Inevitably, before I wrote a single sentence of this article, I put some washing on, made a cup of tea, answered my emails, checked Facebook and read a couple of blogs. By then of course the washing was done and I could procrastinate for a bit longer by hanging it out to dry in the garden and watering my plants while I was there.
This didn’t really matter, because, as you can see, I got round to writing this in the end and still delivered it on time. We all procrastinate a bit, but it becomes a problem if it forms part of a chronic pattern of choosing to delay tasks despite the consequences if you miss those deadlines.
Chronic procrastination can even be bad for your health, putting you under long-term stress, encouraging you to put off exercising or eating more healthily or then even delaying visiting the doctor when you have symptoms.
So, can psychological research come to rescue to help us to procrastinate less and motivate ourselves more?
Don’t rely on willpower alone for motivation
Ian Taylor, a sports psychologist who studies motivation at Loughborough University, has found that people often assume willpower is the answer. This can work occasionally, but as he put it to me on BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind, “willpower is one type of motivation, but it’s not the best one”.
“If you imagine that motivation is like the fuel that gets you to your outcome, some fuels are very good, but others are lower quality.”
The problem with relying on willpower alone is that it might get to your goals sometimes, but it’s so fragile that it won’t always work. Instead of relying on willpower to try to ignore the unpleasant aspects of a task, consider them to be an important, inevitable part of achieving your goal. Imagine you’ve been running for 30 minutes. By now your muscles hurting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing to be fought. It’s part of getting fit.
Look for the positives in the task you keep postponing
One way of working out whether you’re a chronic procrastinator is to ask yourself whether you are putting the task off because you’re afraid of failure. After 15 years of research on procrastination, Fuschia Sirois from the University of Sheffield has found that the problem of procrastination is not simply one of laziness or poor time management – it involves difficulties in regulating emotions.
If you’re worried you’ll fail, then to avoid these unpleasant feelings of anxiety, you find excuses to postpone the task altogether. Temporarily this does make you feel better. The problem comes when you get into a vicious cycle. Because of the delay you now have less time to get the work done, increasing the risk of failure and making you feel even more anxious about it and even less likely to get started.