What do Marcus Aurelius, Margaret Atwood, and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? They’re self-proclaimed procrastinators.
Procrastination definitely gets a bad wrap. But if these famous, accomplished individuals procrastinated, why can’t we?
Every two out of ten (20%) people label themselves as “chronic procrastinators.” Hell, even the Dalai Lama says he was once a chronic procrastinator. And even pigeons procrastinate.
If procrastination is so common, can it really be that bad? The (anonymous) person who once said, “Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried.” was just being abhorrent to all things positive in life, right?
Turns out, procrastination—as common as it may be—is not good for us.
Putting things off comes at a cost. Not only does it stress the hell out of your mind, but it also creates chronic stress for your body. Chronic stress can have deleterious effects on your health.
Chronic stress from procrastination negatively affects:
Constant procrastination can also negatively affect:
So, what gives? Why do we willingly do something so destructive?
More importantly, how can we put a stop to it?
The first step in solving any problem is understanding what you’re up against. Once you know the psychology behind why humans procrastinate, it’ll be easier to stop.
Piers Steel, professor at Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics at Calgary, is the global leader in procrastination research. He and his team define procrastination as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.
In other words, procrastination is:
According to Steel and his colleagues, procrastination falls into four categories:
(Curious? You can measure your procrastination type here.)
It’s not because we’re lazy, unmotivated, or undisciplined. Science says procrastination is actually much more complicated.
Our day is a long list of decisions, one right after another. Should I write this piece, or should I grab lunch with friends? Should I hit the gym or lounge on the couch?
The temptation to procrastinate is constant, especially in our uber-connected digital world.
Temporal Motivation Theory suggests we are more likely to work on tasks that bring us pleasure and are likely to complete successfully. And, conversely, we are more likely to procrastinate on difficult and unenjoyable tasks.
According to Temporal Motivation Theory, there are five ‘Ingredients’ to procrastination. These five ingredients interact to determine the likelihood that we will procrastinate on a given task. Some of the ingredients increase the possibility of procrastination, other ingredients decrease its likelihood.
Let’s say you’re making a procrastination cake. The five variables mentioned above (Competence, Task Value, Distractibility, Time, and Temptation Value) are your ingredients.
If you put varying amounts of each of these five variables into one bowl and then different amounts of these variables into another bowl, you’d end up with two sizes of procrastination cakes (if the size was proportional to the likelihood of procrastination).
I’ll use this graph to explain. Let’s say this graph represents my tendency to procrastinate.
Above the graph, we have four of the five variables of procrastination:
On the graph:
As you can see, when my distractibility level is low (0.03), my OSM comes on day 16. Plenty of time to complete the project. So if I’m not easily distracted, I will start the project when the deadline is 20 days away. I haven’t procrastinated.
But suppose we increase my distractibility even just a smidge (from 0.03 to 0.07). In that case, my OSM doesn’t happen until I have only eight days left until the deadline. It’s crunch time. I have procrastinated.
The opposite will happen if we increase my confidence. At low competence (i.e., confidence), my OSM happens at about 6 days until the deadline, thus meaning I have procrastinated.
But if I increase my competence, then my OSM happens sooner, so I start the project with plenty of time to complete the task.
(You can interact with the graph created by Christian Burkhart here.)
So, in sum, the likelihood of procrastination is a complex interplay of these variables:
Now that we know why we procrastinate, it will be easier to stop putting things off. Read the next article in the series “How to stop procrastinating the scientific way” to learn tools and techniques based on Temporal Motivation Theory, to help you get off your bum and hop to it—sooner rather than later.