What is procrastination and how to stop putting things off

Table of Contents

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is putting things off for no good reason, even when we know it can lead to negative consequences. Researchers have found three main criteria for procrastination:

  • counterproductive
  • needless
  • delaying

In other words, everything that doesn’t help you reach your goal, delays solving a problem, and doesn’t need to be done right now is procrastination. In classic time management theory, things you have to do throughout the day fall into 4 categories:

Productivity means doing things that are important, whether urgent or not.

Things that are not urgent or important — calling a colleague or creating a new app feature you don’t need, for example — are procrastination.

Procrastination is not the same thing as laziness or spending too much time on social networks. A lazy worker doesn’t have much motivation to begin with, which is why they don’t feel guilty about not working. It’s an opportunity to relax.

Procrastinators want to be great, but can’t force themselves to get to work. That’s where the psychological discomfort comes from.

This is why procrastination is always stressful and an energy drain.

Is procrastination a serious problem?

95% of people in the US procrastinate (the other 5% are lying). About 20% of us are chronic procrastinators. For example, office workers spend about 12 hours a week on tasks that aren’t job-related, costing US companies about $10,500 per employee every year.

Here are some other negative consequences of procrastination:

  • Money drain. 40% of procrastinators have lost money at least once due to procrastination. In 2002, people who put off doing their taxes until the last minute overpaid by $400 on average.
  • Health risk. A 20,000 person study concluded that 35% of people who found out they had high cholesterol delayed going to the doctor for 5 months on average. Procrastinators also drink more.
  • Unhappiness. 64% of procrastinators are constantly bogged down by feelings of guilt and shame.
  • Stress. Psychologist Fuschia Sirois has found that procrastinators have higher stress levels. Researchers from the Association for Psychological Science (APS) also observed that students who put off studying for exams had higher stress levels and lower exam scores.

Worse, the number of procrastinators has quadrupled over the past few years — a phenomenon researchers link to economic shifts and technological advances.

How to force yourself to do something

Basically, your brain is your own worst enemy.

Chinese neuroscientists used tomograms from 132 volunteers to create a brain profile for procrastinators. They found that a procrastinator has an overly active ventromedial prefrontal cortex and parahippocampal cortex, which weakens signals from the brain’s command center and strengthens more emotional signals from the limbic system.

What does this mean?

Every time we have to take on a complex, long, boring, or irritating task, the brain fights itself.

In one corner of the boxing ring is the limbic system, which always wants to have fun and is driven by primal instincts. According to Timothy A. Pychyl, author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, says the limbic system directs you to opt for “immediate mood repair.”

In the other corner is the prefrontal cortex — a relatively new part of the brain that helps us make long-term plans, think through our decisions, and focus on tasks that require a lot of brainpower. It’s located right behind your forehead, which might why people who are trying to concentrate will often touch the forehead.

The problem is that the prefrontal cortex requires a lot of energy to function properly.

Once you run out of energy, your limbic system takes over and sends you right back to Facebook, where you’ll waste hours scrolling through your feed.

This is how you end up procrastinating.

Is procrastination a genetic thing?

In 2014, a University of Colorado study of 347 same-sex twin pairs found that procrastination is moderately heritable (about 46%). The study also found that procrastination is linked to impulsivity — the two traits are passed on through the same genes.

Why? Impulsivity helped our ancestors make decisions quickly in order to avoid danger and survive. Procrastination, on the other hand, evolved as a defense mechanism to keep us from making rash decisions. This is why impulsive people are also prone to procrastination.

But not everything is about genetics. For example, authoritarian parents who don’t let their kids decide anything for themselves often end up raising procrastinators.

In the 1980s, researcher Esther Rothblum and her colleagues found that children of overly critical parents often prefer avoiding tasks altogether instead of running the risk of making a mistake. A 2002 Canadian study confirmed the finding, clarifying that authoritarian fathers are produce higher procrastination outcomes than authoritarian mothers.

It doesn’t matter if the child submits or rebels — procrastination is always the outcome. Children who submit will only do tasks if there is a penalty for avoiding them and put off doing everything else. Children who rebel will procrastinate no matter what in an attempt to fight parental control.

Is procrastination bad?

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. The majority of 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. Specialist Counselling Psychologist Anna Abramowski says that procrastination can lead to discovering information that will make your work better.  For example, Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network, is a notorious procrastinator. In his interview with NBC, he told Katie Couric: “Well, Katie, you call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”
  • It helps you get rid of tasks you don’t actually 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 are things which people like to put off doing?

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

Timothy A Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University and author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, has 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
  • is not rewarding, meaning you don’t get any joy out of the process

Piers Steel and other proponents of temporal motivation theory (TMT) say the following factors influence motivation:

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

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.

For example, 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 easy to distract
  • a month is enough to get the job done, but not so much time that you’ll start putting it off

Aside from the task itself, your profession can also impact how much you procrastinate. Researchers from DePaul University, for example, have found that white collar workers are more likely to procrastinate than blue collar workers. And people who work for themselves (lawyers, for example) procrastinate more than anyone else.

Procrastinatoin and personality

Researcher Piers Steel analyzed 216 projects completed by his colleagues and found correlations between procrastination and personality traits. The paper focuses on the “Big Five” traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Neurotic people don’t have much self-confidence, don’t handle stress well, and suffer from perfectionism. They procrastinate because they are afraid of:

  • discovering they are incompetent, disappointing self and others.
  • not doing the task well enough and being penalized for it.
  • doing the task too well and being asked to take on more work as a result.

People who are low on agreeableness are unfriendly, argumentative, and are also likely to procrastinate. Their main motive is to rebel against pressure and perceived attempts to control them.

Extraverts put things off because they’re impulsive and like to experience life to the fullest. Pushing deadlines is par for the course for them. People who are low on conscientiousness procrastinate because they get distracted often, are bad at time management and have a skewed perception of the future. An experiment by psychologist Hal Hershfield revealed that some people think of their future selves the same way they think of strangers, which means they have trouble thinking through the consequences of their actions.

Openness, on the other hand, isn’t correlated with procrastination at all.

Another study has shown that people low on self-compassion are more likely to both procrastinate and be stressed about procrastinating. Remember to be kind to yourself!

Am I procrastinating?

Pay attention to how you feel and what you’re doing.

  • If you don’t know where to begin, the task is likely big and complicated. You’re freaked out by the amount of work you have to do.
  • If you’re waiting for inspiration, it means you don’t understand how to solve the problem in front of you.
  • If you’re easily distracted, you lack motivation.

The same applies if you’re late all the time. Are you ever late to a movie you’re dying to see? Or to a meeting when your boss is angry? If you find yourself hitting the snooze button every day, think about why that is.

If you’re always pushing back deadlines or waiting to start a project the same day it’s due, you’re probably a perfectionist who doesn’t want to look bad. You’re using the deadline as an excuse: “I didn’t do it because I ran out of time, not because I’m incompetent.”

If you can’t think straight, have brain fog, or just don’t want to do anything, you’re most likely suffering from chronic stress and very low energy.

Constant procrastination is a reason to re-evaluate your line of work. Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., says that procrastination is often a sign that your occupation doesn’t align with your interests. If you’re unhappy, perhaps it’s time for a career change.

How to measure procrastination?

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

Then, set up lists so that 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’re spending on sites you don’t need. Supplement this information with regular Welltory measurements and data about your sleep, steps, and nutrition to figure out 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 to fight procrastination

For procrastinators, the toughest part is getting started. Timothy Pychyl recommends breaking up the task into small pieces and keep 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 long 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 250 words every 15 minutes, 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: either immediately or put it off to a definite time in the future. Do not ignore it.
  • 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 causing the amygdala to take charge, 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 a standby mode for months.
  • Determine your main task for the day. It will help your cortex prioritize tasks and shut down any distractions.


You need to re-think it. An HR Magazine poll of 4,000 employees revealed that 46% of them get unclear assignments from management. 37% aren’t sure what is being asked of them at least once a day. 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? For example, a report on the effectiveness of your company’s marketing strategy can be clarified as follows:

  • Why? — to understand whether or not you need a new strategy
  • What? — a report that analyzes the campaign’s costs and profits, followed by conclusions and recommendations
  • How? — get data from the marketing and sales departments, supplement with statistics from the website, then compare

After a task has been clarified, you can make a more specific plan of action. Re-thinking tasks can even help you stop procrastinating outside of work. For example, say you’re travelling 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.


You need motivation. Research has shown that employees who do a lot of routine work end up “cyberslacking” — browsing the Internet in search of amusement. An Eindhoven University of Technology study of 166 white collar workers has confirmed that boring work makes people procrastinate. 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, online shopping). Use Pomodoro timer to manage your breaks and keep yourself from getting too distracted. Katy Milkman from University of Pennsylvania suggests trying a psychological trick called “temptation bundling”: Only do the thing you love while doing the thing you procrastinate on. For example, only watch your favorite TV show while doing the dishes. A Wharton School experiment has confirmed that participants were more likely to go to the gym if they could only listen to an audiobook they were interested in during a workout.

Finally, make a list of all the good things that will happen once you’re done. For example, a promotion, praise, or out-performing your co-worker for the month. You can also make up your own rewards: try a trip to the spa or a new gadget.

How to keep distractions away

You have two options: physically limit access to distractions or create pressure artificially. The first thing you need to do is block all websites that are not work-related. People spend 47% of their time on the Internet procrastinating, and 36% of us waste at least 1 hour a day on e-mails and social networks.

Some apps to help you out: Freedom, Rescue Time, Cold Turkey, Stay Focused. If your phone is the problem, try downloading Offtime (iOS; Android), BreakFree (iOS; Android) or Forest (iOS; Android). You can also just shut off your Internet.

Set up an accountability system by having a friend or coworker to check in every couple of hours and ask how much work you did. You can even use a site like Stickk — it lets you bet money on how much you’ll be able to get done.

If you do a lot of writing, try working in Flowstate — it will delete your work if you get distracted for too long.

Finally, try breaking up your deadlines into smaller time units. Instead of one month, you only have 22 work days. Instead of 2 days, you have 48 hours. Studies show that people started saving for retirement earlier when they realized they only have 14,600 days left, not 40 years.

Procrastination and stress levels

Pay attention to your stress and energy levels.

It’s impossible to be productive if you’re tired or chronically stressed. This is because stress affects the prefrontal cortex — the command center of the brain 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.

Here are some other things you can try:

  • Brain teasers. Your brain will get used to intellectual stress and won’t shut down every time you come across 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 tough work for the evening.

6 Steps to stop procrastinate

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 (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 all of 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.

6. If you can, try combining pain with pleasure: write your report in the bathtub or make an outline while you get a massage.

If nothing is working, go to bed and get up early. You’re probably tired and will be more productive after you get some sleep.

Welltory Team, 23 Dec. 2021

Share on twitter
Share on facebook

Learn more

How to reach flow state

Flow is a state of mind available to virtually everyone in both work and leisure. There are a number of things you can try in order to expand your capacity to enter flow.

How to boost your creativity?

Creative people have the courage and vision to make unorthodox decisions. Find out whether genes determine your creativity and how to flourish with ideas.