Dr Krishna Vakharia: A look back - and forward
How to stop procrastinating in 2023
From struggling to start that New Year's fitness resolution to delaying exam revision, procrastination can get in the way of your success. While it's perfectly normal to procrastinate every now and then, it can sometimes become a problem that impacts your health and achievements. By identifying the factors blocking your motivation, you can take steps to break the habit.
Why do we procrastinate?
Wasting time through procrastination is something we are all guilty of doing from time to time. After all, the same psychological mechanisms are at work in all of us.
"Simply put, procrastination is delaying until later what we know would better be done or started now," says chartered psychologist and British Psychological Society (BPS) member Professor Stephen Palmer.
Palmer explains that procrastination behaviour is a product of two main psychological issues:
1. Ego-related procrastination - putting our ego on the line and fear of failure. For example, 'If I fail at this task, I'm a failure'.
2. Low frustration tolerance - a low tolerance to undertaking boring and/or frustrating and/or unexciting tasks. For example, 'I can't stand doing boring tasks'.
These factors cover a wide range of things that may hold us back, and they can act as major roadblocks to the self-control and motivation needed to carry out tasks. However, when we struggle with how to stop procrastinating, we seldom address the specific factors that are hindering us.
"Often people wait for it to feel right or for motivation to occur before starting any task. But it's only when you start a task that motivation really increases," adds Palmer.
If you're struggling to kickstart your New Year's resolutions, this may sound all too familiar. According to Palmer, New Year's resolutions typically trigger unhealthy procrastination behaviour, whether it's waiting for that drive to begin your new exercise routine, or waiting for not drinking on weeknights to feel like the right step to take. "Of course, it seldom feels just right to start something that will be an effort."
Risk factors for procrastination
Overcoming procrastination requires us to identify what’s causing us to postpone something unnecessarily before we can start to address it. There are lots of factors that could contribute to this gap between how we know we should behave, and how we act in reality.
These include the following:
- Stress and anxiety - many studies show a strong correlation between procrastination and anxiety, particularly for students and exam anxiety.
- Fear of failure and negative feedback - these are common demotivators that are also related to low self-esteem.
- Perfectionism - also linked to a fear of underperforming, perfectionism can sometimes, but not always, result in procrastination behaviour.
- Low mood and depression - feeling depressed, whether clinically diagnosed or not, depletes energy and reduces our sense of self-worth which negatively affects motivation.
- Impulsivity - the decision to procrastinate is often impulsive as it can involve failure to plan ahead and to consider the long-term consequences.
- Distractibility - we may become easily distracted during a task, looking at social media and perhaps demonstrating problematic mobile phone use.
- Laziness - the unwillingness to put in the effort needed to achieve a goal is a common factor; however, many who think of themselves as lazy may be unaware that other factors might be at play.
- Impatience for rewards - we tend to devalue rewards when there is a large gap between completing a task and reaping the benefits. The psychology behind prioritising short-term rewards, like not working, is known as "present bias".
- Lack of energy - physically feeling tired can also dissuade us from starting something that requires effort.
Procrastination is also a widely known symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, the charity CHADD emphasises that this form of procrastination is more extreme and can't be overcome in the same way.
How to stop procrastinating
You can learn how to stop procrastinating by forming the following good habits.
You can make the task at hand feel more manageable by:
- Deciding on a goal that's clearly defined and possible to accomplish.
- Breaking a large task into smaller chunks, if possible.
- Setting realistic deadlines.
- Beginning with a small task and the smallest possible step for it, to make starting less daunting.
After this, what you choose to do will also depend on the demotivating factors that you believe apply most to you.
Here are some examples:
For the easily distracted
Remove any distractions from your surrounding environment, even if you're not yet ready to get started. If you are around other people but need to work alone, consider giving them a bit of advance notice and ask politely if there's a time that they're happy and able to be quieter while you work.
For the reward-driven
You may wish to arrange some kind of immediate reward that you can have if you manage to make a start. This may be quite small and budget-friendly, like a chocolate bar or an episode of your favourite show. The important thing is you'll receive it in the near future.
For the perfectionists
Before you undertake your goal, tell yourself that it's OK not to be the best or to make mistakes, even if you won't have a chance to make amends at the end. The more time you give to a project, the more skilled you will become.
When does procrastination become a problem?
Procrastinating occasionally isn't necessarily harmful. However, chronic procrastination - when this behaviour becomes a pattern in your day-to-day life - is an unhealthy habit that can negatively impact your mental health.
Mental and physical health
The relationship between procrastination and anxiety can become cyclical and hard to break; while anxiety and stress can lead to you procrastinating, chronic procrastination can increase stress levels.
This is also true of other negative emotions, like diminished self-esteem. For example, procrastinating because you fear you are incapable can end up feeding that fear and the underlying low self-esteem issue, rather than resolving it.
Research has also linked procrastination to poor physical health outcomes for people with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Procrastination can become a maladaptive behaviour, preventing people from coping with their conditions in a healthy way. This can raise stress levels, which in turn may affect the body physically. Ultimately, this could make the person more vulnerable to their illness.
Palmer also adds that people who procrastinate might put off undertaking important health-related decisions and actions: "Their GP or practice nurse may have explained the problems about high alcohol intake, high blood pressure, poor nutrition, or smoking, but the person continues to delay taking healthy actions."
Abilities and accomplishments
Procrastinating has been shown to affect test scores negatively. There is also evidence to link procrastination with academic misconduct. This includes fraudulent excuses, plagiarism, and copying from others for homework and in exams.
These negative outcomes also exist in the workplace. One study found a strong link between procrastination behaviour and earning lower salaries. If you constantly delay important tasks, this may be hindering employment and promotional opportunities.