Many of us have a procrastinator inside. Things we ought to do today are put off until tomorrow or until the very last minute. The result is a frantic, last-minute push to get finished, and results that might not be as good as we had hoped.
And some things never get finished.
The pattern recurs, in both work and private situations.
For some people it’s just a minor irritant. For others it’s a serious problem, that leads to stress, anxiety and depression. It can affect people’s health, finances, careers and relationships.
The term procrastination comes from the Latin pro (forward), and crastinus (belonging to tomorrow).
“It affects many people, to varying degrees. In American studies, roughly one in five respondents say that their procrastination causes them great or very great difficulties. No such studies have been conducted in Sweden, but most indications are that the situation is the same here. And we know that about half of all students in Sweden have problems with it,” says Alexander Rozental, psychologist and LiU graduate.
For several years Rozental has studied why we procrastinate, and what we can do about it. In 2014 he and journalist Lina Wennersten published “Dansa på deadline – uppskjutandets psykologi, or in English: Dancing on the deadline – the psychology of procrastination. It’s a sort of self-help book, full of facts, thought-provoking reflections and exercises to help you get started on things faster.
Alexander Rozental first became interested in the subject while studying psychology at Linköping University:
“As part of the programme we saw patients, under supervision. There I met a student who had a really tough time getting going with his studies. A teacher suggested I read up on procrastination.”
A seed had been sown.
Hard to focus
It’s no surprise that it was a student who sparked Alexander’s interest. Procrastination is widespread amongst this group.
“They are young adults, and the part of the brain that is central to long-term planning isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. Plus, their lives change a lot when they begin their studies – they move away from home, and they have to organise their own day-to-day lives. Study-related goals are often far off in the future. And there are plenty of other things to attract their interest.”
However students are by no means the only people with this problem. It comes down to the fact that the human brain is essentially the same as when we lived on the savannah, 40,000 years ago. There it was our most important survival tool in a hostile environment. Our brain is programmed to seek out quick rewards, and avoid danger and threats.
“Today we rarely encounter anything life-threatening, but we can feel anxious when faced with tasks we perceive as difficult,” says Rozental.
Modern-day workplaces require structure, and an ability to work towards long-term targets, while also navigating more and more distractions. Many people have trouble focussing on their work when the mobile phone and the internet offer quick gratification.
We’re simply not very well adapted to modern life.
Split into intermediate goals
Alexander Rozental tells us that in psychology a model has been developed to explain why people put things off. It’s called the procrastination equation, and it contains four factors that can be summarised as follows:
• Value: getting a reward for your efforts
• Expectancy: how difficult you feel the task is, and your ability to successfully complete it
• Delay: the distance to the deadline
• Impulsiveness: your sensitivity to interruptions and things that give short-term gratification
“To tackle the problem of putting things off, you have to work with all of these factors,” says Alexander Rozental.
When it comes to value, you have to clarify the benefits of putting time and energy into a task. You might have to see things in a long-term perspective that you perceive as positive.
“For a student, this might be about connecting the effort required to study for an exam to the future possibility of working with something you really enjoy,” says Alexander Rozental.
Long-term goals often have to be split into intermediate goals that can be ticked off as we proceed. This brings gratification and the motivation to continue.
“Sometimes it’s a good idea to schedule rewards in advance – like placing out carrots. And to reward yourself not only when you complete the job, but also when you achieve the goals along the way.”
Alexander Rozental points out that setting the right goals doesn’t only help you get things done in time, it also benefits your overall satisfaction with life.
Remove sources of distraction
When it comes to expectancy, poor self-confidence can cause problems. We procrastinate because we don’t think we’re capable of getting the job done.
“Here we have to challenge ourselves, but in small steps. When we finish one thing, we’re motivated to go on. This produces a positive spiral.”
Delay is about setting intermediate targets that are manageable.
“Plus, we have to get away from this ‘all or nothing’ approach, and realise that it’s OK to do things a bit at a time.”
“Impulsiveness is possibly the easiest to deal with. Remove the source of interruption, turn off your mobile phone and email when you need to really focus on a job. It’s about regaining control of your time,” says Alexander Rozental.
Other tips: Do one thing at a time, and do the most demanding tasks at the time of day when you’re mentally at your best. And don’t forget regular breaks.
“Our mental capacity is limited – we have to prioritise wisely. To perform well it’s important to take breaks, eat well, get enough sleep and exercise. Unfortunately these are things we often neglect when we’re stressed.”
Learn to say no
Still, sometimes there isn’t enough time, even if we do everything we can to work efficiently.
“Maybe you just have too much on your plate. It’s important to be able to say no.”
However, the advice in the book isn’t aimed at creating robots that always deliver.
“Getting the job done is one thing. But we mustn’t lose sight of how we live our lives. Sometimes you have to postpone work commitments, to make time for more important things in life.”
Still, relatively simple changes to our habits can reduce procrastination and boost well-being.
“Help is available – even for seasoned procrastinators,” says Alexander Rozental.
• Watch out for distractions – mobile phones, email, etc.
• Set concrete targets, e.g. “On Monday I will spend two hours on this”, and reward yourself afterwards.
• Do the most demanding tasks at the time of day when you’re performing at your best. And do one thing at a time.
• Take breaks, so you can keep focussed when you’re working.
• Find a good work-life balance. Sometimes you have to postpone work, to have time for family and friends.
Photo: Vibeke Mathiesen