Delay, Delay, Delay: How to Manage and Overcome Procrastination So It Doesn't Manage You

By Alicia Wyant on August 28, 2018

We have a confession.

We put off writing this article for a few days.

Why?

Because of procrastination.

You probably knew that joke would be in here somewhere.

Like almost everyone else, you've procrastinated.

What many of us fail to realize apart from cute side remarks and the self-rationalization that you'll always have plenty of time, procrastination can be a very serious problem.

Life-altering, actually.

Life's Little Delays

Vintage alarm clock on a wooden table

We know that in general terms, procrastination is the act of putting off something for later that we need to do now. In some cases, much later and at the last minute.

Procrastination is more than just using delay tactics and skirting responsibility.

Without question, a lot of us have put off a task or two more times than we'd like to admit, but for the most part, we limit those instances to tasks with low stakes.

Significant levels of procrastination occur when you have a to-do list of items, and after addressing a few of those, you spin your wheels and do everything but attending to what remains on the list.

DePaul University psychology professor and fellow with the Association for Psychological Science, Joseph Ferrari, defines it further, "If I have a dozen things to do, obviously #10, #11, and #12 have to wait."

He continues, "The real procrastinator has those 12 things, maybe does one or two of them, then rewrites the list, then shuffles it around, then makes an extra copy of it. That's procrastinating. That's different."

Though it seems simple and harmless, too much procrastination can do some actual damage.

From lack of sleep to always time crunching projects at the last minute to the stress that is induced by fast-approaching deadlines, habitual procrastination can lead to significant health issues.

You can also face poor and declining performance at your school or place of work. Delaying assignments or projects can result in below average grades or negative feedback from a boss or co-workers. Worst case involves flunking out of school or losing your job.

Procrastination can also affect us emotionally. For humans to maintain a fulfilling existence, we must have a sense of purpose and generate ongoing accomplishments. Failure here may lead to low self-esteem and a lack of ambition.

Thankfully, a majority of people recognize that avoiding our responsibilities can only go on for so long before consequences become a factor.

But even with the potential risks, why do so many of us procrastinate? What can we do about it?

Well, let us not put off those answers any longer.

Hold On While I Do This Thing, and That Thing and This Other Thing Too

Male writing in a notebook at a table

Before you get the idea that the fine art of procrastination is the domain of only party-minded students or lazy members of society, you should put that myth to bed.

It's one of the most universally shared traits among people today. Though we can sometimes be quick to label procrastination as laziness, it's not.

Whereas the definition of laziness is an unwillingness to do something, procrastination is a deliberate avoidance of what's at hand. You fill that gap in time with other activities, until you finally get around to addressing your original task.

If you're lazy, you're not doing anything at all.

Why is it that so many seek out ways to delay?

Specifically, this delaying of the inevitable has more to it.

Procrastination is very much an emotional response to avoiding tasks we need to complete. In psychology, they call it task aversiveness.

Triggering these emotions to delay and put off responsibilities can come from any number of scenarios, some mundane, others that carry serious concern. The stronger the feelings against the task, the more task averse you're likely to be.

A few examples of the most common emotion-based aversions include:

Boredom

Arguably, boredom or indifference is perhaps the most natural way people become procrastinators.

Your task list is full of stuff that is either boring or of little interest to you. Usually, this encompasses personal to-dos but can also include the arbitrary, paper pushing duties of a 9-to-5 job or reading the necessary but dull chapters of a textbook.

When the items on your to-do list are tedious and dull, and the more you think about them, the greater your apathy. So you fill the time with frivolous activities that you (mistakenly) deem necessary and more exciting.

So instead of cleaning your house, you decide it wiser to add to your list of must-see movies. Before you realize it, you've spent an hour scrolling through Netflix, and the dust on your furniture remains.

Difficulty

This can appear in two ways. The most obvious is the challenge of a task. Few people enjoy working outside their comfort zone, and a tough project easily puts us there.

In many cases, this will manifest itself with the rationalization that you don't have enough time now to deal with this challenging problem, but you will later. You continue with this mindset until you reach the point that time is up.

The second part of difficulty comes from a sense of being overwhelmed. It's not just one thing, but lots of things. The longer you put them off, the longer you can avoid facing the steep climb you have ahead of you.

The result is often the same as with the singularly challenging assignment. Once your delays finally reach a crisis point, you're left with little time to reach the summit.

Lack of Value

Often in our work, we are tasked with projects that have little to do with our day to day responsibilities or fall in an area that possesses little worth or meaning to us.

Similarly, students may have to fight through low-reward course work that is necessary for their degree but is of no interest to them personally.

Where clear purpose is absent, it's difficult for you to find personal or professional value in what you're doing. This leads to you neglecting your duties for things that you value more.

In a worst case scenario, you can disregard your assignment to the point that you address it under a time constraint and it never receives your full attention.

How to Get It Done

Male typing on a laptop computer

With procrastination, especially for those who are habitual avoiders, there are no easy answers.

Professor Ferrari agrees. He notes that, "it really has nothing to do with time-management. As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up."

However, there are ways to manage and improve the urge to delay the things you need to get done.

While it may initially be difficult, developing one or more of these positive habits can push you out of an idling and unproductive rut.

Structure Your Time Accordingly

As Professor Ferrari stated, procrastination is not necessarily a product of poor time management. However, focusing on two time-related attributes can prove helpful.

First, think about when you're most productive and create your schedule around that.

Are you a morning person that seems to thrive at the beginning of the day? Front load your early hours with your most vital and taxing projects.

Do you start out slow but then build momentum as the day lingers on? Then an after lunch agenda may be beneficial.

Schedule to your strengths and recognize your best times may be different from those of others.

Second, instead of viewing a list of tasks in terms of difficulty or interest (or lack thereof), look at it in relation to time.

For example, if you have five tasks that must be done by the end of the day, determine which of those five will take the shortest amount of time to complete and address them first.

In doing so, you'll build up small wins and confidence and also maximize your window of completion for the laborious or less interesting projects.

Piece By Piece

What happens if it's not a list you're facing but a single assignment that looks to push you down a path of procrastination?

Break it up and take it one step at a time, much as you would the with the list of five different items.

Figure out what you can accomplish first and in the least amount of time and work on those aspects before moving on to the larger segments.

Depending on your deadline, working piece by piece also means spreading the work out over a period of time.

Focus on parts two and five of a task list on Monday, then tackle parts one, three and four on Tuesday and Wednesday. This way your project is not so much one big intimidating task but smaller, more manageable tasks.

Avoid Tech Distractions

You're probably saying, "But everything I do involves tech."

That may be true, but what you do probably doesn't require all of the tech available to you at the same time.

For example, if you're working on completing a spreadsheet in Excel, avoid picking up your smartphone or clicking over to the internet until you finish the spreadsheet.

Another way to manage electronic distractions is to set aside specific times to engage in non-work or non-study related activities. In every hour, allow yourself a five to ten-minute break to get your tech or social network "fix" before heading back to your work.

In many cases, you'll find that as you get deeper into a project, you'll develop a steady workflow and cadence in what you're doing and blow past these set aside breaks as you focus on accomplishing your task.

Don't Wait, Act Now, Time Is Limited

Person looking at a watch while writing in a notebook

Procrastination is by no means insurmountable.

Most of us are already aware that we do it to some degree.

For the repeat and chronic offenders, it's vital to understand the root of the problem then identify what will work for you to overcome it.

Understand that you won't fix the urge to postpone things overnight.

Remember to tackle the small things first and build up your confidence. Show yourself that you can achieve accomplishments without being distracted by meaningless side activities.

String enough of those small, but valuable wins together and soon enough you'll go from "I'll do it eventually" to "I'm doing it now."

Make Time for School

With these tools to overcoming procrastination, you can find the time to finally make that decision to return to school. Connect with a counselor to talk about how it can be a reality for you.

Meet with a Counselor

Categories: Academic Resources, Vocation