Beat Procrastination

Beat Procrastination

Although some people procrastinate more than others most of us are guilty of it at times. An estimated 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators. It is the act of putting off tasks until later. Most often we put off tasks when we perceive them to be unpleasant, difficult or risky but we also avoid undertakings that we know would be good for us and actually want to do. We recognise procrastination in the student who ignores an assignment for weeks only to spend the final night fretting into the wee small hours in a hurried attempt to meet the deadline. It is the invoice at the bottom of our in tray that continues to sit there, never addressed. It is the avoidance of pursuing a long-held dream as we tell ourselves we will write that novel or build that boat when we have more time. The sad thing is that if we do not make time then that day never comes, and we are left with regrets and dissatisfaction. Not only this but procrastination can increase our stress levels and affect our health as we worry about what is left undone

Understanding why we procrastinate is helpful in overcoming it. Like any well-worn habit it requires conscious effort and consistency to change but it can be done. In this help sheet we will explore why we procrastinate and look at ways to regain control so that you are more able to attend to the things that matter and escape from the guilt, anxiety and regret that accompanies procrastination. If there is anything you would like to discuss further, please contact our experienced Adviceline team.

Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination highlights our difficulty in predicting how we will feel about something tomorrow, or the next day. We assume that we will feel more like tackling things at a later time, but history demonstrates this is rarely the case. The psychologist Brehm believed that we procrastinate because we resist being told what to do by external authority figures. We perceive these orders or requests as a threat to our autonomy and sense of freedom. This may be especially true for people who have had a history with strong authority figures. Another psychologist Dr Ferrari suggested that people procrastinate for different reasons and there are 3 main types:

1. Thrill-seekers will wait for the last minute for the euphoric rush.

2. Avoiders may fear failure or even success. They are often very concerned with how others think of them and prefer for others to believe they lack effort rather than ability.

3. Decisional procrastinators avoid making decisions. This absolves them of responsibility for the outcome of events. This sometimes coincides with when they feel overwhelmed and struggle to find a way forward.

Procrastination Myths

Procrastinators can put things off because they find ways to justify their behaviour and give themselves permission to delay. Here are some common myths that we tell ourselves:

‘I work better under pressure’ The reality is that procrastination harms performance. Rushing to complete something at the last minute is neither an efficient or enjoyable way to get things done. Planning and pacing lead to better work and lower stress levels.

Become aware of your procrastination

One of the first steps in overcoming procrastination is to catch yourself in the act – going for a cup of coffee 5 minutes after you have decided to write a report; re-reading the same email without drafting a response; leaping to help others so that you can avoid facing your own work; or checking social media for the umpteenth time. Notice what you tell yourself to give yourself permission to procrastinate. It may be one of the myths mentioned below or you may have other ways of justifying it. Take some time to reflect critically on what you tell yourself and see how you persuade yourself to put things off. What else could you tell yourself instead? For instance, instead of telling yourself ‘I don’t have enough time write my presentation today’ you could say ‘I have a 30 minute window before my meeting and I will use it to write the introduction for my presentation’.

‘I must work when I am in the right frame of mind or mood’ Behind this is the idea that working when you feel less than optimal is a waste of time. Waiting for inspiration, enthusiasm or motivation is another form of procrastination. Inspiration is often the by-product of the discipline of working, as Picasso once said, ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’.

‘I can’t work on this until I have enough time’ Planning to work when you have long stretches of time sounds sensible but it is not always possible and can be another way of procrastinating. Finding long stretches of time can be difficult when we lead busy lives. This way of thinking overlooks the usefulness of short bursts of work and the ability to chip away at a project over a period of time.

‘I’ll do a better job tomorrow.’ We imagine that tomorrow we will be better rested, have better impulse control, or feel more motivated. It is as if we defer responsibility to a super-hero version of ourselves. Unless we can learn discipline today it will not follow tomorrow.


How to overcome procrastination


Below are some tips and strategies for overcoming procrastination. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions and so what follows is a range of options for you to choose from. Some will work better for you than others. Experiment with them and see what you find useful.

The Swiss Cheese Approach: This is a method introduced by Alain Lakein, author of ‘How to get control of your time and your life’. He uses the metaphor of Swiss cheese, identifiable because of its many holes, to describe an approach to working. He advocates working in small holes of time, such as fifteen minutes to half an hour. This way you can poke small holes into large tasks on a consistent basis. It can help to overcome overwhelming feelings and build momentum as you see the work progressing.

Start small: If you are putting things off because you are overwhelmed try breaking down your tasks into manageable chunks. Focus on one thing at a time and then move on to the next stage. Starting with quick, smaller tasks can help to build a sense of achievement and confidence that can carry you through to the more difficult aspects.

The 10-minute rule: Commit to doing 10 minutes work on a task. Knowing you only have to invest a small amount of time can make it easier to begin, and often has the side effect that you become engaged in the activity you continue working for longer. Before you know it 10 minutes may turn into an hour of productive activity.

Create Artificial Pressure: If you are one of the many who believe they need to work under pressure you can try creating it artificially, rather than waiting until the last minute and giving yourself little room to manoeuvre. Ways of doing this include setting a timer, giving yourself a deadline, or having an agreement with a friend or colleague that you will hand the work over at a certain time. Compare your work – If you believe you work better under pressure conduct an experiment that allows you to compare two similar pieces of work. With one you should give yourself ample time to complete it and with the other you should work in the usual down-to-the-wire fashion. Compare the finished results and see if there is a difference.

Write a To Do List: Unfinished tasks have been shown to get stuck in our memories and can be distracting. Writing things down can prevent this.

Know why you are doing something: Most of us understand that we are more motivated to do the things we value but we rarely connect this with our anti-procrastination attempts. If you are struggling to get on with something, take a few moments to think more deeply about exactly why you want to do it.

Reward yourself: Give yourself a reward when you reach the end of a challenging task or reach an important milestone. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive – a coffee, a chat with a colleague or a 10-minute break to go for a walk.

Set realistic goals: Procrastinators often underestimate the time it will take to tackle a job and then have to rush to get it done. When calculating how much time it will take to complete your work try adding on a little more than you think you need. It can be helpful to spend a week or two paying attention to how much time you actually spend on different types of work. This will enable you to plan more accurately in the future.

Know you can always improve: If we set out with the intention that we must create something perfect it can feel like trying to achieve the impossible. Such high expectations are enough to make us want to give up before we have even started. This can be countered by adopting a growth mindset –one that recognises we are constantly in a process of learning and, as such, we are always capable of improving. It acknowledges that even though there will be times when we are not completely satisfied with our work, we can find ways to do it better the next time.

Question your negative beliefs: We all experience times when we don’t do things as well as we would like but this does not mean our future has to be defined by failure. If you procrastinate because you fear failure it is likely that you have self-limiting beliefs. These are beliefs that usually develop in childhood and are negative and irrational. Examples are ‘I never do well’ or ‘If I speak out, I will look foolish’ but there are many more. The key thing about these is that they are treated as truths when they are only beliefs. Take some time to reflect on what you tell yourself that holds you back. Learn to question these beliefs and examine your history for evidence to the contrary. Recall the times when you did well and the things that you have achieved. Try changing the messages, ‘I know from my experience that I can be organised’, ‘I am articulate’, ‘I have lots of good ideas’ and so on.

Begin: Very simply just begin, act or as the familiar Nike! slogan says, ‘Just do it’. Procrastination ends with action.



Procrastination is not a disease, it is a mindset. Finding new ways of thinking and planning your goals can lead to a greater sense of achievement and reduction in the guilt, worry and shame caused by putting things off.

The above is intended for informational purposes only, and does not represent any form of clinical diagnosis. While every effort has been made to assure that the content is accurate, relevant and current we do not accept liability for any errors or omissions contained herein.  Source: CIC-EAP website (Life & Progress White-label) general content/helpsheet. E&OE.

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