How to stop procrastinating

All procrastination involves, technically, is putting things off till later. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the black hole of pointless activity that procrastination can become. Despite a to-do list the length of a Russian novel, you might find yourself suddenly deciding that now is the time to clean the oven. It’s not the unfinished commission that is the emergency, you decide, at a peak of stress-induced irrationality – it’s the housework.

Many of us are also familiar with the alarming distortion of time that seems to occur when a task endlessly put off because it’s not due for ages is suddenly a grim necessity that has to be achieved by the next day, requiring an all-nighter and a last-minute delivery. Mystified, you think to yourself: “How could this have happened? I’ve had weeks to work on this.” You had the time, but you didn’t do anything with it.

If this sounds like you, the good news is you’re not alone. There’s even a website, Procrastinators Anonymous, bearing the not-especially-inspiring slogan, “Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried.” The bad news is, your condition might very well be incurable.

Procrastinators Anonymous, as you may have guessed from the name, takes a serious, self-help approach, framing procrastination as a type of addiction. OK, unlike drugs or alcohol, it won’t kill you, but, as a member reminds us, it can lead to businesses going under or fortunes being lost. Pathologising procrastination as something akin to a heroin habit might be a little extreme, but the site is full of useful thoughts: could curing yourself of procrastination also mean giving up ‘time binges’, defined as doing just one task for three hours or longer? Perhaps procrastination can be overcome by inventing a 'magic bullet' for yourself, for example, always putting on the same shirt before you sit down and work? (What to do on laundry days is not discussed.)

The site even features the Procrastination Song, by singer/songwriter Miranda Hope: “Cannot return, wait my turn,” she sings. “Just die here, wait my turn.” Argh! Is it really that bad?

Perhaps not. An article on procrastination over at The 99% gives constructive advice on how to overcome procrastination without taking a 12-step programme. (It also, rather flatteringly, cites Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind as a procrastinators’ hero for lines like, “I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I can stand it.”) Try working on a project just a little bit a day, rather than doing everything in one go. And develop a more positive take on deadlines: isn’t it better to have a definite endpoint, rather than spinning out a project for months or even years?

It’s hard to imagine these suggestions making an impact on the iron-willed procrastination of Scarlett O’Hara, but never mind, she’s a fictional character. At Lifehack, a list of anti-procrastination tips for modern Scarletts includes turning off automatic email notifications, working in the same space as a friend, and re-clarifying your goals to make sure that you’re not just procrastinating because you’ve lost interest in the project. These all sound wise but, as the article concludes, perhaps it’s mainly a matter of just getting a grip and doing it.

Against this tough optimism, Psychology Today’s 10 Things You Should Know about Procrastination quotes the wonderfully named Dr Ferrari: “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up.” Amid this article’s rather stern description of procrastinators as deluded timewasters with a propensity for alcoholism, Dr Ferrari offers the theory that there are three types of procrastinators: thrill-seekers, who enjoy the adrenaline of a looming deadline; avoiders, who protect their secret conviction that they might be a genius by never really doing anything that could disprove it; and ‘decisional procrastinators’, who can’t deal with the dizzying responsibility of actually making a decision.

Procrastinators, says Psychology Today, can change their “maladaptive” ways, but only with great effort. And they might still feel just as hopeless, even if their behaviour changes, because the underlying causes will remain. “Procrastinators actively look for distractions,” says the article, “particularly ones that don't take a lot of commitment on their part. Checking e-mail is almost perfect for this purpose.”

If procrastination has deep psychological causes, perhaps there are more important things to consider when you think about why you’re procrastinating. It could be that happiness in another area of your life is affecting your energy for work, or that you stress yourself out saying yes to too many things, or that you lack self-belief.

If you really are a chronic procrastinator, the secret might be not to cram yourself full of advice on how to become an efficient, well-oiled working machine. It might be that the best way to get over procrastination is both the simplest and the most difficult: give yourself a break.

The 99% quotes a study that says 26% of Americans confess to procrastination. But were everyone to answer honestly, the figure would probably be more like 90%. Procrastination might not be dysfunctional timewasting, but a normal part of trying to get a lot of things done. Life and work are busy and often difficult, full of contradictory demands, stressful circumstances and unexpected twists of fate. And work is often boring, intimidating or lacking in pleasure. Isn’t it the non-procrastinators who are the weirdos, not us?

Monica Ramirez Basco, the author of The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done, says in an interview, “Procrastination, especially on things that are unpleasant, it's part of our nature. I think there's a very small group of people who never procrastinate, and they maybe have another problem of being sort of compulsive.” Take that, non-procrastinators!

Finally, if you’re a dedicated member of Team I’ll-Do-It-Tomorrow, make sure you watch the lovely animated short film Procrastination by RCA graduate Johnny Kelly (Animation, 2007). Its very existence suggests that even procrastinators can produce beautiful things when they get round to it. According to Kelly, “Procrastination is being afraid to finish something.” Look on the bright side: fear of an ending shows, at the very least, that you’ve managed to make a start.