5 Reasons We Procrastinate and How to Stop Doing It: Advice from a Champion Procrastinator

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Allow me a small boast: I am the world’s most accomplished procrastinator.

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The art of putting things off is one for which I have a true gift. If there were a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare of procrastination, it would be me. If there were an Olympics of procrastination, I would crush all opposition and lead Britain to a staggering victory. My achievements in procrastinating are almost too numerous and too impressive to include in a short article. But just so you don’t think I’m all talk, I’ll offer you a few examples. There was the time a university tutor informed me curtly that I hadn’t handed one single essay to him on time throughout the whole academic year; the hellish night in which I had to start and finish a 7,000-word coursework essay that I’d had 4 weeks to complete; or the time I put off paying two £20 fines for months, and by the time I got round to it they’d escalated to a total of £400, and I had some seriously terrifying men ringing my mobile phone on what seemed like an hourly basis. Even this article was due six days ago.

“Oh, that deadline? It’s hours away…”

I can lie in bed eating Malteasers and watching iPlayer until roughly two hours before any given deadline without having started the work; I can sit and read a novel on the train on the way to a presentation even if I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to say; I had to get up at 2am on the morning of every single one of my final university exams because I somehow hadn’t got round to revising in the four years before them. I’ve always felt a profound sympathy for Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a notorious procrastinator, who once said: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

And I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t even enjoy it. No – despite always seeming delicious, alluring and exciting at the outset, procrastination has brought me nothing but misery. There is no feeling of self-loathing quite like that of launching into your ninth hour of Friends, your mouth dry and salty with all the Walkers Sensations you’ve eaten, not really even watching the programme because you’re too panicky about all the work you haven’t done, and too busy imagining violent deaths for each of the Friends, all of whom you’ve slowly but surely come to despise over the course of the day. Yes, even Joey. There’s no feeling of panicked despair to rival that of realising you’ve got eight hours to plan and write a 7,000-word essay, and all of those hours are between 1 and 9am. And there’s no embarrassment quite like that of being told that you’ve already used the excuse about taking your cat to the vet to get out of handing work in twice this term – have you got an especially ill cat? (N.B. All chronic procrastinators – as you’ll probably already have worked out, it’s wisest and best to invent some sort of recurring illness, like migraines or a mysterious food intolerance. Nobody, however jaded or cynical, argues with diarrhoea).

Image shows an opened packet of biscuits.
So much more tempting than an essay.

Now, reader, I predict you will respond to this article in one of two ways. Either you’ll think it the ravings of a deranged loon, in which case you’re probably not much of a procrastinator, and you should stop reading: my words will only distract you from writing your blog, applying for internships in management consultancies, or learning Mandarin Chinese. The second possibility is that you want to be distracted: you’re reading this article as a way of avoiding the piles of paperwork on your desk, the school or university projects you haven’t started on, or the almost unimaginably complex task of getting a part-time job. Indeed, the very thought of printing out your CV and walking into town instantaneously fills you with a fatigue that can only be remedied by a nice rest on the sofa with some chocolate biscuits. If the latter is true, you’re my kind of person – and a fellow one of the 20% of people who are ‘chronic procrastinators’ (it’s a real thing!) worldwide – and you should carry on reading. Not only will you get a cheeky ten-minute break from whatever you don’t really want to do, but you’ll additionally be the beneficiary of my musings on the main reasons we procrastinate – and some tried-and-tested strategies for stopping yourself from doing it in future.

1. We don’t know where to begin

One of the most common reasons for putting something off is that you’re not quite sure where, or how, to start it. When you know you’ve got to begin on the research for an important paper, sort out your tax refund, plan a talk or fill in some endless-looking paperwork, it can be difficult to know exactly what the first step is, and easier to put it off until later, or ignore it altogether.

How to stop it

Image shows someone reading a textbook.
At least get started on doing the reading.

First, ask a friend how they started. Second, do that. Alternatively, sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and really think about the different components of the task. Break it down into smaller, manageable chunks that can be completed in one go- for a research essay, for example, you could make a list like this:
1. Look for and get hold of sources (download internet articles, check books out of library)
2. Read three sources
3. Read three more sources
4. Read final sources and read through all notes
5. Write general essay plan
6. Write detailed essay plan
7. Write introduction
8. Write part one
9. Write part two
10. Write part three
11. Write conclusion
12. Second draft
13. Proofread and check references
Then write out a schedule detailing when you’re going to do each of the different items on your list. Make sure you dot a few free mornings or afternoons free in case something takes longer than you’re anticipating, or you need a break. Writing out a schedule with a detailed list of tasks will get rid of the feeling of being lost or uncertain that makes you put the big task off or find distractions.

And if you need an extra push…

An article on the BBC’s news website quite ingeniously suggests giving £50 to a friend or parent, and telling them that if you fall behind your schedule they can donate it to a cause you hate. I’m definitely going to try this: trying to save a hard-earned £50 from the clutches of UKIP would be enough to make me do almost anything.

2. A task feels too big, or hard

Image shows the Forth Rail Bridge.
Even if the task is as interminable as painting the Forth Rail Bridge, if you don’t get started, it will never get done.

A close cousin of the task without an obvious starting point is the task that feels too big, difficult or daunting, to even think about beginning on today. It’s already 2pm which is basically the end of the day, the libraries will probably be closing soon, and anyway, you’re tired. Maybe big jobs should only be begun in the morning…? Yes, that seems like a wise rule.
The answer to this is problem is similar to that of the above – but in addition to breaking the task down, also find one thing you can start on today. Whether there’s an online article or a book you can read, some notes you can dig up and read through, or a few emails to write and send, get started on them now. Not only will you feel much better about yourself and your day if you’ve done something productive, but doing one thing often gives you a clear idea of what the next step is – and then you’ll know exactly how to progress tomorrow!

3. We are big fat liars

“I need the pressure of a deadline.” “I’m more creative when I’m up against the clock.” “It’s completely ridiculous that there are so many forms to fill in anyway.” “I’ve only got three hours between my classes – that’s not enough time to get any real work done.” “I can’t work in the afternoons anyway.” These are just some of the lies that we procrastinators tell ourselves to make the process of systematically messing up tasks and complicating our lives seem reasonable, or even necessary. Touchy-feely American self-books on motivation and success will offer another enabling lie: we procrastinate because we’re scared of failure. Oh, how pleasing and edifying to discover that you’re putting off work because you’re scared of failure! That’s probably not far off some sort of psychological condition, is it? Maybe it’d be best to tell your tutor or boss, next time, that you haven’t done your work because you’re simply worried you won’t do it well?

Image shows a student with his head down on a desk in a crumbling classroom.
Procrastinating is based in fear of work, not fear of failure.

Well, I’ll let you into a secret – that won’t go down well at all. ‘Fear of failure’ is just nonsense cooked up by people who want to sell self-help books. We’re not scared of failure; we’re scared of work (which, of course, isn’t a bad thing – it’s very logical and reasonable to want to do fun and easy things instead of boring, mentally exerting ones). What’s more, work done just before a deadline has more errors in it, and it’s almost impossible to think creatively when you’re under time pressure. I learned these facts the hard way, when I didn’t do as well in a series of coursework essays as I should have. For each one, the comments were the same: that the work looked rushed and sloppy, and the sentences I’d thought sounded great at 6am on the day of the deadline, dizzy with caffeine and two nights without sleep, actually made no sense at all.
Luckily the solution to this particular form of procrastination is simple: make a list of every single work-related lie or excuse you make to yourself, and whenever you catch yourself using one of them, just ignore it. In the past, I’ve even made little signs and put them up around my room reminding me not to be an idiot; an excellent and very satisfying technique, because making and decorating the signs takes up a pleasing chunk of time that otherwise might have been wasted on work. The downside of these signs, though, I must warn you, is that they invariably convince anyone else who sees them that you’re not just lazy, but also mad.

4. A task feels unimportant

Image shows a collection of forms.
It’s easy to procrastinate on dull paperwork, but it’s often important to get it done on time.

Recently, I had to fill in some forms for a job I was starting. There were about five forms, all in all, and they needed to be sent along with some passport photos, a bank statement and a birth certificate. I had all these things scattered about my house, but the process of locating them, traipsing over to the library to scan them in, and then emailing them off seemed near-impossible. The fact was, at the time I was already incredibly busy finding ways to avoid my university dissertation – by comparison, filling out loads of forms for a job I wasn’t starting for a few months felt pointless and ridiculous. When I finally got round to them, almost a month after they were due in, the entire process of going to the library and filling out, scanning, and sending the forms took twenty minutes – but in the process of ignoring them, I’d managed to totally enrage my new boss and stress myself out making endless 4am to-do lists that had never been completed. And of course, the forms weren’t ridiculous. Annoying, sure, but also a necessary part of the process of starting a new job.
If you find that you ignore small tasks that don’t seem important, to the frustration and anger of everyone around you, then I suggest making one simple rule- if you can’t see the point of it, don’t do it. Decide the moment you’re given a task whether you’re going to do it or not; if you’re not, don’t give it a second thought. If you are going to do it, make an unbreakable rule that you’ll do it the very next day, first thing in the morning, before you even check your email.

5. Distractions

Image shows the Facebook logo on fire.
A source of tremendous, but avoidable distraction. Image credit: StartBloggingOnline.com

Chronic procrastinators actively look for distractions, and in particular those that don’t require much commitment or attention – like checking your email or Facebook, or reading the day’s news on the internet.
If you find you spend hours on your email or social networking sites, there’s an easy solution. First, schedule in a time every morning to check your messages. Next, download the free app SelfControl, which allows you to block certain websites for a period of time of your choosing. Always turn the app on when you work- not even being able to open the websites that usually distract you will improve your concentration a huge amount.
Second, don’t work in your house. Your house is too full of clutter, food and other potential distractions ever to be a good place to get stuff done. Go to the library, to school or a cafe: physically eliminate all the things that might divert your attention from what you should be doing, so you end up having to work. That’s usually the point at which you remember that you actually don’t mind working that much at all.
Have you got any good tips or tricks for avoiding procrastination? Let us know in the comments below!

Image credits: banner; deadline; biscuits; reading; Forth Rail Bridge; failure; forms; Facebook.