Healthy Work Habits: How to Stop Procrastinating - Right Now!

Posted January 03, 2016

With our New Year's resolutions freshly in mind, today we start a brand new series on how to stay healthy at work. We'll be seeking advice from experts on how to stay in tip-top shape both mentally and physically whilst on the job. Start today, and stay healthy and happy in 2016!


Procrastination: A Modern Malady or an Ancient Affliction?

It's midday, and for the sixth time in a row I return to my computer and sit heavily down in front of it. Staring forlornly back at me are two sentences sitting isolated on an otherwise blank screen. I stare back at them and frown. These two lines do not equate with the brand new and shiny resume which at 7am I had promised myself would be there by noon.

I can already feel the customary panic of procrastination starting to set in.

Don't get me wrong - I haven't had an unproductive morning. I've changed the sheets on the bed. I've made a long and excitingly detailed shopping list. I've emptied the dishwasher, cooked breakfast, and refilled the washer with dirty plates. I've checked every news website to make sure I've not missed any events of earth-shattering importance. I've "liked" the updates posted by several friends on Facebook. And of course I had to follow the links to the gossip sites, even though I really have no interest in what David Lee Roth wore to the Music Awards ceremony, or in Simon Cowell's latest food-related tantrum.

When you’re unemployed, the one thing you have a lot of is free time. But somehow, the more urgent the assignment (like writing or re-writing your resume), and the more at stake (the roof over my head, my ability to buy food for myself and my cat, and gas for my car), the more I seek out a distraction - any distraction.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why Do We Procrastinate?

The most puzzling thing about procrastination is that, although it usually involves trying to avoid tasks which are often seen as unpleasant, indulging in it doesn't make us any happier. If anything, it increases our stress and anxiety levels while superficially pandering to them.

So why do we continue to do it?

Experts in procrastination theory (yes – this is officially a Thing) say that it isn't just being lazy or work-shy, or simply having a predilection for vacuous celebrity gossip. The reasons behind such deliberate avoidance of tasks we know we must eventually do, are more to do with an innate fear of not living up to one's own high standards, which in turn masks a deeper fear of failure and ultimate rejection.

Sound unlikely? Try thinking of it this way. Let’s say that you’re unemployed and looking for work. In terms of your job hunt, you may subconsciously feel nervous about your application not being accepted, and so you put off that moment of being judged by, well, never coming up with a resume to be judged by.

An innate fear of having to ‘start over’ or a subconscious reluctance to return to work may also be to blame. Having been through multiple layoffs myself, a part of me knows that the sooner I write my resume, the sooner I can be hired, work a few short years, then get laid off again and wind up exactly where I am now. That’s why I just spent the last twenty minutes polishing the light-bulbs rather than polishing the grammar in my last job application letter.


Are We Genetically Predisposed to Procrastinate?

If you want to blame anything for your lack of motivation, blame your biology. Most people have bursts of productivity throughout the day when they feel highly motivated and can tackle the most challenging of tasks with energy and enthusiasm. Then, for no apparent reason, that bubble of energy bursts and the call of mindless distractions takes over.

According to productivity experts, our energy levels fluctuate not only throughout the day, but also from one day to the next. So just because you achieved what you set out to do yesterday that doesn't mean you will be equally productive today.

This may apply to our work - to, say, a report we have to write or a presentation we have to prepare. But what about the other tasks that so many of us put off, even though in themselves they won't take long to do? Paying bills, for example, or cashing a check or gift certificate, or booking theater tickets online before they all sell out.

Then there are those hardened procrastinators who can be seen frantically doing last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve, no doubt the same people who mock their more-organized friends who’ve bought all their gifts by the end of November (although I admit to having real concerns about those who do all their Christmas shopping for the coming year in the January sales).

The Real Cost of Procrastination

Procrastination can be extremely costly. Putting off the dreaded task of completing your income tax return may be understandable, but every year Americans throw away hundreds of millions of dollars because they fail to file their taxes on time. The Harvard economist David Laibson tells us that workers in the U.S. have relinquished a veritable fortune in their 401k retirement savings plans (whereby employees save and invest a proportion of their paycheck before taxes are deducted) simply because they don't get around to signing up for it.

Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, stated that procrastination is "really sloth in five syllables". Yet in my own personal example, I wasn't being slothful when I changed my bed linen and emptied my dishwasher while trying to put off writing my resume. Nor was I merely postponing my writing assignment until those household chores were completed; I was deliberately filling my day with busy-work, just to avoid sitting down and getting on with it.

Once again, all this begs the question, "Why? What purpose does avoiding something we know we have to do, achieve?"

The Origins of Procrastination

Contrary to popular belief, procrastination isn't a modern affliction born out of living in a world of never-ending deadlines, as some have suggested. The word "procrastination" derives from the Latin verb "procrastinare", which combines the prefix "pro", meaning "forward", with "crastinus", meaning "of tomorrow": in other words, moving something forward from one day to the next.

Around the mid-16th century, when the word began to appear in its English form, it referred to the evil of putting off repenting of one's sins, which could lead to ultimate damnation. 'The Foolishness of Men', a tract written in 1582, ominously proclaimed: "Take heed therefore, that by procrastinating repentance ... thou wittingly and of purpose, do not tempt the Lord."

As time went on, procrastination came to be viewed not only as precluding one's spiritual salvation in the next life, but as an impediment to reaching the new holy grail of financial well-being in this one.

In 1742 the English poet Edward Young wrote the still well-used phrase, "Procrastination is the thief of time." The renowned polymath and founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, is credited with saying "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today", mockingly transmuted by Mark Twain into the procrastinator's motto: "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." There is actually a word for this - "perendinate."

It is almost certainly the case that some people who think of themselves as procrastinators actually aren't. They simply expect too much of themselves, putting too many tasks on their "To Do" list, then worrying when they don't complete them all in the anticipated time.

Unlike bona fide procrastinators, they are actually getting things done rather than deliberately avoiding them. They're just not completing as many tasks as quickly as they would like. This type of person probably suffers from the minor affliction of being over-confident in their own abilities, without any of the self-doubts which can beset those with a tendency to true procrastination.


Is Procrastination Bad for Your Health?

Of course, putting things off can - and usually does - create stress, and we all know what stress can do, both mentally and physically. Blood pressure rises, the immune system becomes suppressed, the risks of heart attack and stroke are increased. Worrying about tasks you've put off leads to sleepless nights, and lack of sleep means you're even less likely to feel up to the task of getting on with things the next day. It is, in effect, a vicious circle.

Being in an educational environment seems to be conducive to procrastination. In colleges, up to 70 percent of students identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. In a single academic term, self-identified procrastinating college students showed signs of a compromised immune system in the form of more frequent colds and flu, and also suffered from insomnia.

Even more worryingly, it has been reported that 70 percent of glaucoma sufferers in the U.S. run the risk of blindness simply because they fail to use their eye-drops regularly as ordered by their doctor. And naturally, if you're a procrastinator, you're more than likely to postpone or even indefinitely put off seeking medical advice or treatment for any symptoms you may experience, thus adding to your health problems.

There's also a theory that procrastinators are made, not born. In other words, procrastination is a learned response rather than an innate one. Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, theorizes that procrastination is a learned response to an authoritarian parenting style. A controlling parent can prevent their children from developing the ability to regulate themselves and learning how to act autonomously. An inability to self-regulate can eventually lead to health problems stemming from over-indulgence, such as over-eating or drinking more than one intends to.

What Can I Do Right Now to Stop Procrastinating?

If procrastination is a learned response, in theory it should be possible to un-learn it. But how to begin? The first thing to do is to find out if you have a genuine problem, rather than just being someone who tends to put things off without worrying excessively about it. According to Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, it's easy to tell if you're a real procrastinator.

For instance, real procrastinators tell themselves a number of white lies. They over-estimate the time they have left to perform tasks, and they under-estimate the time it will take to complete these tasks. Furthermore, they over-estimate how motivated they will feel the next day, completely failing to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will probably be just as strong, if not stronger now that they have less time to complete the task in. They also mistakenly believe that they can only complete a task if they feel like doing it, convincing themselves that working whilst feeling unmotivated will be detrimental to the quality of the finished task.

The final - probably the biggest - lie procrastinators indulge in is that time pressure makes them more creative. "I work best under pressure" is something we've all heard someone say, and may well have said ourselves, whether or not we actually believe it.

Let's face it. There are many things in life which we are never really going to feel like doing. But they still have to be done, so we've just got to get on and do them. Dr. Ferrari recommends these strategies to help cope with a tendency to procrastinate:

5 Steps to Stop Procrastinating

  • First, make a list of everything you have to do. Use whichever medium you feel most comfortable with. Some people might use a specific notebook and pen, while other may use an app on their iPhone.
  • Break large tasks down into smaller, more specific tasks. For instance, if you have to clean the house, you’d write: ‘Vacuum floors. Make beds. Mop kitchen. Put away toys. Change beds.’
  • Eliminate tasks you never really plan to do, or which are vague. For instance, ‘Write a novel’ or ‘Get fitter’ are both too large in scale and too non-specific to be motivating. Change these to: ‘Write one page a day of book ideas’ or ‘walk for 20 minutes twice a day,’ which instantly makes these overwhelming tasks seem more achievable.
  • Plan a reward for yourself each time you complete a task, or get started on a task. For example, if you’ve just baked a batch of cookies for the kids, allow yourself to sit down and enjoy one cookie with a glass of milk in exchange for washing and putting away the dishes.
  • Estimate the time you think it will take you to complete a task, then increase that amount by 100%. This will most likely give you a more realistic time-frame in which to complete the task. (And if you’re wrong, then you’ve finished early, which is definitely a better state to be in than not finishing it at all.)

So often we use unexpected interruptions to our work as an excuse for why we can't complete a task on time. By following Dr. Ferrari's final strategy you are allowing for the possibility - indeed, the likelihood - of the unanticipated event, whether it be a phone call, an unexpected visitor or a toddler's tantrum.

Is Procrastination an Age-old Problem or a Modern One?

The tendency to put things off has no doubt always been a facet of human behavior, but even three centuries ago, this particular form of anxiety was starting to be seen as a real concern worthy of study. According to research by University of Calgary Business Professor Piers Steel, the percentage of people who confessed to having problems with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002, so it is this escalation, rather than procrastination itself, which can be seen as a hallmark of the increasingly pressured times in which we live.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English essayist and poet, bemoaned his own tendency to procrastinate in these very poetic terms: "I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.”

James Surowiecki of 'The New Yorker', in his fascinating 2010 article entitled 'Later: What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?' cites the example of a modern-day Samuel Johnson; Professor George Akerlof of Georgetown University, who in 2010 won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Whilst living in India, Akerlof was confronted with a simple task - mailing some clothing left behind by a visiting friend back to the U.S. There was one minor obstacle - the bureaucracy of the Indian postal service, which meant that mailing the package would be a convoluted task, possibly taking up a whole day. So, although every day he intended to do it "tomorrow", he put it off, and put it off, for over eight whole months.

He was finally able to add his parcel to the shipment of another friend, just before Akerlof himself returned home. So it's possible that he reached the U.S. before his friend's clothing did! There's something very comforting about this story, says Surowiecki: even Nobel Prize winners procrastinate.


Will Removing Temptation Stop Procrastination?

History provides us with some extreme examples of how far some people are willing to go, in order to help curb their tendencies to procrastinate. Legend has it that French novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo would write naked, ordering his valet to hide his clothes so that he wouldn't be tempted to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.

The modern equivalent is the computer program designed by a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina - called Freedom, it enables people to deliberately shut off their internet access (and social media) for up to eight hours, whilst preventing any attempts to circumnavigate its parent-like authority. It currently has an estimated 75,000 users.

New Yorker writer James Surowiecki explains why philosophers are interested in procrastination. It's because it's a potent example of what the Greeks called "akrasia" - doing something against one's better judgment. Or - as Piers Steel describes it - willingly deferring something, despite the fact that you are aware that the delay will probably make you worse off.

Surowiecki says that people can make rational choices when they think about the future, but as the future gradually becomes the near-future, then the present, short-term considerations take over from long-term goals, conveniently pushing the task back into the place where we feel most comfortable with it being: the future.

For example, in an experiment, people had to pick two movies - one for that same night and one for an undetermined later date. For that night's movie they tended to pick current blockbusters or comedies, but for future viewing they were more likely to choose a movie of a more serious, worthy nature.

I've noticed the same tendency in myself when I borrow books from the library - I'll select a recent work of fiction for my immediate reading, but maybe a classic novel or a thought-provoking non-fiction book for later consumption. But after I've read the first book my immediate thought is that I want to read another of the same genre. That's not to say that I'm not interested in my other choice - I am, just not right now!

When the Spirit is Willing (But the Flesh Wants to Do It Tomorrow)

The lesson to be learned here is not that people are superficial, but that their tastes are inconsistent over a relatively short period of time. We genuinely do want to watch that World War II documentary or read Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina', in the same way that we want to impress our colleagues (and our boss!) by working over the weekend to create the perfect PowerPoint presentation, or to investigate our pension options in order to live more comfortably when we retire.

But as the long run gradually becomes the short run, our priorities modify and rearrange themselves, and we wind up watching another re-run of ‘Annie’ and spending the afternoon at the pub rather than learning about investments with our local financial consultant.

All of this seems to indicate that even if we remove the objects of temptation from our sight, or take pains to shut ourselves away from them like Victor Hugo did, we will still find some diversion or other to distract us from what we should be doing - especially now that so much work is dependent on sitting gazing at a computer screen. Maybe the fact that the Freedom software has only attracted 75,000 out of potentially millions - if not billions - of users is proof that "akrasia" is still alive and kicking in the 21st century.

So the next time you put off preparing a presentation in order to watch yet another episode of 'The Big Bang Theory', you can console yourself with the thought that you're only doing the equivalent of what the Ancient Greeks once did.

The 19th century Scottish economist John Rae sums up procrastination perfectly when he once said: “The prospects of future good, which future years may hold on us, seem at such a moment dull and dubious, and are apt to be slighted, for objects on which the daylight is falling strongly, and showing us in all their freshness just within our grasp.”


Kate Rhodes is a passionate scholar and advocate of happiness, both at home and in one's career. After working for over a decade in education, including adult literacy and special needs tutoring, she now divides her time between blogging on the subject of careers and work/life balance, and finding her own happiness curled up at home with a good book and a mug of hot tea. A true logophile (lover of words), her idea of perfect happiness is waking up one day to find that every apostrophe in the world is finally in its rightful place.

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