Procrastination: What It Is and How to Overcome It

“Procrastination is the thief of time.”

— Edward Young

It is evening, way past bedtime, and Emma is sitting at her desk. The room is entirely dark except for that tiny lamp light, directed toward the open book residing comfortably on the desk.

But instead of looking at the open book that is residing in comfort on the desk, Emma has her head held on her palms, looking extremely anxious. A science exam is coming up tomorrow, and she still has not gone past chapter two.

The clock is ticking, but Emma still cannot get herself to study. Instead, she is occupied by the thought of how unfair it is to subject kids to the brutal experience adults call school education.

To handle all that stress her innocent little brain is going through, Emma then starts indulging in daydreams about living in a world where all she gets to do is eat chocolate doughnuts, scroll on TikTok, and read comic books in between. 

Though Emma does not like exams, she also hates failing at them. So, a little feeling of regret begins to kick in, and before she knows it, she blames herself for not starting her exam preparation earlier. “Why did I repeatedly put it off?” she wonders.

Stress unexpectedly levels up and drives Emma to get it all over with. So she returns to studying after she vows not to procrastinate on her school duties ever again, a promise you, I, and every genuine procrastinator on planet Earth know Emma will probably not keep.

Despite the pleasure we get when we postpone things, we know deep down that procrastination is a nasty habit. It does not just kill productivity and ravage performance. But it is also a major cause for anxiety and stress. And without us even realising it, procrastination takes away a brick of our self-esteem every time we turn to TikTok instead of doing the maths homework.

But we at learningmole.com have got you covered. In this article, we will go over what causes procrastination and how we can dig our way out of it toward a more disciplined, successful, and hopefully stress-free life.

So let’s hop into it.

What is procrastination?

Simply put, procrastination is the act of delaying important tasks for the sake of doing others that are not as vital at the moment. A very famous example of this is when we ignore the homework for Minecraft or when we hop on YouTube instead of carrying out the rubbish.

That said, procrastination does not necessarily mean we skip what is important for what is fun. In fact, it all comes down to priorities.

We procrastinate when we avoid the things with the highest priority and do other non-urgent ones. So even if you finally do that pile of dishes that has been cloning itself in the sink for the past few days instead of writing that paper that is due in four hours, this is procrastination, even though both actions are productive.

According to researchers, procrastination is not an individual problem. It is more of a global one that millions of people worldwide, and for so long, have struggled with.

Knowing that we are not the only people dealing with a certain problem makes it less intimidating. However, it still does not fix it.

Problems are like habits. They are caused by reasons, just like habits are initiated by triggers. If we can overcome a habit by deactivating its trigger, we can also better handle and find practical solutions for our problems when we learn why we do them.

So let’s explore the reasons why we procrastinate.

Why do we procrastinate?

The fact that procrastination is such a global problem which millions worldwide struggle with suggests that it has something to do with our human nature, with all of us, collectively.

1. The present self

Tim Urban is a blogger who has been struggling with procrastination himself. In a fascinating TED talk viewed over 51 million times on YouTube, Tim describes his experience trying to understand why most of us do this bad habit. According to him, it is not our fault that we procrastinate but rather the monkey’s.

Tim believes we have a rational decision-maker in our brains. This person is in charge of making good decisions that will positively impact our lives. He is the one who urges us to put the phone down and study for the exam. Yet, the rational decision-maker is not the only resident of our brains. Many, if not most of us, also have an instant gratification monkey who just wants to goof around all day long, and he often succeeds in doing that.

These two characters are excellent metaphors for what scientists call the present and future selves.

The present self is our brains’ tendency to live in and enjoy the moment. It loves immediate pleasure and pay-off and chooses them over what it can get in the future. The gratification monkey represents the present self but in behavioural psychology it is known as time inconsistency.

On the other hand, the future self is more concerned about, well, the future. It envisions the most favourable things that can happen and sets plans for them. 

It is not until when we must execute these plans that conflicts kick in.

To make something come true, we must take action, and actions happen in the present time. In other words, they must be taken by the present self, the monkey. But the present self wants to live in the moment and enjoy everything it has now. To get the future benefit, the rational decision-maker must take the lead.

Once the rational decision-maker tries to take over the wheel, the monkey clings to it, and both of them start to fight.

For many people, the rational decision-maker is not as persistent and strong as the monkey. Soon enough, it loses the fight against the monkey and they end up procrastinating. 

2. Boredom

Based on what we just mentioned, the monkey being more in control and the present self being obsessed with enjoying immediate rewards, it makes sense to say that boredom directly leads to procrastination.

If what we must do is boring, our brains automatically will switch to something more fun. Sadly, we do not pay much attention to any unpleasant consequences of skipping this important but tedious task. Instead, our priority suddenly becomes avoiding the pain that comes along with it.

Boredom is not the only negative feeling we try to escape by procrastination. If what we must do is hard, challenging, or stressful, we also tend to avoid experiencing all these unpleasant feelings, even temporarily, by putting the tasks off.

3. Perfectionism

Simply put, protectionism is the constant seeking to achieve perfect results that meet incredibly high standards. It, sadly, also means the refusal of anything else that does not match the definition of perfect.

According to this definition, it is normal to think that perfectionists are very hard-working, and they are. They make tremendous efforts to produce the neatest and most accurate work. So what do they have to do with procrastination, which is all about skipping work instead of doing it?

Despite how smart they are, perfectionists seem to miss one important fact about life, that nothing is perfect, that imperfection is embedded in everything in this universe as well as our DNA. They are rather blinded by their obsession with perfectionism, rejecting anything less than that. With time, they associate their own worthiness with the perfect results they seek and develop the absurd ‘all or nothing’ mentality.

This mentality sometimes causes perfectionists to procrastinate because they become too anxious about achieving the perfect. So they delay what they must do until the right time or until they feel they are capable of doing it the way they accept.

4. Low self-esteem 

Another thing that is somehow similar to perfectionism and may lead to procrastination is low self-esteem or low self-confidence.

Some people do not believe in themselves enough to take action. Deep down, they have this profound belief that they do not have what it takes to succeed, let alone do any tasks.

People with low self-esteem are famous for having negative self-talk. They repeatedly tell themselves that they are not good, hard-working, or intelligent enough. They are way far from recognising their good qualities and skills. But instead, they constantly compare themselves to others.

The more they do these poor behaviours, the faster they turn them into bad habits and later into false beliefs about themselves. These false beliefs then become the new base of their actions. So once they are asked to do something, they instantly decide they cannot do it and put it off.

5. Lack of focus

According to researchers, our attention span has tremendously decreased over the last 10 years thanks to the increasing number of distractions we are currently being surrounded with, from our constantly beeping phones and the information that floods our brains every second to that provokingly gurgling sound coming from the sink.

As a result, it is becoming hard for us to focus on anything for more than 8.25 seconds! Can you imagine that? Scientists even report that a goldfish can focus for longer than us, with an attention span of nine seconds!

With such weary attention, we can easily give in to any distraction, which is often so mesmerising that we do not get back to what we were doing 10 seconds earlier. So we immediately decide to put it off and do it after lunch when we feel more focused and energetic.

How do we overcome procrastination?

No matter how deeply each of us is swamped in procrastination, we are all facing at least one bad outcome of this nasty habit: anxiety. Despite how pleased we temporarily become by procrastinating on tedious, hard or stressful tasks, we cannot escape the guilt over the time we wasted and the stress about what we yet have to do.

That said, there are definitely other bad consequences for procrastination with different degrees of seriousness. For kids, they can be negative feedback from the teacher and lower grades which both make parents disappointed. This can potentially reflect on children’s self-images, pushing them into the vicious cycle of negative self-talk, procrastination, lousy performance, repeat.

For adults, consequences can range from inadequate evaluations from the manager and the loss of promotion to position downgrading, payment cuts, and sometimes even dismissal.

In other words, we truly need to overcome procrastination. Besides sparing ourselves all the terrible outcomes, we also become more confident, believe in our abilities, do better at school and work, earn self-respect and live a more comfortable, anxiety-free life.

So let’s discuss some tips on how to break the habit of procrastination.

1. Build a reward system.

As you hopefully recall, our natural tendency to procrastinate comes from the present self’s love of immediate pay-off, which, unless rewarded right now, will probably not do the action.

According to James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, we can trick the present self into doing the action now by moving the reward to the present time. In other words, we have to reward ourselves for the actions we do now that will positively impact our future.

Parents and teachers can help a lot by creating a reward system that will not only make kids stop procrastinating but also motivate them to work hard and take action. This can happen by writing a list of the things kids love, from small ones such as lollipops and cotton floss to their favourite sports, superhero outfits and that bicycle they want for Christmas.

2. Make the action doable.

Do you know why YouTube Shorts often have more views than regular videos? Well, yes, because they are short.

An excellent way to help make a task more achievable is to break it down into smaller tasks. Only then do we immediately think, “Oh, I can do that.”

If you have to write an essay, break it down into paragraphs and then into sentences. If you need to walk a kilometre, consider you are just walking a hundred metres but ten times. If you need to drink three litres of water daily, just drink a cup every 30 minutes.

This does not just help us avoid procrastination. But it also makes us feel productive and accomplished, which leads to more productivity and makes taking the following action even more accessible. Doing minor but repeated actions consequently builds momentum, which guarantees we keep going.

3. Use commitment devices.

In his interesting TED talk about the conflict between our present and future selves, Daniel Goldstein uses what he calls a commitment device to get himself to write. So he decides to give away five dollars if he does not write five papers a day. By making this decision in the present time, he is preventing himself from doing a particular action which is skipping writing, in the future.

This is also known as designing our future actions, which works perfectly well when we try to break bad habits too. Do you want to stop drinking soda when you wake up in the middle of the night? Do not buy it in the first place!

Commitment devices can also help us stop procrastination. James Clear reported that he avoided procrastinating on writing articles by letting his assistant change the passwords of all his social media accounts on Monday morning. Having nothing to waste his time on, it was easier for James to commit to writing all week long. Then once it was the weekend, his assistant gave him the passwords.

As they repeated this action every week, James was able to write and post articles on his website every Monday and Thursday for about three years. This had such a tremendously positive impact on his career as a writer, resulting in him writing Atomic Habits. This book has now become a #1 New York Times bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Conclusion

Here we get to the end of today’s article, where we discussed procrastination in terms of what it is, what causes it, and how we can overcome it by making some small yet effective changes.

Defined as the act of delaying important and urgent tasks, procrastination is a global problem that millions of people around the world are constantly struggling with. It is mainly caused by the unequal battle between the present self, which wants to enjoy the here and now, and the future self, which plans for the future.

Then we looked into the other causes that lead us to procrastinate. Besides boredom and perfectionism, having low self-esteem and the lack of focus make it hard for us to stay committed and way easier to put things off.

After that, we discussed some hopefully effective solutions to help overcome procrastination. Building a reward system has proven effective in motivating the present self to take action. In addition, breaking big tasks into smaller ones makes the action easier and much more doable. Lastly, we introduced commitment devices to help us remove the procrastination triggers.

We hope you found this article useful as much as we found it enjoyable to write for you. Now that you know how to avoid procrastination, you can improve your mental skills by reading this article or learn how to choose a foreign language to learn here.

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