Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Fuschia Sirois is a professor at Durham University’s Department of Psychology. She is particularly interested in how procrastination, perfectionism, loneliness and traits linked to negative mood adversely affect health, and the qualities that play a role in improving well-being.

My name is Dr Fuschia Sirois and I'm a Professor of Social and Health Psychology at Durham University. My research focuses on understanding how we can improve people's ability to self-regulate, that is managed their thoughts, feelings and behaviours while pursuing their goals.

Today I'm going to be discussing a common self-regulation issue that can have important and far-reaching implications for individuals and their teams, namely procrastination. Estimates suggest that anywhere between 15 and 25% of the adult population procrastinate regularly. So what this means is that about one in five members of your team are going to be prone to procrastination. I'm going to be walking you through on how to discern what is and isn't procrastination. I'll then debunk some of the common myths that people have about why people procrastinate, and then explore some of the real reasons that people procrastinate from the lens of psychological science. From there, I'll introduce you to several evidence-based strategies that have been shown to help reduce the risk of procrastination and also help team members get back on track once they have procrastinated. I'm Professor Fuschia Sirois and this is my Manageable Guide to understanding and overcoming procrastination.

On the surface, procrastination might just look like delay. If we see somebody perhaps putting off replying to an email request, or if they haven't started working on something that has a tight deadline, we might be quick to jump in and judge that they're procrastinating. Although these examples seem like procrastination, they could also just be delay with good reason. Researchers such as myself define procrastination as unnecessary and voluntary delay of an important tended task despite knowing that we're going to be worse off for doing so. There are key elements in that definition that are very important to understand if we're trying to figure out whether somebody is actually just delaying or whether they're procrastinating.

If somebody's not replying to an email or replying to request because some sudden emergency has come up, that actually isn't procrastination, because it's considered a necessary delay. Likewise, if somebody hasn't started on a project with an impending deadline, because somebody has asked him to put that aside and work on something else, that too is not procrastination. Because it's not voluntary delay. One key element that sets procrastination apart from your other garden-variety run-of-the-mill types of delay is that it's always harmful. We often think of the harms procrastination as being mainly related to productivity. Studies even suggest that employees spend up to a quarter of their day procrastinating. If you aggregate this over time, this can add up to be quite costly for employers, but procrastination is also harmful for employees as well.

In one study of over 22,000 employees in the US, they found that people who procrastinated frequently had greater job instability, as well as lower annual incomes. In fact, as main levels of procrastination rose by one point, annual salaries decreased by 15,000 US Dollars. There can also be reputational damage when people procrastinate as well to some of our research suggests that people don't like to work with those who procrastinate. They see them as unreliable and undependable. Procrastination can also have other collateral damage that we don't often consider. Research conducted by myself and others over the past 20 years has consistently shown that people who frequently procrastinate experience poor sleep quality, they engage in fewer healthy behaviours, they make fewer medical visits despite reporting having a greater number of physical health problems including headaches, flus and colds. They also have higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

There are a number of myths and half-truths around about why people procrastinate. This can lead to using less than effective strategies to reduce procrastination. Contrary to what many people believe procrastination is not due to poor time management. When we observe somebody procrastinating we see that they're not using their time well, because they're not meeting deadlines. This might lead us to think that they don't know how to manage that time. But the research on using time management to reduce procrastination is equivocal at best and rarely leads to lasting effects. So we can think of poor time management as a symptom of procrastination but not necessarily a cause.

Procrastination is also not due to the so-called character flaw of laziness. Psychologically speaking, when we feel lazy we don't feel like doing anything at all, we have no energy. But often what you'll find is that when people procrastinate, they get very busy with a number of other non-essential unnecessary tasks. They do this so that they can feel like they're being productive and not feel ashamed or guilty about not getting that task that they should be doing done.

From a psychological perspective, all behaviours have an origin story for procrastination. This origin story is rooted in emotions, and specifically negative emotions and an urge to cope with them through avoidance. Research has consistently shown that people tend to procrastinate on tasks that they find aversive or unpleasant, not those that they find fun and enjoyable and exciting. And this immersiveness of the task can run the full spectrum in terms of types and intensities, from simple boredom to mild frustration all the way up to stress provoking anxiety. So when people are procrastinating, it's not so much that they're avoiding the task, as they are avoiding the negative emotions associated with that task. Sometimes it's the way that task makes the person feel. If it threatens their self-esteem, if they're worried about getting it right or even perfect, that may be enough to lead to negative feelings about that task and prompt them to procrastinate. But sometimes it's our faulty perceptions about the difficulty of a task that will actually prompt procrastination. Now often, this happens when people are dealing with an unfamiliar or new task they have very little experience with, or maybe a task for which they don't have very clear guidance on what they should be doing. And these sorts of situations, people might start to imagine themselves doing the task and imagine how they'll feel doing it.

The problem is that generally speaking, people tend to overestimate the difficulty of a task, when they imagine themselves doing it in the future. We call this effective forecasting. And unfortunately, people are not very good at effective forecasting. They will tend to overestimate how negative they will feel when they're in a challenging situation. And often what happens is when they actually sit down and do that task, they find it to be nowhere near as threatening or frustrating or stressful as what they had imagined, and often find it to be quite easy. But their faulty effective forecasting can be enough to generate enough negative emotions that makes them want to avoid that task as a way of getting relief.

What this means then is that once somebody starts to use procrastination as a way to manage their mood, in relation to a task they find aversive or unpleasant, they're going to be more likely to continue to procrastinate. Because of that immediate relief that they get, the rewards from procrastinating are temporary. After some immediate relief from the negative task related emotions people start to feel guilty and ashamed because they know that they're letting themselves and others down. And so they've changed basically one set of negative feelings for another.

Research has also shown that people who procrastinate tend to feel very bad about their own procrastination, and they engage in these sort of negative, repetitive, automatic thoughts about the procrastination, which then stir up even more negative feelings. They might be thinking, what's wrong with me? Why can't I get started? Why am I procrastinating again? Why didn't I start earlier? Research has shown that rather than being motivating, this type of repetitive negative, self-directed thought, actually makes people who procrastinate feel worse about themselves and their procrastination, which means increases negative emotions, and means they're going to want to avoid that task even more.

It's also important to consider that experiencing negative emotions linked to a task is a necessary but not sufficient condition for someone to procrastinate. Many of us deal with difficult tasks. And we might have experienced some negative emotions associated with those tasks, but we find ways to manage those emotions that don't involve procrastination. But for other individuals who haven't developed the emotion regulation skills to manage those emotions effectively, procrastination becomes a quick and easy and immediate way to repair their mood. But sometimes people may procrastinate, because their resources for coping with the negative emotions associated with a challenging task is stretched beyond their capacity. This can happen when people are dealing with stressful personal issues, or even stressful health issues. So in these sorts of circumstances, individuals who you would not expect to be procrastinating may do so simply because they don't have the capacity to cope with those extra negative emotions from a difficult or challenging task.

A good example of this was during the recent pandemic. Some reports suggested that people procrastinated more during the pandemic, and it would be easy to conclude that this may have been because of remote working. People had to deal with a lot more distractions than what they were used to and this admit may have led them to procrastinate. However, a more likely explanation is the fact that people were dealing with a lot of uncertainty during the pandemic, and a lot of stress, and this background uncertainty and stress taxed their coping resources to a point where they couldn't manage dealing with any more challenging or difficult tasks, so they procrastinate on them as a way of managing that mood.

So if mismanagement of negative emotions is at the root of procrastination, then finding ways to minimise negative task related emotions, and also help your team manage any negative emotions associated with the task is going to be a clear strategy for helping to reduce procrastination. So an easy way to reduce the negative emotions that people may have about a task is to make sure that it's well structured, clearly defined, and ideally broken down into smaller sub tasks that are manageable. When a task appears to be too large, complex or overwhelming, this could make the task feel stressful to some individuals and it also might increase the likelihood that they'll overestimate how difficult will actually be. This may then prompt some people to procrastinate as a way of managing those negative emotions. But also when we organise a task into smaller sub tasks, not only does it make the task more manageable and less stressful, but it allows people to get some easy wins as they're working on that task, which can increase their motivation and their confidence about continuing on with the task.

Organising a task into smaller sub tasks add structure, as well as provides opportunities for your team to gain small successes, which can then fuel further motivation to go on and complete the larger task. Minimising task uncertainty is also very important. When people experience uncertainty, they can feel stressed and anxious, and this can then prompt them to want to procrastinate on a task. Now, although you may think that a task is clearly explained and laid out for someone, certain individuals might say that they understand what's required to them initially. But as they start to work on the task, those feelings of uncertainty come up. This is why it's really important to make sure that you keep the lines of communication open, so that people can ask questions, and not feel ashamed or guilty about having to come back to you about some aspects of the tasks that they're not clear about later on.

Without those clear lines of communication, people may be more prone to procrastinate because they feel they should know what they should be doing without having to ask, and therefore use procrastination as a way of dealing with those unpleasant feelings. One evidence-based strategy that can help people manage the negative emotions they have towards a task is to highlight the meaningfulness of that task. Reminding your team of the importance of even small tasks can be an effective way of reducing procrastination.

Our research has found that when people simply reframe a task that they're at risk for procrastinating as something more meaningful to them, it actually reduces the likelihood that they'll procrastinate. Now, this happens in part because when we put things within the lens of meaning, it helps reduce any negative feelings we have about that task that also contextualises any negative emotions that we have and gives them more of a purpose as well.

Research has consistently demonstrated that being kind, accepting and forgiving when people procrastinate, is actually an effective strategy to reduce procrastination. People are more likely to regain focus and motivation when they respond to themselves that way than when they're self-critical. In addition, modelling the self-compassionate and forgiving response to your team when they procrastinate is a good way to help them learn to do it towards themselves.

I'm Professor Fuschia Sirois and this is my Manageable Guide to understanding and overcoming procrastination.