How to Fight the Four Pillars of Procrastination

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A brief look at the psychological factors that cause us to irrationally put off important tasks.

The old joke goes like this: What’s a procrastinator’s busiest day? Answer: tomorrow.

If you’re a procrastinator then you’re not alone: 75% of college students consider themselves procrastinators and 50% are problem procrastinators.

According to Steel (2007), there are four pillars of procrastination and so four potential ways to fight it:

1. Low task value

The value of the goal naturally affects our procrastination, for example we procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks. Tasks that are unpleasant because they’re boring can be made more difficult artificially to help us avoid procrastination, say by using time limits or unusual conditions.

Otherwise you can try and tie an aversive task to something attractive. Students who enjoy socialising often create study groups: they can enjoy socialising at the same time as revising for exams.

Or, just treat yourself like a dog: small rewards for the right activities, punishment for procrastination.

2. The procrastinator’s personality

Some people are born procrastinators. They have low self-control, are easily distracted and impulsive. There is not much we can do about our personalities but we can adjust our surroundings.

Standard advice is to put yourself in the right environment, i.e. one that reinforces work and avoids temptation. A favourite for writers is to pull out the internet cable from the back of the computer and hide it at the furthest reaches of your house. While you’re at it, hide your smartphone there too.

Procrastination tends to occur whenever you have to stop and think. Even quite small decision in your work can prompt procrastination. So have everything you need to hand and develop automatic habits of work so there’s no need to stop and think.

3. Expecting success?

If you expect to complete a task easily, then you are less likely to procrastinate. So increasing expectations of success should reduce procrastination. Unfortunately expectations mostly change with experience, i.e. experience of completing the task. It’s a Catch-22.

Still it’s useful to know that once you do get going on a task and successfully complete it, you’re unlikely to procrastinate as much in the future on that same task.

4. Goal failure

Almost by definition procrastination is a failure to meet goals. So setting goals in the right way is crucial. You should use short-term as well as long-term goals and even artificial deadlines can be helpful. There’s loads more on setting goals in this article: 11 Goal Hacks: How to Achieve Anything.

Forgive yourself

Don’t be too hard on yourself: there’s evidence that forgiving yourself for procrastinating can help stop the cycle. See my previous article: Procrastinate Less By Forgiving Yourself.

Image credit: Rishi Bandopadhay

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 28 September 2011

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