Why we procrastinate and how to stop putting things off

Table of Contents

What is procrastination?

On the surface, procrastination is putting things off even when we know it can lead to negative consequences. 

Focusing on tasks that don’t help you reach your goal, delaying solving a problem, and prioritizing tasks that aren’t important is procrastination. In classic time management theory, things you have to do throughout the day fall into 4 categories:

  • Important and urgent
  • Important and not urgent
  • Urgent and not important
  • Not important and not urgent

Productivity means doing important things, whether they’re urgent or not. You procrastinate when you focus on something that is not urgent or important — calling a colleague or creating a new app feature you don’t need, for example.

Procrastination is not the same as laziness. Procrastination is often the result of an inability to cope with negative emotions around a specific task. This is why procrastination is always stressful and an energy drain.

Why can’t I get myself to do things I know I need to do?

It’s all in your brain.

Researchers Wenwen Zhang, Xiangpeng Wang, and Tingyong Feng found that procrastination could be attributed to increased activity of the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which overrides the prefrontal cortex signals that control impulsive behavior and emotions. 

When this happens, it becomes harder to manage negative emotions, and we choose to do what makes us feel better quickly instead of focusing on the long-term benefits. For instance, if a task makes us feel bored, anxious, frustrated, or insecure, we are more likely to procrastinate on it to avoid feeling bad. Check out the entire 2016 paper in the Scientific Reports journal for more details. 

So procrastinating is always a bad thing?

Nope. Here are some benefits:

  • Procrastination shows that you’re having problems with the task. It’s too complicated, not valuable enough, or unclear.
  • It lets you know you need a break. It’s a sign that you’re running low on energy.
  • Not working is good for your brain. Great discoveries and insights don’t happen when you’re forcing yourself to work. Letting your mind wander is sometimes the best way to find the right solution.
  • You’ll make better decisions. According to psychologist Anna Abramowski, procrastination can lead to discovering information that will improve your work. For example, Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay The Social Network, is a notorious procrastinator. In his NBC interview, he told Today Show host Katie Couric: “Well, Katie, you call it procrastination. I call it thinking.”
  • It helps you get rid of tasks you don’t need to do. By the time you finally get around to answering that e-mail, the issue might be irrelevant or resolved. Of course, this only applies to small things, not important tasks.

Procrastination is neither good nor bad. Like a yawn that tells you it may be time to hit the hay, it’s simply a sign that something needs to change: the structure of the task, your attitude toward work, a bad habit, or your work-life balance.

What kind of tasks am I most likely to put off?

About 50% of the time, the nature of the task is what makes people procrastinate.

Timothy Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, identified 6 characteristics of tasks you’re most likely to put off:

  • Boring
  • Difficult
  • Makes you feel like your efforts are in vain
  • Poorly structured or not concrete enough
  • Doesn’t have any material or spiritual value for you
  • It is not rewarding, meaning you don’t get any joy out of the process

According to Dr. Piers Steel, one of the world’s leading researchers on the science of motivation and procrastination, the following factors influence motivation:

According to Dr. Piers Steel, one of the world’s leading researchers on the science of motivation and procrastination, the following factors influence motivation:

  • Expectancy: the level of difficulty and confidence in our ability to complete the task. 
  • Value: The reward and how much we value it.
  • Delay: The time it takes to complete the task.

Another important factor is our impulsivity — the desire to get immediate results.

If there were a mathematical formula for motivation, it would look like this:

The easier the task and the bigger the reward, the higher your motivation will be. If you have to wait a long time for the reward, you won’t be as eager to get started. And if you don’t have much patience, you’ll be more sensitive to time.

Say you need to turn in a report a month from now. You won’t procrastinate if:

  • You know what to do
  • You know there will be a reward
  • You’re not too impulsive or easily distracted
  • A month is enough to get the job done, but not so much time that you’ll start putting it off

Can I find out how much I procrastinate?

Definitely. Download a program that tracks how much time you spend on different sites (Rescue Time, for example).

Then, set up lists, so the program knows what kinds of websites go into the procrastination category.

This typically includes:

  • Social networks
  • E-mail and messengers
  • Games
  • News sites
  • Entertainment sites like Buzzfeed

Of course, your list may look different depending on what kind of work you do. You’ll start seeing how much time you spend on sites you don’t need. Supplement this information with regular Welltory measurements and data about your sleep, steps, and nutrition to determine how different lifestyle factors affect your productivity.

The most common reason for low productivity is an energy deficit: not enough rest and too much stress.

How do I fight procrastination?

For procrastinators, the toughest part is getting started. Timothy Pychyl recommends breaking up the task into small pieces, moving from one to the next. Tim Urban, TED speaker and author of the popular blog Wait but Why agrees. “No one ‘builds a house,” he writes, “They lay one brick again and again, and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries — they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built — but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.” 

For example, a lengthy report can be broken up as follows:

  • Think of a title
  • Come up with a title page
  • Write a plan
  • Write the first 5 sentences

And so on. Make sure every sub-task has a measurable result. Sub-tasks like “think about the task” or “brainstorm” are a no-go. 

If you do a lot of writing, try writing in 15-minute intervals, with short breaks in between. This is what worked for writer Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels, 18 non-fiction books, 12 stories, 2 plays, and a ton of articles. The 15-minute sprint gave him the sense of satisfaction he needed to keep going. Also, keep track of the progress you’ve made. The easiest way to do this is by making a list and crossing off tasks as soon as you’re done with them. You can also use these tricks to help yourself not exhaust your brain and stay productive:

  • Set deadlines for new tasks. Find out all the details and decide when you will do it and set a realistic.
  • Do not concentrate on more than one task at a time. Otherwise, the prefrontal cortex will not be able to handle the pressure and shut down, which will lead to you being unproductive.
  • Write down your tasks as soon as you get them to take the pressure off the cortex.
  • Do not put off tasks you can do in 2 minutes or less. Do them right away. This is especially helpful under chronic stress — you cannot have tasks hanging over your head in standby mode for months.
  • Determine your main task for the day. It will help your cortex prioritize tasks and shut down any distractions.

Ok, but what if the task is unclear?

You need to re-think it. study of 4,000 employees conducted by coaching company Think Feel Know revealed that 46% of workers get unclear assignments from management. 37% aren’t sure what is being asked of them at least once daily. This kind of uncertainty will kill 1-2 hours of your workday. We work well when we know exactly what we’re doing. That’s why asking for clarification is one of the best ways to avoid procrastinating. 

Ask yourself (or management) the following questions about the task: Why do I need to do it? What needs to be done? How do I get there? 

After clarifying a task, you can make a more specific action plan. Re-thinking tasks can even help you stop procrastinating outside of work. For example, say you’re traveling for work and realize that your car needs an oil change. You leave a note for your partner, asking them to take care of it while you’re gone. Compare these options:

  • “Please change the oil!”
  • “Please change the oil. You need to pick up this type of oil at the gas station, then go to Jiffy Lube around the corner. Here is their number.”

If you go with the second option, your partner will be much less likely to procrastinate and won’t call you to clarify what needs to be done while you’re gone.

And what if the task is boring?

You need motivation. Research has shown that understimulating work environment is linked to procrastination at work through boredom. This is the conclusion Baran Metin et al. came to in a 2016 paper published in Personality and Individual Differences. 

Here are some tips to help you fight boredom:

  • Try turning the task into a game. Complete a level every 15-25 minutes, then take a break for a small reward (Instagram, Facebook).
  • Use the Pomodoro timer to manage your breaks and keep yourself from getting too distracted. 
  • Professor Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests trying a psychological trick called “temptation bundling,” where you couple an activity you enjoy with the task you’re procrastinating on. For example, only watch your favorite TV show while doing the dishes. A 2014 experiment confirmed that participants were more likely to go to the gym if they could listen to an audiobook they were interested in during a workout. The study by Katherine Milkman et al. was published in the Management Science journal.
  • Make a list of all the good things that will happen once you’re done. For example, a promotion, praise, or out-performing your coworker for the month. You can also make up your own rewards: try a trip to the spa or a new gadget.

I’ve tried everything, but nothing works. What now?

Here are some other things you can try:
  • Brain teasers. Your brain will get used to intellectual stress and won’t shut down whenever you encounter a challenging task.
  • Take breaks every 30-40 minutes to take a short walk or grab a snack. This will keep your energy levels up throughout the day.
  • Tackle the most difficult tasks in the morning when you have the most energy. Or, if you’re a night owl, save challenging work for the evening.
Pay attention to your Stress & Energy levels in Welltory

It’s impossible to be productive if you’re tired or chronically stressed. This is because stress affects the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s command center responsible for thinking, concentrating, and making decisions.

When you’re stressed, the prefrontal cortex is flooded with hormones that essentially shut down the command center. It’s an evolutionary mechanism designed to help us escape danger without over-thinking.

This is perfect when you need to get away from a lion, but unfortunately not very helpful if you’re stressed about work that requires you to do a lot of thinking. Use the Welltory app to check your stress levels regularly and experiment with different relaxation techniques to figure out what helps you reduce stress.

Sync RescueTime with Welltory to track your productivity while Welltory analyzes what factors affect it most. If two data sets affect each other based on your individual health and data from RescueTime, we’ll let you know. This way, you have the info you need to become more efficient and feel better every day.

Besides the analytical data, we’ll also send you recommendations on how to use this information to change your day-to-day life — gradually and effortlessly.

Here are some tips to help you fight boredom:

I have to turn this in tomorrow, but can’t get started. What can I do?

We’ve put together a short instruction manual to help you out.

1. Make sure that you:

  • Know exactly why you’re doing the task (to boost sales, for example)
  • Know what the outcome should look like (a report with charts and numbers)
  • Know what you need to do to get there (get data from the sales department, read through some research, etc.)

If you don’t know these things, clarify them immediately.

2. Turn off all notifications and block access to websites that aren’t work-related.

3. Make a plan by breaking up the task into small pieces. Reward yourself after completing each one: spend 5 minutes on Facebook or get some coffee.

4. Write down your reasons for doing the task: a promotion or praise, for example. If that doesn’t help, promise to treat yourself to dinner at your favorite restaurant.

5. Do something physical every 40-60 minutes: take a walk or do some jumping jacks. If your task is physical (like construction work), solve a crossword puzzle or read for a bit every hour.

If nothing is working, go to bed and get up early. You might need rest and will be more productive after you get some sleep.

Welltory Team, upd. 12 Sept. 2022

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