Why do we procrastinate and how to stop?

Procrastination is the action of delaying or postponing the completion of a task. Procrastinators go out of their way to avoid doing aversive tasks. A student at one of my writing workshops told me that, instead of writing her master’s thesis, she repots her plants. At the time of the workshop, she was living in a botanical palace but hadn’t made much progress on her thesis. 

Do you recognize yourself in procrastinators? If so, you’re not alone. In a previous article (that you can find here), I told the story of how I worked 35 hours straight to finish my doctoral thesis on time. Research shows that 80-95% of university students regularly procrastinate and nearly half of the graduate students report that they always or almost always put off writing papers. Procrastination is a common affliction that can have disastrous consequences.

Students who procrastinate perform less well, but chronic procrastination does not only have productivity costs. It also affects people’s mental and physical health. Procrastination leads to chronic stress, low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor health behaviors, chronic diseases, and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Procrastination is a destructive habit, and those who practice it are well aware of its drawbacks. So why do they continue to procrastinate?

One mind, two systems

If only human beings were always rational! Certainly, compared to other species, we are remarkably capable of using our logic to make decisions based on the information we have. In theory, we can, in practice we rarely do so. The problem with analytical thinking is that it is too laborious and too slow to deal with the flow of information and decisions we have to make in our daily lives. As a result, our mind relies mainly on automatic and sometimes even unconscious thoughts. Current theories in psychology, also called dual-process theories, refer to this model of the mind as System 1 and System 2.  

System 1 corresponds to our intuitions, what naturally comes to our mind or what we do automatically without thinking about it and without much effort. For example, if you’re an experienced car driver, you most often rely on System 1 when you’re driving your car. You slow down, accelerate, shift gears, look in the rear-view mirror without thinking about it. You can have a conversation with someone at the same time or listen to a podcast; the act of driving leaves enough cognitive capacity for that. System 1 is involved when we perform routine behaviors, such as driving. It is also activated when we rely on automatic thoughts and mental shortcuts, for example when we use stereotypes, or when we feel the need to satisfy impulses or cravings, such as eating a delicious ice cream cone. Yummy!

System 2 corresponds to the reasoned part of our minds, our deliberate mental actions. When you were an apprentice driver (or when you will be, if you cannot drive yet), you spent most of your driving time using System 2. All the actions that you performed required your awareness. You had to consciously decide on which pedal to put your foot on to lose or gain speed or switch gears. System 2 involves slow and tiresome processes. System 2 is activated when we actively focus our attention on a task, when we think beyond our usual thought patterns, and when we try to resist temptation and exert self-control.

Another way to represent these two systems is to think about an elephant (System 1), on the back of which sits a rider (System 2). This metaphor is attributed to the Buddha 2500 years ago (and taken up by the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, see his book).

The elephant and the rider

In Buddha’s metaphor, our intuitive and automatic system is an elephant because of its strength. If we feel like doing (or not doing) something, it is as difficult to ignore these feelings as it is to get a wild and untamed pachyderm to obey us. When our elephants see an ice cream shop, we go in and buy one, even if we have decided to stop eating sugar. When our elephants enjoy the comfort of our beds in the early morning, we press the snooze button. And when our elephants think about writing our master’s or doctoral thesis, we open Facebook, Instagram, or the news channel. 

In the metaphor, our reason, the rider, is just a little guy sitting on the back of a wild animal. He may be smarter, but he doesn’t have much power. Quite the contrary, the rider even often works for the elephant: The elephant makes a decision, and the rider justifies these decisions like a lawyer defends his client. “I have been to the gym today; I deserve this ice cream”. ”I am so tired, I cannot do efficient work in that state, better stay in bed ”. “I still have plenty of time for my thesis!”. 

Elephants are short-sighted animals that care about their immediate well-being. Procrastination is their short-term strategy for maximizing positive emotions and minimizing negative ones. The further away a reward or punishment is, the less the elephant cares. The closer it gets, the less comfortable the elephant feels in ignoring it, until it becomes an emergency; until the panic associated with putting on weight or missing the deadline becomes far more important than the immediate reward. 

How can this knowledge help us deal with procrastination? 

Animal education experts know that the best way to get an animal to do what you want it to do is to use the carrot instead of the stick. If your elephant is motivated to run in the right direction, no one will be able to stop it, and everyone, elephant and rider alike, will feel good.

Thus, an excellent strategy to avoid procrastination is to increase the short-term rewards associated with the task you are procrastinating on.

Reward yourself and set small goals

To motivate your elephant, you can reward yourself after a work session by taking a break and doing something you really enjoy.

For me, the best reward is knowing that I’ve achieved my goals. That’s why I set small goals (see this post). Small goals are great because they are numerous, easy to achieve, and therefore provide frequent immediate rewards. I love the feeling of having accomplished one of my goals and checking it off my to-do list!

Small goals have another advantage: They are not scary for our elephants. For example, on days when I really don’t feel like working, I say to myself “Alright, you work for 25 minutes and if after that you still don’t feel like working, you stop here”. The 25-minute agreement is acceptable for my elephant. Usually, after 15 minutes, I’m up and running and happy to continue. 

So, if you keep procrastinating on a certain task or if you fail to implement a new habit, you can try to set the bar very low. Your goal could be to write 50 words a day for your master’s thesis or to do one push-up every day. These kinds of goals are called “mini habits”. Mini-habits help you get started. If you start a mini-habit, chances are that when you reach your goal, for example after writing two sentences, you’ll want to keep going and do more. However, even if you stop there, it’s important to rejoice in your accomplishment: Writing two sentences is the goal you had given to yourself and it’s better than nothing. Rewarding small achievements help to create a positive association with the task, which makes it easier to tackle it. Mini-habits are perfect for elephants. Elephants do things they are used to doing; that’s what defines them. So, if you get into the habit of writing every day, even if it is only two sentences, it will become easier and more automatic, like brushing your teeth.

Get organized

Finally, to get out of the habit of procrastination, you may need to give your rider more space. Rather than following your intuition and letting your elephant run free, take the time to discuss with your rider what needs to be done. Plan time to get organized and think about the problems you encounter. What should you be working on today? Why are you reluctant to do this task? Are you afraid of failing? Or is the task boring? Or are you unsure where to start?

As mentioned earlier, procrastination is a strategy to regulate our emotions in the short term. It is, therefore, useful to identify the emotions that are holding us back in order to remove the obstacles they present. 

In the coming weeks, I will devote several blog posts to reflect on the emotions that drive us to procrastinate. I will talk about fear of failure, fear of success (yes, it’s one thing, you’ll see), uncertainty, boredom, and fatigue. I’ll explain where these emotions come from and give some advice on how to deal with them. Until then, I wish you the best of time!


PS: if you want to know more about System 1 and System, check Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking fast and slow. Kahneman is a social psychologist who received a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on judgment and decision making. This book is an excellent read for those who want to better understand the human mind.

Cover photo by Harshil Gudka on Unsplash – Ice cream photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

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