: what makes us feel good now (such as avoiding or delaying tasks) has a stronger hold over us than what makes us feel good in the long run. As Dr Pychyl told The New York Times: "Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem."
This is an example of 'present bias', the NYT article goes on to explain: our tendency to prioritise short-term wants and needs over long-term ones, even if the short-term reward is far smaller. This feeds into a larger disconnect between the present and future self and our perception of time. We struggle to connect to our future self (aka the one who would benefit from us taking the bins out in a timely fashion) or see them as 'us' when the 'us' of today has far more immediate and pressing concerns.
At its core, procrastination is thought by Pychyl and his collaborator Dr Fuschia Sirois to be linked to an inability to regulate our emotions, which can be seen in how we prioritise short-term relief over long-term satisfaction. Putting off a task makes you feel good in the short term because it provides relief from largely negative emotions: stress, panic, disgust, anxiety, self-doubt and so on. The long-term consequences have little bearing on how good it can feel to be distracted or absorbed in something that has nothing to do with the big assignment that is making you panic. However, as all procrastinators can attest, that relief is short-lived, leading to the cycle repeating itself.
So what can you do if you’re prone to procrastination? As with anything, especially actions that regulate your emotions, you can’t just stop and expect that to work. Without learning how to regulate your emotions in other, less destructive ways, the temptation to procrastinate will once again rear its head.
Recognising that procrastination is not an act of laziness but a tool for emotional regulation can be hugely helpful, says Pychyl. It is a step towards forgiving ourselves and having self-compassion for procrastinating, both of which have been found to help procrastinators: in a 2010 study, researchers found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating on studying for an exam were able to procrastinate less for subsequent exams. Another study, from 2012, looked at the links between procrastination, stress and self-compassion. It found that lower levels of self-compassion (aka treating ourselves with kindness and understanding when we make mistakes) may explain some of the stress that procrastinators experience. You can start to harness self-compassion by following guided meditations such as these by the founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, Dr Kristin Neff, or simply by committing to meeting challenges with kindness and understanding.
Seeing procrastination this way can also help with the impulse towards waiting until you feel 'ready' to perform a certain task, as Pychyl told The Washington Post. Once we can see how our emotions have shaped how we respond to a task, it makes it easier not to let how we feel dictate whether or not we can get started. You do not need to be in the right frame of mind to start working or cleaning or studying. Instead of focusing on feelings, Pychyl recommended breaking down a task into small, component parts which can actually be accomplished. It could be as simple as writing the first sentence, dusting one surface or closing all the distracting links you have open.
Procrastination is part of life. Its impact can range from mildly irritating to life-changing but the main thing to remember is that it can't be countered by self-flagellation. By finding ways to forgive yourself in the moment and be kind to your future self, you can slowly chip away at the habit.