Updated: Feb 19, 2022
What exactly is procrastination? Is it the act of just being lazy? For most people, the act of procrastination is solely defined through the angle of laziness. Some suggest that it is just something they practice for better efficiency under pressure.
Webster’s dictionary definition of procrastinate:
“to be slow or late about doing something that should be done”
“to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy”
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily delaying our actions or decisions.
A common example of procrastination most people can relate to is when you are given two weeks to do an assignment and try to do it in week one but postpone it until the day before or the day the assignment is due.
Is procrastination a major concern?
Yes, because persistent procrastination is prevalent in the adult population. While about 20% of the adult population consistently procrastinate, approximately 50% of college students constantly procrastinate (1). People who consistently procrastinate often experience difficulties in school and life. Procrastination is not generally a result of an inability to complete the task because most people still get it done eventually. Studies have found that 80-95% of students say that they procrastinate to some degree (1). Hence, procrastination is very common in students and has also been referred to as the student syndrome. Procrastination is not just about postponing your assignments. Bedtime procrastination is another major problem for many students.
So, why do we voluntarily delay our priorities and the needs of the hour? How can we stop procrastinating and become more prolific? In this no-nonsense guide, you will learn why procrastination is such a danger and how you can fix it for improved productivity and a better life.
Understanding the “Why”
It is essential to learn about “why” we procrastinate before exploring “how” we procrastinate. According to psychology and behavioral mechanisms, there might be a couple of reasons for the act of procrastination. Let us discuss the major reasons.
1. Inadequate Self-Control of Their Behavior
While most procrastination is unintentional, it occurs because of inadequate self-control of our behavior. Studies have shown that even when people realize procrastination is bad for them, and even when they want to stop procrastinating, they still procrastinate (2,3). Procrastinators make irrational choices because they prioritize emotion regulation and short-term mood repair (2,3). This often stems from the duration of rewards for the task performed. When a set goal is far in the future, there is a temporal discounting effect that makes the person procrastinate more. The temporal discounting effect occurs because we tend to regard a future desired result as less valuable than a current desired result. For example, many people play the lottery because they want to get money immediately, instead of saving money over a long period. People have a certain level of present bias towards tasks that have rewards in the short term. Hence, we typically prioritize doing things that give us short-term rewards.
A 2014 study found that procrastination is heritable (4). This study also elucidated that procrastination and impulsivity traits share significant genetic variation, and that an important component of this shared variation is goal-management ability (4). People who procrastinate more are likely to be more impulsive and have less self-control to regulate short and long-term goals.
3. No Goals or Unclear Goals
It is often noticed that people who have clear written goals often achieve them within the time frame assigned, while people with unclear or vague goals do not achieve them. Specific goals like "I want to lose 5 kgs" or “I want to get an A in Chemistry 12X” are more likely to be accomplished than goals like "I want to lose weight" or “I want to do well in Chemistry 12X”. An important aspect of goals is that they should be measurable so that you will know when you attain your goal. According to the construal level theory in psychology, if a person believes that a goal is unattainable, they might consider them abstract and hence procrastinate.
People sometimes procrastinate because they think highly of their ability to successfully complete an assigned project, as they think that they could do it anytime they wanted. It could also be on the opposite spectrum where people feel that the project requires more skills than they possess, leading them to voluntarily avoid the task.
5. Poor Time Management Skills
Procrastinators are unable to manage their time effectively. Inadequate time management skills often result in individuals feeling overwhelmed with their workload, or not having enough time for “fun.” Poor time management is also associated with some tasks not being completed on time and some tasks being forgotten. We are not born with time management skills, and it is a characteristic we have to learn. Some of us learn from our parents, other students, friends, or teachers. Some learn from workshops, reading time management books, or watching videos on time management. However, you decide to learn it. If you have poor time management skills, develop new habits to improve.
6. Many Other Factors Affect Procrastination
Age, education level, and marital status all affect procrastination.
A study of 16,413 adults found that age is negatively associated with procrastination, meaning that as we get older, we procrastinate less (5). That same study found that women, in general, procrastinate less than men, single people procrastinate more than married people, and more educated people procrastinate less than less educated people (5). Hence, the biggest group of procrastinators were young single men with less education.
The most common type of procrastination is academic procrastination, which is a delay in activities associated with studying and learning (6).
Main Characteristics of Academic Procrastinators (7):
Poor time management skills.
Social factors of procrastination such as a failure of self-regulating behavior.
Psychological beliefs about their abilities to work under pressure.
Lack of personal passion.
733 university students, (513 females; 220 males) were investigated using the Subjective Well-Being Scale and the Academic Procrastination Scale.
This study found that academic procrastination directly affected subjective well-being (8).
Another study found that students showing academic procrastination behavior had a lower probability of success, an increased risk of having a negative mental state, and less satisfaction in life (9).
Hence, most students that often procrastinate with their assignments and studies will have increased anxiety, stress, regret, and lower general well-being.
So How Does One Stop Procrastination Then? Smart Goal Example:
Here are techniques that will help you stop procrastinating once and for all. It is important to deal with procrastination as it could lead to anxiety and fear at later stages of the task. Some of these methods should invoke proactive motivation in you. The good news is that you do not have to learn or utilize all of these techniques. Everyone is unique and what works for someone may not work for others. However, learning and developing any three of these techniques into habits will result in less procrastination and a more productive you.
Top 10 Methods to Stop Procrastination:
1. Seinfeld’s Method
2. Five-Minute Miracle
3. The Two-Minute Rule
4. Pomodoro Technique
5. Have Inspiring People Around
6. Get a Buddy
7. Gamification Behavior
8. Implement Rewards
9. Remove Distractions
10. Procrastination Equation Method
1. Seinfeld’s Method
The strategy used by Jerry Seinfeld places immense significance on the journey and your enjoyment through productivity rather than focusing on the results. The major idea behind the strategy is to continue the activity and keep the progress going without over-emphasis on results. Seinfeld believed that this would help people be motivated towards the task as every small movement towards it is important. This method worked for Jerry to become one of the richest comedians in the world. Several A+ undergraduate students have told me that they use this method to help them overcome procrastination. I also use this method because it works for me. It is one of the best but underutilized strategies to stop your tendency to postpone things.
How does one get started?
1.1. The Goal Setting
Seinfeld’s strategy begins with setting up your goal. What are you wanting to achieve? The goal has to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based (SMART). When the goal is a SMART goal, attaining that goal would be easier. An example of a smart goal: I will increase my typing speed from 30 words per minute to 60 words per minute in the next 3 months.
1.2. Setting Up a Routine
Once the goal is set, the next step is to create a daily log of actions that will help you attain them. Consistent daily performance builds a routine and eventually increases the chances of attaining the goal. The key here is to cultivate more motivation by tricking the brain into a set routine. Motivation brings in the extra push required in the process of goal attainment.
1.3. Use of a Calendar
Seinfeld insists on the use of a calendar for this method to work. There might be a tendency to use a digital calendar, but please refrain from them as paper and pen use will positively impact the brain. It is of significance to note that the calendar should not be visually distracting and should be accessible at all times, so that the goal, routine, and performance are always present in your mind. The calendar is to boost the factor of accountability. Cross out each day as you move forward with the task.
1.4. The Miss Days
Usually, when you miss a routine, your motivation generally decreases, leading to a higher chance of not obtaining the set goal. Seinfeld’s strategy allows you to miss a routine once or twice, but not the third time. The third time is the charm. Cross out any day you miss. Not getting a cross three times consecutively is the point here, which will keep you in the motivation loop and goal achievement.
Seinfeld's strategy's major crux is consistency. Doing the task everyday matters even if the improvement in growth is just 1%. Your focus should always be on the process. This mentality helps in enjoying the process and making the goal attainment fulfilling. If you miss a day, besides crossing out the day, write the length of the streak above the day. Your new goal is to continue the streak for longer than your last steak.
If you use this method properly, you may find it addictive, not wanting to break the cycle.
2. Five-Minute Miracle
Another strategy considered one of the best (some suggest it is the best) methods to stop procrastination is the five-minute miracle. This method involves making a small action happen within the time frame of five minutes. After 5 minutes, you are likely to find that you would continue any task you set yourself. Scientifically speaking, it is highly likely for you to finish a task that is physically already started. This psychological phenomenon is called the Zeigarnik Effect. The phenomenon works on the principle that all uncompleted things get in a loop in our memory. So once you start, even five minutes is a great start as you have changed the brain's perspective and how it thinks about the task.
The five-minute rule helps a person take control over the task and its engagement. After continuing the task for 5 minutes, the person gains the right to reconsider the task. The idea of people having autonomous (the ability to act independently) decisions instead of being forced to do it helps with motivation and effort towards the completion of the project. This five-minute hack is usually focused on the idea of taking control of one’s decision and providing the initial push. Sometimes, taking the first step is often the hardest. After the 5 minutes, there is a possibility of entering a flow state and competing in the task accordingly, which can help with procrastination.
3. The Two-Minute Rule
This rule is from the bestselling book, Atomic Habits, by author James Clear. The most important idea of this rule is that you will more likely develop that habit and become more productive by making a difficult habit easy to start.
I use a modified version where if a task can be done in 2 minutes, don’t wait; do the task now. By doing tasks now that you normally delay, you are starting new habits that will eventually increase your productivity. Instead of saying “I will put away the dishwasher plates tomorrow,” it becomes “I will put away the plates now.” Once you have started and spent at least 2 minutes on something, there is a higher chance that you will continue until the goal is attained. The key is to make the habits as easy as possible so that you will have a comfortable start. The two-minute rule works great with the five-minute rule, and could be used together. For example, you might be procrastinating about going to the gym. Instead of “I will go to the gym today,” the two-minute version could be “I will get dressed for the gym.”
Many students say, “I will study today.” The two-minute rule version could be “I will take out my books and notes and get my study area ready for me to study.”
The two-minute rule is seen as one of the best enforcers when it comes to establishing newer habits. We all know how hard it is to make new habits, but you have a better chance of starting and developing new habits with the two-minute rule. These strategies usually work as they complement the identity you are wanting to develop.
Let us look at using the two-minute rule for something moderately difficult that you may want to accomplish.
Goal: Go to the gym every other day to lose 5 lbs. in 3 months.
Two-Minute Rule: Start by putting on your gym clothes and shoes.
Two-Minute Rule: Spend 2 minutes in the gym.
Showing up and lasting two minutes in the gym will encourage you to spend longer trying to create your new habit. Here, your focus of attention has shifted from losing weight to being the type of person you want to become.
Small actions that started as only two-minute actions could result in major improvements in your life.
Now, let us look at how to use the two-minute rule for something very difficult that you may want to accomplish.
Goal: Run a marathon in 1 year.
Two-Minute Rule: Put on your running clothes and shoes.
Two-Minute Rule: Walk for 2 minutes at a quick rate.
After you do this for a week, you then use another.
Two-Minute Rule: Run for 2 minutes.
After you are comfortable doing this, you will naturally start running longer distances as your new habit is to run consistently.
The most important habit was putting on your running clothes and shoes, walking, and then running on a consistent basis. Instead of trying to run 5 miles early on, you do smaller, more attainable distances on a regular basis. This shift in attention from running the marathon could prove to be fruitful as you are now more focused on the process and not just attaining the goal. It is better to do even one minute of activity towards your goal, rather than put it off until a later date. So, if you are struggling with the completion of a task or even starting a new habit, try using this rule, as it could make developing your new habit or completing your task easier and more comfortable to attain.
4. Pomodoro Technique
This method can help you overcome the lack of motivation for bigger tasks. When you have big projects, it is quite easy to feel overwhelmed and not get it done due to the fear of the amount of work involved. This is where the Pomodoro technique comes in handy. A major task can be broken down into smaller chunks or manageable blocks. This helps you take control over the complex workload set up for yourself. It may even be one of the most effective methods to employ in your daily life.
Any professional aiming to ace time management and productivity could use this technique for better results. It is also a time-tested solution for procrastination that is very common with challenging assignments. The method helps in overcoming the guilt that chronic procrastinators often complain about. Some people who use this technique say it helps them enjoy the process of doing assignments more as they are in control of the task.
What Is the Pomodoro Technique?
When you have a complex task that may take 5 hours, the Pomodoro technique suggests you divide the task into multiple 25-minute blocks with 5 or 10-minute breaks in between. Sounds more doable, right? Well, that is the idea. The Pomodoro technique makes the task more achievable, but you need to understand the technique at its finest for maximum benefit and efficiency. The method works as it helps in keeping up one’s motivation as the task suddenly becomes manageable.
Why Does the Pomodoro Technique Work?
1. It helps in alleviating the fright that accompanies any huge task. It is no longer terrifying to attempt since all the tasks are broken down into manageable blocks.
2. The sense of accomplishment is high when each block is completed, increasing motivation to do other blocks. Hence, once started, this technique increases motivation.
3. Sense of control on your project increases as you can manage everything.
4. The act of procrastination is reduced as you are completing one manageable block at a time.
5. The breaks attained after each Pomodoro block help keep the attention and focus on the task.
How to Execute the Pomodoro Technique?
There are certain things you need for the optimal implementation of this method.
1. A timer.
2. A sheet with a “to-do” column for the day mentioned along with the task(s) for the day, and a separate column to write unexpected urgent tasks.
3. An inventory sheet to write the activities in an orderly fashion.
4. A record sheet with boxes that include the date, the task, and the Pomodoro block number. This sheet should be regularly updated.
A typical Pomodoro block is 30 minutes long, which is a combination of 25 minutes of working on a task and 5 minutes of relaxation (break). Choose the tasks to do from the inventory sheet, understand the priorities, and get them noted on the “to-do” sheet for the first Pomodoro session. For maximum efficiency, ensure that the whole 25 minutes count. Keep your phones, any electronic media, and other distractions away to better focus on the task. The next significant thing to remember is that task time and breaks allocated are not optional at all. Some people do better with 20-minute task sessions and 5-minute breaks. The breaks are as important as the Pomodoro sessions. After every four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break (such as 20-30 minutes), as that helps refocus and realign your mind for clear work.
5. Have Inspiring People Around
It is a known behavioral aspect that people, especially inspiring people, can ignite your motivation and give you the necessary push forward. The idea here is to make sure you hang out with people who are very goal and task-oriented (that is, highly motivated people). As the principle states, there is a hidden power in the people around you that you can use to elevate yourself. Look around your friend's group or among colleagues and find those who constantly motivate you or trigger you to achieve more. Choose such people to spend more time with, as you could inculcate the same vigor and spirit, thus reducing the act of procrastination. If it is not physically possible to be around such people, use social media to chat with such people, or even use digital media to watch highly motivated people. Any sort of communication with inspiring minds could help you with your day and task.
6. Get a Buddy
Just like how an intense workout with a buddy makes it so much easier, it is similar with work. Having a companion is often a sure way to make the entire process of attaining the set goal way more fun. Being with someone who has set goals for themselves and is working towards them will motivate you and help in attaining your own. The factor of accountability for both parties is usually high, making it easier for both to stay on track with tasks. It does not matter if the other person has similar goals. All that matters is their work ethic and how they can nudge you to keep going when you feel like giving up and vice versa.
7. Gamification Behavior
Gamification is the use of the common elements of game playing, such as scoring points and competition with others, and other non-game playing areas such as online marketing and in eHealth applications (10). This could be a very innovative way of looking at tasks and eliminating procrastination. We all have played games and have spent endless hours on them. Why do we enjoy playing games? The major reason is the element of competition and getting points. There is an intrinsic motivation built up once there is competition and this could be implemented in our daily lives as an effective defense against procrastination. If you complete your task by a specified time, you could reward yourself with points. If you do not complete your task on time, you can deduct points. Once you have a certain number of points, you can get a physical reward (like going to a new restaurant). The idea of gamification can be very effective if implemented right and in a way that suits your style and personality.
8. Implement Rewards
It is quite common to find yourself unmotivated while you are on a long-term project. When the rewards of what you are doing are not in the near future, you may feel a slump in your motivation. This could be avoided by setting up and implementing a rewards system. For example, if you complete two chapters of a lesson, the reward could be to watch an episode of your favorite TV or web series. This will reduce the likelihood of procrastination, keep the work progressing, and help you eventually attain the goal. You should make sure that you reward yourself once the task is completed. The rewards are to reinforce the meaningful behaviors that could help you at work and progress.
9. Remove Distractions
Are you easily distracted by your phone, watch, iPad, or computer? Do you try to study at a desk that is crowded with books and notes for different subjects? Are your family, friends or roommate often making loud noises? Distractions prevent us from being able to concentrate. Find an area and allocate specific times when you would have the least distractions. Turn off your phone and other devices that distract you. Make your assignment or study time your no-nonsense time.
10. Procrastination Equation Method
If you have tried all the other methods and you still find yourself procrastinating more than you would like, then this method, which psychologist Piers Steel developed, is probably for you.
According to this method, there are 4 primary causes of procrastination:
Non-Valuable or Enjoyable Work.
While the first 3 causes are easier to understand, time delay refers to the choice of waiting longer to get started when you have more time to finish a task. For example, if someone had 2 weeks to finish an assignment, they would wait exactly two weeks to start it. While if they had 6 weeks to complete the same assignment, they would wait exactly 6 weeks before they start it.
The Procrastination Equation is an equation that utilizes these factors and predicts your odds of overcoming procrastination.
Odds of Overcoming Procrastination = (Self-Confidence x Value of Task) / (Distractedness x Time Delay)
The equation states that your odds of overcoming procrastination are equal to the product of your self-confidence (self-efficacy) and the value of the task to you, divided by the product of how distracted (or impulsive) you are and the time delay between getting a task and when it is due.
Use this equation to determine what your main cause of procrastination is.
This technique corroborates the idea that while common factors cause procrastination, everyone’s way of procrastinating is different.
How to use this method?
Determine which, if any, of the following you are:
1. I do not enjoy what I do. I find my work boring and pointless.
2. I try, but find it difficult to do more than 10 minutes before I am distracted by something (a friend, a call, a phone notification, the TV etc.).
3. I always seem to find myself doing my assignments at the last minute, no matter how long a time period was given for the assignment.
4. I have a lot of anxiety and doubt when I try to work. I sometimes do not believe in myself and think I cannot do good work.
If any of these seem like you, then focus on this aspect. Investing time in yourself to work on your weaknesses is one of the best investments you can make.
We just discussed 10 powerful methods that you could use to successfully curb procrastination. The common idea of laziness as the main cause of procrastination is incorrect, as procrastination is a complex behavior with underlying emotions such as fear and conflict (11,12,13). The reasons for these emotions are often ignorance and pushing away deadlines. Once you start using some of these methods to curb your procrastination, it will take some time to experience the differences, so be patient. As mentioned before, you only need to master a few of these techniques suggested to beat procrastination. Instead of procrastinating and saying “one-day,” make today DAY ONE. Pick one technique and start developing a new habit that will make you more productive. Your future self will thank you.
Written by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD, FCVS, FAHA
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