Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How NOT to procrastinate

My students just finished a big project for one of my classes. I have them start on it in the middle of the semester, because I don't want them to procrastinate. There is no time at the end of the term for me to grade late submissions, so I impose mini-deadlines over the last half of the semester to help them stay on task. An outline, list of references, rough draft, then the big final paper. It works for most students. Except for the ones who procrastinate so much, they miss all of the mini-deadlines. But there's not much I can do to help them.

Why do people procrastinate, anyway? It comes down to several factors: how well the task at hand fits your life goals, the length of time you have before a deadline (and incipient reward), and your personality.

Goals  "Procrastination is about not having projects in your life that really reflect your goals," says psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl (Director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University).

Have you ever stopped to really think about what you want out of life? What you stand for? What you want to accomplish? We all have our dreams when we are young, but many of us get a job that pays the bills, and grander aspirations go out the window. When was the last time you really sat down to think about what you want to accomplish in your life? About what matters to you?

Chris Guillebeau at the Art of Non-Conformity makes a living helping others to figure out their goals and find ways to accomplish them. Check out Chris' Brief Guide to World Domination (he likes to give his projects subtle names), and check out his manifesto for what he considers the two most important questions in the world. Think about them carefully. Does your work reflect your goals? If you are procrastinating, it probably doesn't.

The Time Factor  Really big projects, like the one I gave my students, often come with a delayed deadline. The idea is that you will need extra time to do the job well. But scientists have found that delayed deadlines mean delayed rewards, and when rewards are delayed, people choose to do other activities that provide a more immediate reward. Why work on a project that might get you praise from your boss next week, when you can bask in the admiration of your peers for your ability to spin a basketball on your finger right now?

It turns out that the delay to gratification plays a big role in the choices that we make, and this holds true for both humans and non-human animals.. Scientists are studying the phenomenon of patience (see this paper by Stevens and Stephens for an overview) to better understand how time delay influences the decisions individuals make. A desire for immediate rewards contributes to procrastination.

Personality  I have written a post, or two, on personality. Personality influences all areas of our lives, including the tendency to procrastinate. Using the big five personality traits, researchers have found particular traits increase procrastination. In particular, people who score low on conscientiousness and high on impulsivity procrastinate more. And people who score higher on neuroticism tend to experience more anxiety, which can lead to postponement.

"Procrastinators postpone getting started because of a fear of failure (I am so worried that I will bungle this assignment), the fear of ultimately making a mistake (I need to make sure the outcome will be perfect), and the fear of success (If I do well, people will expect more of me all the time. Therefore, I'll put the assignment off utnil the last minute, do it poorly, and people won't expect so much of me.)" ~Trish Gura, Procrastinating Again? How to Kick the Habit, Scientific American Mind, Dec. 2008

How NOT to Procrastinate  So how can we stop procrastinating? Setting several smaller deadlines has been shown to help people overcome the problems associated with delay. In addition, individuals who set more frequent deadlines tend to do better work as compared with those who postpone until the very end. Procrastinators often rush to finish their work and submit projects riddled with errors (this is true for scientists submitting grant applications and people submitting their tax returns, too—it quite literally pays to do things in a timely manner).

Give yourself permission to do things, even if they might not be done perfectly. And if you find that you procrastinate over everything, perhaps you need to re-examine your life goals. Sit down for an interview with yourself. Maybe it will help you find more meaningful work, make a difference, live a happier life.

What kind of tasks do you postpone? What do you do instead? And how do you think you might be able to procrastinate less?


  1. Thanks for the props! I was going to write something about procrastination myself... but then I decided to do it later. :)

    All best,


  2. Hi Chris... I'm honored that you stopped by!

    Yesterday I told my husband, "I started a poem about procrastination today."

    His response: "...I'll finish it tomorrow. There's your poem."