Why Do We Procrastinate and What Can We Do About It?

Why do we put off writing a paper, studying for an exam, or even taking care of the pile of dishes in the sink? We are rational beings. We know if we wait to the last minute to study our grades will probably suffer, and it will be even harder to clean those dishes with old dried on food. Usually, we also experience feelings of guilt and anxiousness when we are procrastinating – yet we still choose to procrastinate!

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Why Do We Procrastinate?

Some think humans have been evolutionarily programmed to focus on more immediate rewards than long term benefits. This makes sense, as most of our ancestors couldn’t survive beyond their 20s or 30s in the wild, we can’t really say they could plan for their retirement or future benefit.

Still, the behavior of procrastination is very interesting and there are many types of behavioral change theories that try and address this very thing. For example, if you are trying to educate young men on the risks of heart disease and heart attacks in their teenage years, they are far less likely to listen than if they are in their 60s, maybe having just experienced a heart attack. Even though what you do in your teens will directly impact your chances of heart attack in your 60s!

But, does all procrastination behavior lead to bad results and outcomes for individuals? Not really. Although the semantics is debated, some people are “intentional” or “active procrastinators”. They are the daredevils that actually thrive under time pressure situations, such as finishing an entire research paper in one night. The key thing here, is that they are able to meet the tight deadline and also find success in their work, (i.e. receive top notches on their paper).

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Not everyone is like that, though. We tend to see people complaining about the circumstances more than the fact that they procrastinate. You probably heard, or even said, this: “I only had a lower grade because I did not have enough time to study.” This displaces the bad performance on time and not the failing of the individual. Alternatively, some procrastinators have what is called an “upward emotional response” to unfavorable outcomes.

Let us exemplify: “I made a C on the exam? Well, it could have been a lot worse!” You know that person, right? Since these people are focused more on feeling good than the fact that they procrastinated, they try to “sugarcoat” the failure. Researchers call this being counterfactual to the situation. Instead, the person should have probably pinned the problem of making a low grade by saying: “I could have not procrastinated and then I would have made a higher grade.”

How Can We Overcome Procrastination?

So, what can you do if you are not a highly successful type of procrastinator or let’s say you are one – but you are experiencing a lot of stress during these intense marathons or if you know you are not truly performing your best under these circumstances? Well, the obvious solution is actively fighting against the idea that it is better to procrastinate and, say, play video games with friends and delay homework. But this usually doesn’t help much. So, let’s hear out Carleton University psychologist Dr. Tim Pychyl, who has been a researcher on procrastination for a long time:

Understand the Emotions at Play!

Some of his suggestions include understanding the role that emotions play in these situations; that we have a natural inclination to focus on feeling happy now, and more dreaded tasks are delayed because they are “negative” in nature. If you understand your emotions, you can use your success to propel yourself forward.

We have all felt that “sense of accomplishment” when you finish a task, whether it is a painting, a paper, a PowerPoint presentation, or returning the result of a program code. Often, after these achievements, we like to reward ourselves by delaying other tasks for days, weeks or even longer. That is procrastinating. If, instead, we use these positive feelings from accomplishing a task and transfer them to dealing with other tasks we need to complete, we will have much better outcomes.

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Basically, the next time you finish a paper or another task, use your positive feelings as your motivation to propel yourself forward to start the studying process for your exam next week or another task you need to do. Even if there are a lot of Evrim Ağacı videos waiting to be binged watched! This will prevent those stressful exam cramming sessions the night before. So next time, try saying: “I finished this task and I did a great job, now I should do this next one to add to my success!”

The impact of emotions doesn’t end there. Some of us are what is called “social perfectionists”. Our emotions related to our work are closely tied into what teachers, professors, peers and society will receive or think of our finished work. Therefore, we place enormous pressure on ourselves for our work to be perfect and thus, we are less likely to start doing them. If, instead, we focused on our own sense of accomplishment we receive from completing a task, we are more likely to not be trapped in wanting our work to be perfect and creating pressure that prevents us from starting out of fear.

So, don’t worry too much about what others will say or think: Do your best and be sincere to yourself if you really did your best. The rest will come on its own.

Delegation and Divide & Conquer

Another strategy you can use to solve the problem of procrastination is delegation. Or divide and conquer, if you will. Sometimes, we also face large projects that are overwhelming, such as a semester long project of building a robot or even a graduate dissertation that takes years to complete. Procrastination can be prevalent in these types of tasks, as their scale is so large, we become scattered and unintentional in approaching the work. Rather than focusing on building the entire robot, as they teach in the engineering schools, first focus on the general design of the robot or the control strategy, rather than the intricacies of the controller circuitry. Don’t get too lost in detail.

Another example is graduate students writing dissertations, instead of being overwhelmed by the steps of writing the entire document it would be easier to focus on writing the “methods” section first, reading a journal article about one particular concept, transferring research data into the data analysis program and so on. Don’t try and think about the whole project when you sit down to work – solve 1 problem at a time before advancing to another defined task.

Thus, the key is making large projects into smaller, clearer, and more manageable tasks that will be your daily, weekly or monthly goals that will help you achieve the overarching goal. Use software and products that might help you manage the task, timing, and delegation.

Think of it this way: If a professor or a teacher asks what you are working on, you should be able to clearly communicate what exactly you are working on. If you are answering vaguely, “I am writing my dissertation,” “I am working on the robot,” “I am writing the paper”, more than likely you could benefit from breaking the work down – even you don’t know what you are doing!

But if you can say “I am writing the problems we faced during our experiment in the Discussion section of my dissertation”, “I drew a sketch of the general design of the robot”, “I created an outline for my paper”, you are probably good to go!

If you combine this strategy with using the motivation of completing a task to complete another one will result in progress being made and the real goal being met. Yay for a working robot, PhD degree, and papers!

Intentions Matter!

Lastly, our intentions are also very important. Intentions always matter in the professional or academic world.

We might set a goal to work on the lab report tomorrow evening. However, this is not specific enough. What does “evening” mean? 5 pm? 11 pm? Will you complete the entire report or half of it? Ask yourself: Is my intention really finishing this work tomorrow evening? If yes, be more specific. Specify exactly when will you sit down and start working.

You should be able to say this: “In situation X, I will do behavior Y to achieve subgoal Z.” We know it will sound cheesy but… Program yourself. Use your inner machine.

Let’s try: “Directly after my lab class, I will go to the coffee shop to write the lab report, in order to make a good grade in this course.” That last statement is important, because it reminds yourself why you are doing this, what is the bigger picture?

“I want to be a professor in biology one day.” This is a wonderful target, but this task requires many smaller steps. Identify them and work towards each! The first part helps que your behavior in your environment, to train yourself to act in a certain way.

“Whenever I am done eating, I will put my dish in the dishwasher, because I like to have a clean home.” A very clear and reachable target!

Over time, your behaviors will become automatic and not require a lot of thinking about whether you should do this now or later. You have already been decided that you will be putting the dish in the dishwasher after your meal. 

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There will be circumstances where delays are inevitable, but at least you will know that you are not simply procrastinating the job at hand. And that, will give you a peace of mind. Sometimes that is all you need to start, or even finish a project.

Referenes & Further Reading

  1. B. Chen, et al. (2016). Procrastination As A Fast Life History Strategy. Evolutionary Psychology. | Archive Link
  2. T. Pychyl. Procrastination Research Group. (9 Kasım 2019). Access Date: 9 Kasım 2019. Reference URL: Procrastination | Archive Link
  3. J. Choi, et al. (2019). Why Not Procrastinate? Development And Validation Of A New Active Procrastination Scale.. The Journal of Social Psychology. | Archive Link