Procrastination is an interesting concept in our culture.
Perceptions of procrastination range from being the topic of jokes to being associated with mental illness (Svartdal, Granmo, & Farevaag, 2018). But what is the truth about this ubiquitous behavior?
As a college instructor, I deal with student procrastination every semester, often resulting in end-of-term complications.
I’ve been guilty of it myself. Although I’m much better than I used to be, I’m still curious about procrastination.
How does it affect wellbeing and physiology?
More importantly, how can we overcome this tendency? Is there an app for that?
To get these answers, let’s explore procrastination, beginning with the psychology of procrastination.
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This Article Contains:
- What Is Procrastination According to Psychology?
- 6 Causes According to Research
- 2 Real-Life Examples of Procrastination
- How to Overcome Procrastination: 3 Techniques
- Procrastination Coaching and Therapy: 2 Tips
- Using CBT to Overcome Procrastination
- 5 Helpful Worksheets, Apps, & Games
- 12 Questions, Tests, & Questionnaires for Clients
- Top 2 Books on the Topic
- PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Procrastination According to Psychology?
Procrastination has existed throughout history and across cultures, appearing in folk tales and songs. In 44 BC, the Roman politician Cicero denounced Antonius’s chronic slowness and procrastination as “hateful” (Steel, 2007).
Is procrastination merely slowness? According to Klassen, Krawchuk, and Rajani (2008, p. 916), “procrastination consists of the intentional delay of an intended course of action, in spite of an awareness of negative outcomes.”
Reviewing the history of procrastination, Steel (2007) stated that although it has existed throughout history, it increasingly assumed negative connotations with the start of the industrial revolution.
We know that technologically advanced societies mandate various commitments and deadlines, whereas agrarian and undeveloped societies do not (Steel, 2007).
Bearing in mind the connotation of procrastination as negative, we can assume there are associated consequences.
Physiological consequences of procrastination
Procrastination is linked to higher levels of stress and lower wellbeing (Jaffe, 2013; Stead, Shanahan, & Neufeld, 2010; Hairston & Shpitalni, 2016). Specifically, “[a]nxiety and depression are positively correlated with self-report and behavioral measures of procrastination” (Stead et al., 2010, p. 175).
Hairston and Shpitalni (2016) link procrastination to negative affect and self-reported sleep disturbances.
Other adverse effects of procrastination include “increased stress, lower task performance, reduced wellbeing, regret and suffering, and risk of mental and physical illness” (Svartdal et al., 2018, p. 2).
Considering the overall cultural condition of time poverty, why do people avoid tasks, preferring to peruse the internet or occupy themselves with Candy Crush?
6 Causes According to Research
No single cause can be attributed to procrastination.
The following is not a comprehensive list of the causes of procrastination; however, it reflects common correlations.
Neuroticism is similar to worrying, trait anxiety, or negative affect (Steel, 2007). Subcategories of note include irrational beliefs, cognitions, or thoughts; low self-efficacy and self-esteem; self-handicapping; impulsivity, sensation seeking; and depression.
Steel’s (2007, p. 81) research shows that the correlation between procrastination and neuroticism “appears to be due almost entirely to impulsiveness.”
Impulsive people procrastinate, preferring to focus on desires of the moment (Steel, 2007; Svartdal et al., 2018) rather than the drudgery of tasks. This form of procrastination stems from pursuit of “immediate gratification, neglecting or ignoring longer term responsibilities” (Steel, 2007, p. 70).
Conscientiousness includes variables such as distractibility (self-control), poor organization (structuring and planning life), low achievement motivation (goal setting, enjoyment of performance), and a gap between intention and action (Steel, 2007).
According to Steel (2007, p. 81), “procrastination does appear to be representative of low conscientiousness and self-regulatory failure.”
4. Lack of self-confidence or low self-efficacy
Stemming from a fear of failure, both low self-efficacy and low self-esteem are associated with procrastination (Steel, 2007). Low self-efficacy is seen as irrational doubts in our ability to do well. Low self-esteem is the belief that “any failure to perform to standard suggests inadequacy as a person” (Steel, 2007, p. 69).
5. Discomfort dodging (task aversion)
Discomfort dodging includes putting off a task “because some parts of it are associated with uncomfortable and, possibly anxious, feelings” (Knaus, 1979, p. 5). The goal of discomfort dodging is to avoid bad feelings.
In his 1979 book Do It Now, William J. Knaus included a chapter on the association between perfectionism and procrastination. He states that perfectionism is unrealistic and linked to fear of failure. Others (Dexter, 2020; Phillips, 2019) also cite perfectionism as a source of procrastination.
However, Steel (2007, p. 81), an expert in the field, gives procrastination less credit, citing, “procrastinators are actually less likely, not more, to be perfectionists.”
2 Real-Life Examples of Procrastination
Procrastination is not new and does not discriminate.
Hannah Lamarque (2017) describes some famous procrastinators that few would expect.
1. Bill Clinton
This former president was notorious for failing to follow through and being cursed by distraction. So notorious was his latent reputation that in 1994, Time Magazine published an article about it. Further, his own vice president, Al Gore, characterized him as “punctually challenged” (Lamarque, 2017).
2. Leonardo Da Vinci
One of the greatest and most well-known artists of all time also contended with procrastination. It’s hard to conceive, considering his body of work, but Da Vinci struggled with focus. The Mona Lisa, one of his most notable masterpieces, took 16 years to complete.
Other works such as the Virgin of the Rocks took 13 years. So intense was Da Vinci’s proclivity for procrastination that his own benefactor threatened bankruptcy to motivate him.
It’s reassuring to know that procrastination is an equal opportunity malady. To offer a hand to those who struggle with it, let’s review some expert advice.
How to Overcome Procrastination: 3 Techniques
One of the cinema’s favorite nannies, Mary Poppins, sings the tune Well Begun is Half Done in an effort to encourage Jane and Michael to do their chores, paving a path to the first of three recommendations.
1. The 5-minute rule
When the brain is overwhelmed by a task, it can result in anxiety and avoidance. Bariso (2021) suggests a simple technique he calls the five-minute rule.
He advises committing to the task for five minutes with the stipulation that you can quit after that time if the task is overwhelming. Also known as chunking, this method breaks tasks into feasible portions.
Because task initiation often creates the roadblock, this method helps procrastinators clear the first hurdle. Thank you, Mary Poppins.
2. Visualization (mental rehearsal)
Visualization is an ongoing process that can be productively directed (Peper, Harvey, Lin, & Duvvuri, 2014). Imagining successful completion of a task makes the realization more likely. This process is familiar to athletes and artists.
These five steps can guide the process.
- Think of a past behavior or conflict that ended in disappointment.
- Understand that under the circumstances, you handled it the only way you could.
- Consider, “How could I have handled this with the wisdom I have now?”
- Now, think back to that same situation. Immerse yourself in it as if it is recurring, using all of your senses. Be as specific as possible. This time, imagine yourself behaving masterfully.
- Congratulate yourself for programming your own future.
In Unwinding Anxiety, Judson Brewer (2021) discusses both procrastination and the worry loop that leads to it.
Brewer describes the standard habit loop as trigger, behavior, result. Avoiding a project can feel better in the moment than starting it. He suggests using mindfulness to build awareness of feelings associated with procrastination.
In the future, try doing a task early or on time, noticing what that feels like. The positive feelings associated with timely task completion can be used to build a new habit loop.
This video, created for medical students, introduces a useful equation for understanding procrastination and suggests seven remedies.
Procrastination Coaching and Therapy: 2 Tips
Knowing that there are ways to overcome procrastination, here are two tips for the therapist who has to deal with this phenomenon.
1. Appreciative inquiry
Appreciative inquiry was developed by Cooperrider and Srivastva (1987), with the help of graduate students at Case Western University in the 1980s. The concept is based on “powerful assumptions about human change that are positive and life generating by nature” (Binkert & Clancy, 2011, p. 287).
This strengths-based and solution-focused paradigm is premised on human potential and social constructionism. Adherents believe that clients can reinvent themselves through language, using three fundamental principles:
- “what people focus on becomes their reality;
- the language people use creates their reality; and
- in every individual, something works” (Orem, Binkert, & Clancy, 2007, p. 40).
The application to coaching is realized through asking life-enhancing appreciative inquiry questions, watching for pivotal moments as clients begin to view themselves in a new light, and helping the client move forward, taking parts of their past that are positive and comforting (Binkert & Clancy, 2011).
2. Motivational interviewing
Motivational interviewing (MI) is an optimistic approach to change based on research, experience, and the belief that clients are more likely to change when they believe they can (Souders, 2019).
Drawing on the strength of self-talk, MI techniques encourage change talk. Grounded in self-determination theory, MI attends to three basic psychological needs:
Self-determination theory techniques are also used by professional sports coaches, such as Pete Carroll (Stetka, 2016).
This interdisciplinary method helps clients reduce ambivalence often associated with change. Its application is common in psychology and fields such as medicine and criminal justice.
This SlideShare was originally developed to help criminal justice practitioners implement MI. It explains concepts such as change talk, rolling with resistance, and using the acronym OARS.
Using CBT to Overcome Procrastination
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another effective tool to motivate change in clients.
In CBT, the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and feelings is explored and discussed. Research shows that anxiety and avoidance may explain procrastination. As reviewed earlier, procrastination is a behavior used to avoid uncomfortable feelings (Dexter, 2020).
This therapeutic approach focuses on the present and is goal oriented. It utilizes cognition to treat emotional and behavioral disorders and operates with the premise that changes in thoughts can be highly effective for treating deep-seated issues (Orem et al., 2007).
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has been proven effective as a tool to improve self-esteem and self-worth (McKay & Fanning, 2016), sometimes associated with procrastination. Using the power of self-talk to recognize and tame the inner critic, this method ignites the client’s rational, healthy voice (Sutton, 2021).
5 Helpful Worksheets, Apps, & Games
Below are three worksheets to help clients work through issues related to procrastination as well as a collection of apps and therapy games.
1. Reward Replacement Worksheet
Using procrastination as their behavior change goal, clients can use the Reward Replacement Worksheet to analyze the costs and rewards of procrastination and consider behavior change.
2. Problem Solving Worksheet for Adults
This Problem Solving Worksheet helps clients identify a problem, break it into smaller steps, and set a course of action, listing the pros and cons of each option.
3. Building New Habits
Building New Habits walks clients through the habit loop, including reward implementation, creating motivation for positive action.
4. HabitHub App
HabitHub, a habit and goal tracker app, motivates clients to complete to-do lists with easy-to-understand color schemes for daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.
Task reminder options range from many to few. I have incorporated this app for health and wellness routines as well as work-related tasks. Yes, there’s an app for that.
Available for Android.
Available for iOS (coming soon).
5. Triskelion eLearning game
Triskelion from Gamelearn is a role-playing simulation course for overcoming procrastination and maximizing personal productivity and time management skills.
Students learn to plan and prioritize projects and discover techniques that can be used daily to manage tasks, improve efficiency, and achieve goals.
12 Questions, Tests, & Questionnaires for Clients
As we have seen through motivational interviewing, powerful questions can lead clients to revelations, evoking new thoughts about their own potential. Below are six examples from Catherine Moore, author of 100 Most Powerful Life Coaching Questions (2019):
- What will success look like?
- How will you know you’ve achieved your goal?
- How might you turn these steps into a plan?
- How will you prepare for each step?
- How do you plan to motivate yourself when obstacles arise?
- What are some ways to motivate yourself to get started?
I’ve added four questions of my own:
- What one word describes how you feel during or after procrastination? Explain.
- What type of tasks do you tend to procrastinate on the most?
- If your self-talk is negative, do you know where that voice comes from?
- Think of a time you felt amazing about the work you do. How did it feel? Why?
These questions allow the client to reflect on emotions that when overlooked, create non-productive habit loops, keeping in mind that what gets rewarded, gets repeated.
Procrastination can be prevalent among students. This questionnaire from the Oregon State University’s Academic Success Center website, cleverly named Procrasti-Not, is geared toward students and holistic in nature. The questions seek to identify which life domains are more prone to procrastination.
Top 2 Books on the Topic
Thoroughly getting on top of a topic means extending your knowledge, and reading our recommended books are just what you need.
1. Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastination and Get More Done in Less Time – Brian Tracy
Eat That Frog is touted as one of the most popular time management books in history and is available in 42 languages.
The author embraces the premise that hitting your most undesirable task first thing in the morning means you start the day having accomplished a great thing.
Further, Tracy addresses perseveration that leads to procrastination.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind – Judson Brewer
This book reviews the state of anxiety in current times and how anxiety drives bad habits (procrastination being one) and addictive behaviors.
Brewer presents a solution-focused program for overcoming anxiety.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
We have a selection of resources that can aid mental healthcare practitioners with procrastinating clients.
The article 100 Most Powerful Life Coaching Questions [+PDF] by Catherine Moore (2019) provides helpful questions and resources for therapists, coaches, and anyone else looking to uncover issues. Moore also explains the GROW model and provides specific questions for coaching managers and leaders.
A series of simple worksheets are helpful for walking clients through individual steps toward their goal, using the acronym GROW. The worksheets include the following step-by-step process.
- G Stands for Goal helps clients identify goals.
- R Stands For REALITY allows clients to identify where they are with their goal and identify obstacles.
- O Stands for Options helps clients identify options and their energy resources for reaching their goals.
- W Stands For WAY FORWARD aids clients in setting up steps and sub-steps for reaching their goal. One of the strengths of this worksheet is the accountability piece and establishing a reward system for the accomplished goal.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Surprisingly, it has been my pleasure to explore procrastination. I’ve discovered apps, worksheets, questions, books, and other valuable resources that I’ve already implemented to improve work hygiene.
In 1979, Knaus described distractions such as “chain-smoking, overeating, sleeping, playing solitaire, doing pushups” (1979, p. 21). Forty-two years later, technological advancements have situated the temptation to procrastinate in the palm of our hands – no pushups necessary.
Students have been the target of many procrastination studies, but they’re not alone.
We are all different, and when addressing the gap between intention and action, it’s vital to create a plan that suits your personality type.
This article was completed on time, and it felt like an accomplishment because for me, procrastination is no joke.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Bariso, J. (2021, June 13). Emotionally intelligent people embrace the 5-minute rule. www.inc.com. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/emotionally-intelligent-people-embrace-5-minute-rule.html
- Binkert, J., & Clancy, A. L. (2011). Appreciative inquiry. In L. Wildflower & D. Brennan (Eds.), The handbook of knowledge-based coaching: From theory to practice. Jossey-Bass.
- Brewer, J. A. (2021). Unwinding anxiety: New science shows how to break the cycles of worry and fear to heal your mind. Avery.
- Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 1(1), 129–169.
- Dexter, M. (2020, March 28). Social anxiety and procrastination: What “I can’t” might really mean. National Social Anxiety Center. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/2020/03/28/social-anxiety-and-procrastination-what-i-cant-might-really-mean/
- Hairston, I. S., & Shpitalni, R. (2016). Procrastination is linked with insomnia symptoms: The moderating role of morningness-eveningness. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 50–56.
- Jaffe, E. (2013, March 29). Why wait? The science behind procrastination. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved July 5, 2021, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-wait-the-science-behind-procrastination
- Klassen, R. M., Krawchuk, L. L., & Rajani, S. (2008). Academic procrastination of undergraduates: Low self-efficacy to self-regulate predicts higher levels of procrastination. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(4), 915–931.
- Knaus, W. J. (1979). Do it now. Prentice-Hall.
- Lamarque, H. (2017, January 12). Top 10 most famous procrastinators in the world. Career Addict. Retrieved July 21, 2021, from https://www.careeraddict.com/top-10-most-famous-procrastinators-in-the-world
- McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem. New Harbinger.
- Moore, C. (2019, October 22). 100 Most powerful life coaching questions [+PDF]. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://positivepsychology.com/life-coaching-questions/
- Orem, S. L., Binkert, J., & Clancy, A. L. (2007). Appreciative coaching: A positive process for change. Jossey-Bass.
- Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, I. M., & Duvvuri, P. (2014). Increase productivity, decrease procrastination, and increase energy. Biofeedback, 42(2), 82–87.
- Phillips, L. (2019, October 24). Procrastination: An emotional struggle. Counseling Today. Retrieved July 22, 2021, from https://ct.counseling.org/2019/10/procrastination-an-emotional-struggle/#
- Souders, B. (2019, November 5). 17 Motivational interviewing questions and skills. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from https://positivepsychology.com/motivational-interviewing/
- Stead, R., Shanahan, M. J., & Neufeld, R. W. (2010). “I’ll go to therapy, eventually”: Procrastination, stress, and mental health. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 175–180.
- Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94.
- Stetka, B. (2016). How to coach like an Olympian. Scientific American Mind, 27(4), 45–49.
- Sutton, J. (2021, July 24). How to boost self-esteem: 12 Simple exercises & CBT tools. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from https://positivepsychology.com/self-esteem-boost-exercises/
- Svartdal, F., Granmo, S., & Farevaag, F. S. (2018). On the behavioral side of procrastination: Exploring behavioral delay in real-life Settings. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.
- Tracy, B. (2017). Eat that frog! 21 Great ways to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time. Berrett-Koehler.
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What our readers think
Brilliant article. I see aspects of myself in all the 6 causes of procrastination listed, nice to see them listed like this, where one can examine why they think the way they do… complete with references for further reading and tools for therapy. Procrastination can become a severe, career/lifestyle destroying problem left unchecked, negative beliefs formed over a lifetime. Guilt, shame and disappointment become unbearable by midlife. I am still procrastinating my social life more than a year after covid lockdowns, and struggles with productivity when working from home resulted in me forming rigid beliefs such as I am simply not capable of working in the afternoon, at all, even after returning to the office.
When it gets this far, really need therapy not just an ADHD diagnosis and throw some meds at it. (meds not helpful in my case, I tried).
There are so many “how to beat procrastination 10 tips” type articles that are basic, patronising and really just cover how to set goals followed by “just start it, go on!”.
I’d also add one potential cause: Demand avoidance, which we all do to some degree. But when its pathological demand avoidance it can be associated with autism
A highly informative article that must be read by all people who wants to deal with mind strongholds of procrastination which are obstacles to our Divine Predestined success and prosperity.
Well researched and informative article.