I cannot even count how many times I have picked up my phone to play a game while working on this blog. It wasn’t even a conscious act; I mindlessly picked up my phone and started playing with it after writing each sentence or two. With each distraction, the writing process became slower and more torn apart. Each time I put down my phone I had to re-enter the writing process, picking the line of thought back up again. It could have been less stressful if I had been able to keep myself focused, or had not waited until the last moment to finish this piece. I procrastinated moment-to-moment and pushed my work up against the deadline, even though I knew it would be better for me in the long run to get it done sooner rather than later. Why is it that we procrastinate, even though we do not want to? Is procrastination our fault, the manifestation of some innate human weakness, or something else? Is it possible to prevent ourselves from procrastinating, and if so, how?
What is procrastination? And why do we do it?
There is still no universally accepted definition of procrastination in academia. While some define it as a dysfunctional form of delay, others propose that it is a voluntary and unnecessary postponing of an action (Klingsieck, 2013). The lack of a mutually accepted definition and the subjectivity of these terms makes it difficult for researchers to investigate procrastination; however, in surveys, they can ask people directly about their experiences with procrastination. For instance, Nguyen et al. (2013) write that every fourth adult believes that procrastination defines their personality. Steel (2007) found that 75% of college students consider themselves procrastinators and 95% of these procrastinators wish to reduce the amount of time they procrastinate. They don’t wish to reduce it without reason: Berber Celik and Odaci (2020) write that procrastination increases stress, anxiety, and self-blame, which then leads to a decrease in performance at the workplace or in school, and ultimately leads to a decrease in subjective well-being.
Procrastination is an act that we recognize doing, we are aware of its negative consequences, and theoretically, we have the willingness to reduce it. However, as the previous statistics show, procrastination still exists on a large scale. So, the question arises: for what reason do we continue to procrastinate? How is it possible that we behave in this irrational way, and is procrastination predictable?
O’Donoghue and Rabin (1999) showed that people have a strong, irrational preference toward present benefits, even if future costs become higher as a result. This phenomenon is called the ‘present bias’, meaning that we are biased towards present outcomes. This is the reason why we prefer watching one more YouTube video instead of writing our paper, or smoking one more cigarette instead of going for a run. This is the mechanism of procrastination as well. We prefer small, present benefits (scrolling Instagram) and future costs (worse results, stressful finishing), instead of present costs (working or studying) and future benefits (stress-free relaxation).
Moreover, O’Donoghue and Rabin (1999) showed that the naivety of people also influences procrastination. If people are more optimistic regarding their future behaviour and believe that after one YouTube video they will definitely start their work, there is a higher chance of repetitive procrastination, as this optimism is false most of the time. Therefore, excessive optimism and self-assurance increases the chance of procrastination. However, if people are more pessimistic about their capability of doing things on time and without delay, there is a higher chance of avoiding procrastination, therefore breaking the bad pattern of behaviour. The takeaway message is to be cautious about our future behaviour, otherwise we fall into the classic trap: “I am going to start working, but only after this last video.” We know the last video is never really the last one.
What can we do to prevent procrastination?
Procrastination arises because of our preference for present benefits. Problems related to this present bias are usually answered by economics, and economists usually refer to this phenomenon as intertemporal choice or hyperbolic discounting. However, the presence of systematic irrationality in situations like this does not allow standard economics to offer helpful solutions, therefore, we need to turn to behaviorally-informed solutions to counter procrastination. So, what kind of strategies exist to avoid procrastination? Well, first of all, we need to be aware of our tendency to procrastinate. We need to accept the fact that we will not be productive after the “last” YouTube video. This is the starting step because otherwise, we will not feel the urge to beat procrastination. But what can we do next? The idea is to prevent present-biased behavior by making benefits that won’t appear until the future more relevant to ourselves in the present. How is that possible?
One strategy is to visualize the results of the procrastinated action. For instance, imagine how nice it would be to have clean plates and an empty dishwasher, or how relaxing would it be to hand in that difficult assignment. Find a way to bring to mind your future benefits in the case you are not procrastinating. A key aspect about visualization is to serve your future interests too. This might seem difficult to realize at first, but scientists showed that if people have a good strategy to visualize future costs/benefits, their present bias decreases.
Ersner-Hershfield et al. (2009) showed that people feel connected to their future self or future situation in differing amounts. This means that some of us are more “carpe diem”, while others might be consistently focused on their distant future. Ersner-Hershfield et al. (2009) showed that if this connection to one’s future self is increased, there is a higher chance that their present behavior will serve their future interests. In other words, if we have a visualization technique to somehow emotionally invest ourselves in the future benefits of an action, then it can help to reduce procrastination as well.
Another strategy is to create a commitment device. The idea behind a commitment device is to take advantage of our optimism about the future to make commitments in the present. For instance, we may want to start saving for retirement, but each time our friends ask us if we want to go have a fun night out, we can’t resist the temptation to spend our money now and go with them. The solution is to set a commitment to save in the future, ideally one that is difficult to break. By setting a future date when money will automatically be transferred to a savings account, for example, we take our present desires out of the equation. Another commitment device is the use of an accountability partner: someone who helps you to keep your commitment. The social pressure imposed by other people can be a strong motivator for behaviour change, and choosing someone to keep you accountable to your commitments can really help to do so.
There are also many ways in which technology utilizes commitment devices to help fight procrastination. In the Forest app, for instance, the user commits themselves to a certain amount of time when they do not use their smartphone. If they succeed, they will see a blossoming tree, and regular use can yield a beautiful animated garden. However, if the users break their commitment, then trees will wither and die. Although there are no real costs involved in the use of this application, users experience stronger self-discipline, as it helps them to visualize the benefits of their commitment. Another alternative designed to help people dealing with commitment and procrastination is Stickk. Stickk is an online platform that allows people to create an agreement with themselves, where they define their goal, the period in which they want to achieve it, and the ability to add other people to help monitor their progress. Stickk also allows users to self-impose punishments for failing their commitments, such as automatically donating to causes that they disagree with, giving an extra incentive to avoid procrastination.
The last strategy I will mention here is the use of implementation intentions. An implementation intention is a strategy that most often takes the form of an ‘if-then’ plan. You define a time, place, and context (the ‘if’) and a behaviour that you will do when you find yourself in that context (the ‘then’). Making a specific plan for how you will behave in a particular context increases the likelihood of doing so. Jaine (2020) proposes that if people have a detailed plan of how to deal with the procrastinated action, then when the time comes, the plan will trigger the desired behavior, meaning that people will act like their plan and will be less tempted to, for instance, procrastinate. In other words, it helps if we plan beforehand how to write our assignment, and ask questions about the task at hand, for example, on which day we should start or how many words we need to write. If we have the answers to these questions before starting the task, then, when the time comes we will act according to our plan..
Procrastination is a good example of our inherent irrationality: we continue to pursue a harmful activity of which we are aware and that we are willing to change, but we find ourselves unable to do so. There are several strategies available for fighting procrastination. Firstly, we can try visualizing future benefits: this helps to feel future benefits at the current time. Secondly, we can create commitment devices, ensuring that we keep ourselves or others accountable to their commitments. Lastly, we can use implementation intentions: by preparing a detailed plan of action, the existence of the plan can trigger us to implement the plan instead of procrastinating. By utilizing these techniques you can live a life free of procrastination.
Valence-Framing: Same Question, Different Answer
Mental Accounting: Our Cognitive Filters
References & Further readings
Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13( 3 ), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00441
Berber Çelik, I., & Odaci, H. (2020). Subjective well-being in university students: what are the impacts of procrastination and attachment styles? British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069885.2020.1803211
Ersner-Hershfield, H., Garton, M., Ballard, K., Samanez-Larkin, G., & Knutson, B. (2009). Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving. Judgement and Decision Making, 4( 4 ), 280–286.
Frederick, S., Loewenstein, G., & O’donoghue, T. (2002). Time Discounting and Time Preference: A Critical Review. Journal of Economic Literature, 40( 2 ), 351–401. https://doi.org/10.1257/jel.40.2.351
Jaine, R. (2020, May 21). Nudge or be nudged: Tricks of the trade from a behavioural scientist. Medium. https://medium.com/from-the-exosphere/nudge-or-be-nudged-tricks-of-the-trade-from-a-behavioural-scientist-d5a4bea020d2
Klingsieck, K. B. (2013). Procrastination. European Psychologist, 18( 1 ), 24–34. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000138
Nguyen, B., Steel, P., & Ferrari, J. R. (2013). Procrastination’s Impact in the Workplace and the Workplace’s Impact on Procrastination. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 21( 4 ), 388–399. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijsa.12048
O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing It Now or Later. American Economic Review, 89( 1 ), 103–124. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.89.1.103
Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133( 1 ), 65–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65