How to Combat Procrastination With Science

Nejra Hojic
Edited by Isabella White
Published on
December 5, 2023

The Problem: Why it Happens 

Procrastination is a universal challenge that many individuals grapple with, especially in the context of academic and professional responsibilities. Fortunately, there is a wealth of research that provides insight into the causes and effective strategies to combat this habit.

To begin, it is important to understand the roots of procrastination. By recognizing the underlying causes, individuals can take the first step towards overcoming procrastination. Research suggests that procrastination often arises from various factors, such as the ones listed below;

Fear of Failure: One of the main reasons for procrastination is the fear of not meeting one's own or others' expectations. When individuals doubt their ability to complete a task successfully, they may delay it to avoid the possibility of failure and the accompanying negative emotions.

Lack of Intrinsic Motivation: Procrastination often arises when a task lacks intrinsic motivation. This means that if a task does not align with a person's interests, values, or long-term goals, it can be challenging to find the motivation to start and complete it.

Impulsivity: The human brain is wired to seek immediate rewards, which can lead to procrastination. Procrastinators may opt for short-term pleasures, such as checking social media or watching TV, over long-term benefits like completing an assignment. This preference for immediate gratification can undermine productivity.

Overwhelming Tasks: When a task seems overwhelming or too complex, individuals may procrastinate as a way to avoid dealing with the stress and anxiety it generates. Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable parts can help mitigate overwhelming feelings.

Lack of Self-Discipline: Procrastination can also be linked to self-regulation issues. Some people struggle with self-discipline and time management, making it challenging to start and maintain focus on a task. 

Perfectionism: Perfectionists may delay tasks because they set unrealistically high standards for themselves. They may fear that their work won't meet these standards, leading to procrastination.

Lack of Clear Goals: Without clear, well-defined goals and objectives, individuals may struggle to see the purpose or significance of a task. This lack of clarity can lead to procrastination.

Environmental Factors: Distractions in one's environment such as noise, clutter, or a disorganized workspace, can contribute to procrastination. A distracting environment can make it difficult to concentrate on tasks.

Time Management Skills: Poor time management skills also factor into procrastination. Without effective time management strategies, individuals may struggle to allocate their time efficiently, leading to procrastination.

How to Combat it

One effective strategy to combat procrastination is to break tasks into smaller, manageable pieces. Psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl, in his research on the 'Zeigarnik Effect', highlights that people tend to remember and complete unfinished tasks that have already been started, more than ones that have not. This concept shows the significance of dividing tasks into smaller, less fighting components, making it easier to get started. This is for a number of reasons less intimidating, which makes you more likely to actually start working tasks. It can also allow individuals to effectively plan out and manage their time. 

Research by Piers Steel in his 'Procrastination Equation' model emphasizes the role of expectancy, value, and impulsiveness in procrastination. In practical terms, this means individuals can reduce procrastination by increasing their expectancy of success, the value they see in the task, and by improving self-regulation skills. Setting specific goals and assigning rewards for task completion aligns with this approach, and through setting smaller, more achievable goals that are easily measurable can be an effective tool. Goals like improving your next test grade by an “x” amount is an example. Having goals allows your brain to know what it should strive for, and bigger goals like college success can also be motivating. 

Moreover, research has shown that self-forgiveness can be a powerful antidote to procrastination. A study by Fuschia M. Sirois and Tara A. W. O’Connor highlights that individuals who are more forgiving of their past procrastination are less likely to procrastinate in the future. Allowing yourself to forgive, gives you the opportunity to accept that it happened, and plan out ways on how you can prevent it from happening again. This suggests that practicing self-compassion and not dwelling on past procrastination episodes can be a productive strategy.

Another approach is to employ the 'Two-Minute Rule,' inspired by productivity expert David Allen. This rule involves starting a task that takes less than two minutes to complete immediately. The idea is that once you begin a task, it becomes easier to continue. Breaking larger tasks into two minute chunks can be a method of slowing down procrastination. An example of this is telling yourself you will do one math problem, or write three sentences for an essay. Starting a task is sometimes the biggest challenge in stopping procrastination. The two-minute rule serves as a valuable tool to overcome that initial hurdle. 

Structured accountability can be another effective tactic. The mere presence of an accountability partner or using apps designed for task tracking can provide motivation. Research on the impact of this, found that external accountability can reduce procrastination tendencies. Having a friend that serves as your accountability partner can help tremendously. Involving yourself in study groups, going to libraries or other places you will be surrounded by people working can also be great. 

Procrastination can be seen as a byproduct of impulsivity. Mindfulness, through practices like meditation, can aid in strengthening self-control and focus. Research by Joel Anderson and Akihiko Masuda suggests that mindfulness meditation can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, reducing impulsive procrastination behaviors.It can also help you understand why you procrastinate in the first place; if it's simply because of distractions, or if its something rooted deeper, like a fear of failing. 

Lastly, the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, provides a structured approach to time management. This technique brings together various points mentioned previously and involves working in focused intervals, typically 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. This method leverages the human brain's ability to maintain focus for shorter periods, reducing the perceived burden of prolonged work. It also utilizes the approach of the ‘2 minute rule’, while also acting as external accountability, while leaving you with little room to get distracted in the first place. 

Combating procrastination is a challenge that many face, but it's a challenge that can be effectively addressed using research-backed strategies. By understanding the causes of procrastination and applying evidence-based methods such as task breakdown, setting clear goals, self-forgiveness, the Two-Minute Rule, accountability, mindfulness, and structured time management techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, individuals can take meaningful steps to overcome procrastination and enhance their productivity and well-being.

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