Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Theory of Procrastination: Ten Principles to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination is the act of putting off or delaying action on something which requires immediate attention and action. Procrastination is often confused with postponement. Both have in their meanings the words ‘putting off’ or ‘delaying’. Postponement is the act of putting off or delaying an originally planned one to a later date. Postponement is relative to a plan, and indicates de-prioritisation, merited or not. Procrastination, on the other hand, is relative to the need for immediate attention. Postponement is often linked to a reluctance to bestow effort, either due to laziness or otherwise. Postponement on certain occasions tends to be benign, and on certain occasions, life threatening. Postponement has many times a financial motive; individuals would like to postpone expenses and advance incomes. Procrastination and postponement are interrelated.

Procrastination is postponing something needlessly and mostly indefinitely, without regard to time, effort, resources or results. Postponement, on the other hand, tends to be tactical opportunism to conserve effort and resources. Both make one lose time, in essence, and delay or totally avoid outcomes or lose results. Procrastination is said to be the thief of time by Benjamin Franklin. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The future depends on what you do today”. Procrastination, it is said, is often due to fear of failure. Here again, what Mahatma Gandhi said is relevant: “To do what we fear is the first step to success”. Dick Cheney, former Vice President of USA is reported to have said, “I think I was able to survive five heart attacks because I never postponed going to hospital when something didn’t feel right”. On certain occasions, postponement provides unanticipated results, like landing on a better job relative to the one in hand.

Procrastination is universal

It is imagined that procrastination strikes only certain people who are wired to be procrastinating. The truth is that even apparently productive people tend to procrastinate. People who seem to multi-task effortlessly or seem to be putting every idle minute to productive use (for example, working on laptop while waiting in the airport lounge) could also be procrastinating on a few vital things. In fact, such visible fury of productive working could be a subtle cover for the ongoing procrastination. Procrastination would well have been left to an individual’s choice but for the adverse impact it has on one’s own and others’ lives. While occasional procrastination may be inevitable, regular procrastination as a personality trait could have underlying behavioural implications.

There are three principal causes why people succumb to procrastination. At one end of the spectrum, an individual could be so opinionated that he or she is unable to judge the importance of the action he or she must take as well as the rewards of taking the action and the pitfalls of not taking the action. Some of the critical lifestyle issues, like doing proper exercise or taking proper diet, fall into this category. At the other end of the spectrum, an individual could be so obsessed with perfectionism that he or she would never embark on anything for fear of outcomes being not to expectations or receiving criticisms. Most people fall between the two ends of the spectrum, weighed down by a whole range of issues relating to time management, emotional burdening and mood swings.

Loop of procrastination

Procrastination is a continuous loop which takes hold of an individual the moment he or she enters the loop once. The usual entry point into the loop is delay in acting on something due to a lack of awareness of its importance, and the essence of timeliness. As one avoids taking action on the matter, the negative consequences of inaction start becoming apparent, both by comparison and by self-evaluation. A student putting off studies or a software engineer putting off the testing of his code fall into the same category. As the hopelessness caused by the delay becomes evident, the individual slips into a negative mood which could lead to one of the three outcomes; he could entirely give up with total nonchalance or helplessness, he could try to complete it by leaving everything else with total burnout or do what he can with a low level of self-worth. In any of the routes, the emotional consequences are negative.

Procrastination typically leads to more procrastination. A student who burns midnight oil to cram everything prior to the examination deadline would be leaving out all other extracurricular activities, and even may be skipping the day classes. The software engineer who defers testing to the penultimate day may fumble to remediate even small errors.  As the negative emotions start taking charge, one would start distancing oneself from peers and others, and avoiding carrying out even daily chores, be it reading a newspaper or checking an email. The feeling of guilt associated with not being oneself only worsens the mood. Depending on the emotional personality of the individual, the feeling of guilt could be manageable or unmanageable. When procrastination starts weighing down on one’s life, one must start taking external help for structured approaches to break the loop of procrastination.

Ten helpful principles

This blog post proposes ten principles which are fairly simple in logic but complex in terms of behaviour for an individual to control, overcome and eliminate procrastination.


The first step in beating procrastination is being open; open about the required actions and the likely consequences. Openness also includes taking a broader view of life than a myopic view of just one event. For example, starting an exercise regimen should not be seen allocation of 30 minutes a day but rather as a component of total lifestyle. We tend to receive inputs all the while. One should be open to receiving them, analysing them and absorbing them, including those that seem to be critical. 


The second step in overcoming procrastination is being reflective; understanding one’s own reluctance to apply oneself to the task even though the requirements and consequences are known.  One must figure out whether it is a question of time and effort or of mood and ambience. Figuring out the reasons for procrastination is the most important step towards conquering procrastination.


The third step relates to carefully identifying the obstacles in the path that are related to one’s own body, mind and personal ecosystem. Releasing greater time out of the limited time available could be the most effective way to overcome the barriers. Uncluttering of one’s assets, be it home, desk or inbox could be one way; in some cases, becoming an early morning person could be the solution, and in some cases being a night owl could be the answer. In all cases, being ahead of the curve in terms of time and effort is the key.


In most cases, the unknown does give trepidation, even to the otherwise accomplished individuals. Learning to ride a bike or drive a car is a simple example. Until one faces the challenge of balancing on two wheels or driving through a crowded street, the first move is necessary to address the concerns squarely. The moment the first step is successful, trepidation leads to exhilaration, and exhilaration leads to further execution.


Not in all cases, dive-ins help; in a few cases there could be failures leading to deepening of negative emotions and moods. Perseverance backed by an evaluation of what went wrong and execution of a remediation plan is the answer. However, it is easier said than implemented. This is one area where help from the immediate environment would be very helpful. Openness to seek help would be important, though.


Failure is often related to aspirations being far more than what resources can support. Having more on the plate than what can one chew is one of the primary triggers for procrastination. One would be better off doing a few things right rather than staring blankly at a long laundry list of things to do. Unmanageable projects intimidate any person. Researchers eventually discover that a simple pilot experiment or a synopsis of the research project provides greater confidence than trying to execute a mega experiment or script a thesis right away.    


While activity is never an achievement, celebrating key activities reinforces one’s ability to overcome procrastination. As one sets about constructing a huge website, developing a homepage itself deserves a celebration. Celebrations linked to successes trigger the androgen, serotonin and norepinephrine receptors in one’s brain to elevate one’s mood. Positive mood is the most important aid to overcome procrastination. Celebrating results is, of course, the ultimate success in overcoming procrastination.


Perfection has a place but not everywhere, every time. Perfection is also contextual. In the early phases of conquering procrastination, perfectionists would need to reappraise their penchant for perfection. There is an insightful quotation in journalism: “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page”. An optimized result that can be celebrated is worth more than a perfect aspiration which may never see the light day.


Self-motivation is the last of the final two steps in decisively overcoming procrastination. Ability to forgive oneself for one’s failures and motivate oneself for next success is important in the fight against procrastination. As Mahatma Gandhi said thoughts become words, words become behaviours, behaviours become habits, habits become values and values become destiny.


The ultimate support and insurance for eliminating, and even avoiding procrastination, is an ecosystem that supports all the above principles. Having right friends and right colleagues who operate in an environment of decisiveness, timeliness and goal orientation is an extremely important determinant. At times, one would need to move to a better environment as a systemic antidote to procrastination.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 08, 2016   

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