Procrastination: The Self-Defeating Behavior and How to Overcome It

Jan 6, 2014
7 Min Read

If you’re thinking you might put off reading this story, don’t even think about it.

In this interview by Anita Bruzzese with Timothy A. Pychyl, author of “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle,” the issues of procrastination, its impact and how to change your ways are explored.

AB: In the book, you say that delay is often a necessary part of our lives. How so?

TP: At any given time, there are many things we can or should do. We have many choices. Doing one of these things means delay on others. This is all part of rational planning and setting priorities. Delay is an important part of everyday life as we make choices and set priorities.

AB: How is procrastination different and what impact does it have on our careers?

TP: I like to say that while all procrastination is delay, not all delay is procrastination. Strictly speaking, we define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an intended act despite knowing that we will be worse off for the delay. There is no upside to procrastination. It is self-defeating in that we needlessly delay action when we intended to act previously and nothing is preventing us from acting except our own reluctance.

This negative form of delay typically undermines our performance (and wastes a lot of time), affects social relations negatively, lowers our well-being, and can even result in poorer health overall from increased stress, fewer wellness behaviors and treatment delay.

AB: You mention that procrastination makes us feel good. Can you explain?

TP: When we face aversive tasks, we experience negative emotions such as frustration, boredom, or fear. We certainly don’t feel like doing the task at hand. By avoiding the task, we “give in to feel good.” In other words, we escape the negative emotions by task avoidance.

Of course, the task usually doesn’t go away, we just postpone the inevitable. We won’t feel more like it tomorrow, but we want to believe it at the moment so that our present self can feel better now at the cost to future self. Given that present self and future self are the same person, this is really a paradoxical or puzzling part of human nature.

AB: If I’m a procrastinator, how do I make myself change my ways?

TP: Well, first and most important, you have to want to change. Without a commitment, no technique will help. If you are committed to change, I know that three things will make a difference.

1. Move from broad goal intentions to specific implementation intentions. Instead of saying, “I’ll get that project done this weekend,” say “As soon as I finish breakfast Saturday morning, I will start the first part of project X.”

2. Recognize the emotional component of procrastination. You won’t necessarily feel like it when the moment for actions arrives. However, don’t give in to feel good through avoidant coping.

3. Understand that your motivational state doesn’t have to match the task at hand. Attitudes will follow behavior, so just get started on the task. A little goal progress fuels our well-being and our motivation.

AB:  I’ve known a lot of people who are procrastinators, and while they may make some strides in becoming better at tackling tasks, it’s not long before they’re back to their procrastinating ways. Are some people just born procrastinators?

TP: Yes, sort of. All of our major traits are a combination of nature and nurture. Conscientiousness, a key personality “super” trait, is strongly negatively related to procrastination. The more dutiful, self-disciplined and organized (conscientious) we are, the less we procrastinate. As well, the more impulsive we are, the more we procrastinate. So, some aspects of our personality can make us more prone to procrastination, and people with these traits have to work harder at not needlessly delaying important, necessary tasks.

AB: What’s the biggest mistake people make when they say they want to stop their procrastinating?

TP: The biggest mistake is typically that they don’t mean it. There’s no commitment to their intention to change the way they approach tasks. It’s more wishful thinking than a resolve to change.

Second, they think it will be easy. Procrastination is very much a learned coping strategy. We’ve learned to use avoidance to feel better now by avoiding work for later. Habits are difficult to change and require the consistent application of strategies, the exercise of willpower and a good dose of self-compassion. We have to forgive ourselves when we “fall off the procrastination wagon” – and we will, often. If we don’t forgive ourselves, we’ll likely add a whole new level of avoidance in our lives as we give up trying to be more timely in our goal pursuit.

So, we need to start with a strong commitment to change, and then be strategic in developing new habits that will replace avoidance as a preferred coping strategy.

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