The puzzling psychology of procrastination and how to stop it
Can't break a pattern of procrastination? Here Dr Fuschia Sirois explains the scientifically-backed ways to get back on task.
You’re procrastinating right now, aren’t you? Don’t worry, we’re not judging. But we are here to tell you that you're not alone: an estimated 20 per cent of adults (and above 50 per cent of students) regularly procrastinate.
In fact, procrastination – defined as voluntarily and unnecessarily delaying a task – is so widespread that scientists have even found evidence of the behaviour in pigeons.
So, why do so many people procrastinate? What causes it? And, most importantly, how can you stop procrastinating?
Let’s not put off answering these questions any longer. With the help of the University of Sheffield's Dr Fuschia Sirois, a researcher who has dedicated 20 years to the topic, here’s a beginner’s guide to the psychology of procrastination.
What causes procrastination?
It would be easy to say – as your mum probably does – that procrastination is the result of poor time management or, worse, sheer laziness. But the science simply doesn't back this up.
“There hasn’t been any convincing scientific evidence to say procrastination is the result of poor time management. But we can easily say it’s all to do with mood management,” Sirois says.
“At its core, procrastination is about not being able to manage your moods and emotions. Although many think impulsivity and self-control are the problems – and they do play a factor – underneath is a poor emotional response.”
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As Sirois explains, every person faces stressful situations, demanding tasks that trigger brain activity that involves a brain region known amygdala. And it’s the amygdala that processes emotions and signals threats, capable of prompting a 'fight or flight' response linked to procrastination.
“Interestingly, people who say they are chronic procrastinators tend to have larger grey matter volume in the amygdala,” says Sirois.
“This means they will also be more sensitive to the potential negative consequences of their actions, leading to more negative emotions and procrastination.”
Another factor strongly linked to procrastination: temporal thinking. Or, to put it more plainly, how close you see the current version of yourself to yourself in the future.
If you’re a normal person, chances are that you suck at temporal thinking. Really suck. In fact, studies conducted at The University of California, Los Angeles have indicated you probably imagine the future version of yourself as a completely different person altogether.
Using functional MRI scans, researchers discovered that different sections of the brain are activated when we process information about our present and future selves. And that when we imagine our future self, the same regions of the brain are activated as when we think of a stranger.
“This is important as if you perceive your future self this way then it’s easier to do something that might harm that person, leaving them a huge task rather than doing it yourself now,” explains Sirois.
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“As your future self might feel psychologically distant to you now, you might also see them as a kind of superhero. You might say ‘Future me will have all the ideas because they’ll be well-rested’ or ‘Future me won’t have writers’ block.’
"However, the truth is that we really don’t change much in a short period of time.”
If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you’re probably well-versed in this fallacy. Fortunately, however, there is some evidence suggesting there’s an easy way to improve your temporal thinking: do it more often.
For instance, one intriguing Applied Psychology study of university students found that those who imagined a version of themself merely two months in the future (“from a third and a first-person perspective”) for 10 minutes twice a week were found to be less likely to procrastinate.
As the researchers concluded, such a practice was “effective at increasing an altruistic motivation towards [a future self], mainly by procrastinating less in the present.”
Is procrastination bad for your health?
In short, procrastination can cause a lot more problems than missed deadlines. Over decades Sirois has examined the impact of chronic procrastinating on a person’s health, her findings worrying at best – and downright terrifying at worst.
“People who chronically procrastinate – people who make it a habit – have higher levels of stress and a greater number of acute health problems. They are more likely to have headaches or insomnia or digestive issues. And they’re more susceptible to the flu and colds.”
Even more alarming, Sirois has found that procrastination is a factor that can lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, with chronic procrastinators more likely to put off healthy behaviour such as exercise.
People who chronically procrastinate have been shown to not only perform worst as students, but also earn less money and have jobs with lesser perceived value to them.
Studies have also shown procrastination leads to lower self-esteem, fewer visits to the dentists and even a lack of 'Household safety behaviours' (for instance, checking to see if the fire alarm is working – extremely concerning considering there are an estimated 37,000 house fires a year in the UK).
How to stop procrastinating
As you might have guessed by now, procrastination is a big problem. But fortunately, psychologists know this and have been searching for effective methods to tackle it.
First, there are the many quick-fix procrastination aids. For example, one compelling Psychological Science paper described how downsizing larger metrics of time (think 48 hours instead of 2 days, or 10,950 days instead of 30 years) can make events seem more immediate, prompting people to engage in upcoming tasks.
However, for Sirois, there are two primary ways of reducing procrastination at its root cause: self-compassion and cognitive re-framing.
“I think people don't realise that procrastinators, especially chronic procrastinators, are extremely hard on themselves – before and after the task. And rather than getting on with the job, they just go round and round spinning their wheels,” she says.
“My advice is to not go full in overidentifying and becoming that frustration. Step back from it for a minute and just acknowledge that you're not happy with yourself. And then move forward.
“It's basically about recognising that everybody screws up. You're not the first person to procrastinate, nor will you be the last. Welcome to the human race.”
The data increasingly support this theory. For example, in a study of 750 people, Sirois found a firm link between procrastinating and lower levels of self-compassion (those more likely to judge themselves harshly, believing they suffer from the problem alone).
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But what does this all mean practically? First off, as Sirois contends, mindfulness exercises have been linked to greater self-compassion and lower procrastination levels.
As one study published in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology found, those who completed a mere three-minute mindfulness exercise (involving “audio instructions intended to induce non-judgmental awareness and attention to present body sensations, including breath”) had less tendency to procrastinate afterwards.
(You can find such breathing audio exercises through the NHS, such as this instructional video.)
“These exercises help you take a little perspective, preventing you from running down a bad road of negative emotions that lead to procrastination,” Sirois explains.
Sirois also points to a recent unpublished study conducted by PhD student Sisi Yang. Experimenting with students that had a task they were procrastinating on – or they predicted they would procrastinate on – the participants were divided into several groups.
One group were encouraged to think about happy thoughts by engaging in certain activities (think watching videos of kittens). Another group were asked to reframe the upcoming task as something meaningful, pondering questions such as:
- How will completing this goal be valuable in how you see yourself?
- How will completing this goal be valuable in how others see you?
- How will completing this goal be valuable to my personal growth?
Interestingly, when monitoring the activity of all participants over the next few days, the second group procrastinated less.
“It's about reappraising. Seeing something as more meaningful. And when you create meaning, you create a connection to the task,” says Sirois.
“Finding meaning in the task, whether it's in relation to yourself or other people, is really, really powerful. And it's a great way to start that reappraisal process and dial down some of those negative emotions or at least make them more manageable.”
About our expert, Dr Fuschia Sirois
Dr Sirois is a reader at the Department of Psychology in the University of Sheffield, primarily examining behaviour regulation. She is head of the Self-Regulation in Health & Well-Being Lab and her research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals such as Health Psychology, Social Science and Medicine, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Quality of Life Research and the Journal of Behavioural Medicine.
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Thomas is Digital editor at BBC Science Focus. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in astronomy and the latest psychology, health and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards. Also working in academia, Thomas has lectured on the topic of journalism to undergraduate and postgraduates at The University of Sheffield.