What is true procrastination? Hint: it's not what most people think.

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I’ve set myself some big goals this year: build a house, launch a podcast, write a book. It’s daunting, exciting, challenging and if I’m honest, overwhelming. I need to be on my game if I’m going to get it all done.

As a rule I’m a do-er, with written goals, plans and to-do lists but I’d be lying if I said I was focused and driven every day. I have my periods of dilly-dallying and delaying. I put off the difficult ‘thinking’ activities when I’m tired and I lose minutes (if not hours) scrolling through my social feeds. I over commit and under deliver and many, many tasks take longer than I hope. It’s frustrating and disappointing and like most of us I berate myself for my failures and wonder if I will ever reach my goals.

‘I have to stop procrastinating and get something done!’ I wail, sure that my inability to stay focused stems from a lack of will-power or self-discipline.

I’m not alone. I hear clients, colleagues and friends lament their procrastination, convinced that they will achieve so much more if they’re less distracted, more focused, more committed and less, I don’t know, human?

As a psychologist I was keen to get to the bottom of this and find out what causes procrastination and how we can overcome it. It seems so all-pervasive and troubling to so many people and yet the common wisdom of, ‘Set a goal and a deadline,’ or ‘Just get started’ doesn’t seem to cut it as advice for most of us. So I did some digging into the psychological research and what I learnt utterly changed my perspective on this human foible...

What we call procrastination is often not procrastination at all.

We’re beating ourselves up unnecessarily.

For psychologists (the experts in human behaviour) procrastination is not avoiding unpleasant tasks or managing our time and tasks inefficiently. It’s not (necessarily) putting off until tomorrow what could be done today. It’s not repositioning a responsibility further down the priority list as more pressing issues arise. It’s not even setting yourself a goal and then taking absolutely no steps towards achieving it.

True procrastination is needlessly and irrationally putting off a task when we know the delay will compromise our performance and make us miserable.

We all delay. We all avoid unpleasant tasks. We all reprioritise and put things off until we’re in a better frame of mind or have more time or more information. This is not procrastination - unless by doing so we’re putting our performance at risk. This is being human and juggling a busy life.

True procrastination is when we delay a task unnecessarily, knowing that we will suffer as a result. Procrastination is not delayed progress towards a task with a deadline. It’s the absence of any progress at all, with a dose of self-flagellation thrown in.

Here’s an example (that may or may not come from lived experience)…

Imagine that I have an important 45-presentation to give to a large group. In order to deliver this well I must:

  • organise my ideas
  • research facts and figures
  • put a slide deck together
  • write up my notes
  • make sure that I’ve saved my slides to a memory stick
  • printed my notes,
  • and rehearse.

If I’ve had a week to prepare for this presentation and I spend:

  • 5 days avoiding the task altogether
  • 1.75 days sourcing the ‘perfect’ image for the title slide
  • 4 hours changing the slide theme and colours over and over
  • From midnight til 4.30am researching, writing, preparing the slide deck and rehearsing
  • Then I rush around in a panicked and sleep-deprived state trying to find a memory stick and paper for the printer…

I’ve been procrastinating for all but those final hours. My task performance will suffer (lack of rehearsal, poorly thought-through ideas, lack of research and I’m sleep deprived so I can’t think straight). By this stage I’m also beating myself up, ‘I should have started earlier’, ‘Why do I always leave everything until the last minute?’ ‘I’m going to make a mess of this big opportunity and I’ve only got myself to blame.’ It’s misery on every front.

Procrastination is not having trouble finding the motivation to start on a big project that has a self-imposed deadline, or no deadline at all. That’s delay. It’s not spending time on Facebook between tasks because your brain needs a few minutes of downtime. That’s relaxation (at best), time wasting at worst. Procrastination is not doing the grocery shopping later because right now you’re tired and you’d rather watch Netflix. That’s re-prioritising. Procrastination is all the unrelated tasks that you do when you know you have to study for a test and you’ll fail if you don’t but you still do the other tasks anyway.

Procrastination is actively avoiding getting your tax return done despite knowing that you’ll be hit with a fine that you know you can’t afford and you’ll agonise over it when it arrives in the mail.

Procrastination is a self-defeating, emotionally-laden and, for some of us, a chronic and debilitating behaviour.

For the rest of us, try relabelling ‘procrastination’ as ‘delay’ and see how it changes your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. If I berate myself for procrastinating I feel passive, irritated, frustrated and overwhelmed. I lose motivation and unless I get really angry with myself I take fewer steps to complete the task or achieve my goal. It creates a pessimistic, negative mindset.

If I relabel my behaviour as ‘delay’ I’m far more optimistic about my chance of getting the task done. I see myself as a busy but capable person juggling competing priorities. I feel confident that the task will get done, just not quite yet. I am motivated to find a time in my diary to work on the task rather that giving it up as a lost cause, and I’m kinder to myself. I don't accuse myself of being slack or reproach myself for my lack of focus. I accept that I'm human, that life gets in the way at times and that the important tasks will get done - eventually. 

It's a happier place to be.

In the coming weeks I'll be writing more about procrastination as I flesh out the structure of my new book (working title: Stop Stalling: The Science of Getting Stuff Done). In the meantime for more tips on procrastination and how to overcome it, read world-leading procrastination researcher Dr. Timothy Pychyl's insightful column 'Don't Delay' from Psychology Today and my absolutely all-time favourite, very amusing and slightly less scientific article on procrastination from Tim Urban of Wait But Why