Intended for healthcare professionals

Career Focus

Procrastination: why putting off is such a turn off

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7456.s6 (Published 03 July 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:s6
  1. Raj Persaud, consultant psychiatrist and author of “Staying sane: how to make your mind work for you”
  1. Maudsley Hospital and Institute of Psychiatry, London

Abstract

Raj Persaud explains the psychology behind procrastination and gives advice on how to stop putting your life on hold and get on with it instead

We have all done it—put off doing boring discharge summaries, avoided starting revising for exams which are drawing ever nearer, or procrastinated resubmitting that research paper.

A widespread phenomenon

Psychologists have become very interested in this widespread phenomenon in recent years because of its deep effects on our lives. The technical definition of procrastination is: “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.”

Some common examples

Because of procrastination you might put off work or career assignments until the last minute and so will perform poorly in accounting for your time to your seniors. It could be you are putting off studying for some better qualifications that could enhance your job prospects or postponing compiling your curriculum vitae so you could apply for a position with better career opportunities.

Maybe you are procrastinating telling your partner some unwelcome news about an area of work that he or she won't want to hear about. But because you keep putting various things off, your life is becoming a misery as these things you are putting off hang over you.

A deep problem

Psychologists have found that procrastination is a deep problem that goes to the core of your personality. As a result of all the stress it produces, procrastination accounts for profound decrements to physical health, among other problems. For example, procrastinators may have higher levels of drinking, smoking, and insomnia and poorer physical health compared with nonprocrastinators. Because procrastinators put off going to the doctor, they may even live shorter lives because diagnoses of serious complaints are made too late.

Some procrastinators put work assignments off until the last minute because they have convinced themselves that they work better under pressure—a common myth. The lack of time, panic, and a last minute deadline which suddenly result from procrastination turn a normally mundane or even boring task into a rollercoaster ride of emotion. Life may be more exciting but the chore still gets done much more poorly than if the proper amount of time had been allocated.

Linked to negative outcomes

The key issue is that procrastination is linked to profoundly negative outcomes in our lives. It has been associated with depression, guilt, low exam grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating, and low self esteem.

As a result, procrastination probably accounts for much of why many people never realise their full potential, and so it can be an extremely disabling psychological condition.

Why do we do it?

There are two main theories as to why we procrastinate. One reason is “fear of failure”—we are worried we aren't going to do the task particularly well and so put if off and prefer to do things we are better at (such as watching television or playing football).

The other main reason is labelled “task aversion,” or to put this in non-jargon—we hate doing it because it's an awful bind compared with something more enjoyable such as watching television or playing football.

Fear of failure

If you are a fear of failure procrastinator, you probably have a form of perfectionism, which means that because you are afraid of not doing the task well you don't do it at all, which is much worse. The answer here is to lower your standards and also to get some early feedback on how you have started the task, to guide you in your efforts. Focus more on getting started rather than doing well.

Based on this principle, psychologist Barbara A Fritzsche and colleagues from the University of Central Florida have recently published some research which suggests an ingenious but amazingly simple technique to help overcome the endemic problem of procrastination. You should start the project in a very small way and then get some immediate, encouraging (hopefully) feedback on how you are doing.

The encouraging feedback may help fear of failure procrastinators by reducing unhelpful perfectionism—they feel they are not going to fail after all and so are more likely to persist. Benefits may also arise from discussing the work, which is a subtle way of getting us to confront the reality of the task rather than simply avoid it. Also, having an earlier subsidiary deadline helps to bring the future forward and appear nearer.

Task aversion

The solution to the problem of hating the task you are avoiding is to concentrate on the way you make decisions about unpleasant chores, rather than the terrible task itself. The reality is that you have to do it and that delaying is making your life a misery. This is because you are now worrying so much about the delay it detracts from the pleasurable things you would prefer to be doing instead.

Swiss psychologists Cornelius J König and Martin Kleinmann of the University of Zurich, who specialise in an area of psychology termed “behavioural decision making,” have come up with an ingenious technique to help procrastinators, which is to get them to make decisions a bit more like nonprocrastinators.

Instead of asking, “What do you want to do right now?” (with the inevitable answer of going out instead of working), ask, “In what order do you want to do your tasks?” For example, if you choose to go out after working, you will probably be able to party more and without the worry of the consequences of not working. Putting business before pleasure usually enhances the pleasure.

The trick of focusing on task order and sequence seems to aid planning dramatically and therefore perhaps helps ameliorate procrastination. Here are some more tips to help you postpone procrastination.

Ten tips to postpone procrastination

  1. Vague priorities increase procrastination. The person who insists that everything is a high priority is more likely to end up not doing what is most helpful to them in the long run. It is much better to set clear priorities and also get guidance on how to go about completion in a step by step manner—you need to know what's not important in order to understand better what really is important.

  2. Make sure you are in the right mood in which to make the right decision. Because low mood is associated with pessimism, if you are depressed you don't see the point of starting on big projects and so you keep putting them off. Do something morale boosting instead, and then when you are feeling better sit down and draw up a list of tasks that need tackling and start on the most important.

  3. Often we start a project but then get distracted by a small interruption, which then leads to another distraction, and before you know it you have abandoned what you were meant to be doing hours ago. The key here is to minimise distractions when you start something you have been putting off. This might mean taking the phone off the hook and switching off your email so none arrives while you are working on the computer. Ensure the place where you work has its potential distractions minimised. Maybe unconsciously you are rather hoping the distractions will stop you from getting on with essential duties.

  4. Sometimes we procrastinate because we are used to authoritarian parents or other authority figures taking control of our lives. Procrastination can be a form of unconscious rebellion or expression of resentment over the lack of control in our lives. Actually, stopping postponing is the key way to take back control over the direction of our lives.

  5. The enormity of the task can be overwhelming, particularly if it has built up in size over time as we have postponed starting it. Break the mountain down into a smaller hills, and so focus on achieving small gains in the first few days. The longest journey begins with but a single step. Focusing on making the first step is easier than thinking about accomplishing the whole journey.

  6. Reward yourself for doing the things you avoid with the pleasurable activities which are normally your excuse for avoidance. If you go out partying instead of staying in and revising for qualifications, turn this around by rewarding your studying with partying. It's the basic sequence that procrastinators get wrong.

  7. Often procrastinators rationalise to themselves why they are not doing what they should be doing by supplying ready made excuses such as, “Everyone needs to socialise,” and, “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.” The key here is to recognise that you have a choice about what you do and when you do it. You are not governed by myths. Realising you can select your own goals reduces the power of your subconscious mind to supply rationalisations about why you aren't doing what you should be.

  8. Be specific and realistic about your goals—if you want to be promoted, it's unlikely that the report hanging over you is going to achieve this in itself—but it could get you noticed, which is a step in the right direction. One reason we put work tasks off is that we feel they won't get us what we really want, which is actually probably down to us being too ambitious and impatient.

  9. Prepare to get started. Sometimes the key problem is getting started, and so one approach to this is to prepare to get started. Tidy your desk or organise the office in preparation for starting—sometimes this seems to help you move seamlessly into actually starting.

  10. Often we feel a lot better for having started to do something we have been putting off. Focus on the unpleasantness of having a task hanging over you and notice more how much you have to distract yourself from this by doing all those unnecessary things you do instead of what you really should be doing.

Footnotes

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