Getting into Gear:
A Procrastinator’s Guide to the Universe*
Most of us are familiar with the expression “Never put off until tomorrow what can be done today.” Of
course, in real life, many of us delay tasks that we find uninteresting, unimportant or downright nasty.
But we also procrastinate doing things that are potentially interesting, important, or even vital. Sometimes
this delay is logical and practical. Sometimes it isn’t, but the consequences are of no significant
It is estimated by psychologists specialized in the area of procrastination, that between 15% and 25% of
the population (including students) classify themselves as chronic procrastinators. Procrastination takes
many forms: late bill payments and missed deadlines; constant excuses and apologies; an impressive list
of unfulfilled, yet good intentions; chronic underperformance, failure and low self-esteem; a long series of
disappointments; and a bad reputation fiscally, professionally and socially.
Chronic procrastination in students can have a serious impact on self-esteem and is a major contributing
factor in school drop-out. Alcohol and other substance abuse can become problematic as substances are
used to escape the persistent feeling of pressure and to dull the negative emotional state so often
associated with chronic procrastination.
Procrastination becomes a problem when
• The external consequences are negative
o Doing poorly on or failing assignments
o Getting fired from a job or receiving a poor job evaluation
o Missing appointments
o Missing other social activities
o Being perpetually late (for class, activities, deadlines, etc.)
o Having things literally pile up
• The internal consequences are negative
o Feeling anxious
o Feeling overwhelmed
o Feeling ill
o Feeling frightened
o Feeling incompetent, incapable, helpless
o Feeling discouraged……. (the list goes on!)
Why Do We Procrastinate?
There are many reasons why people procrastinate. The most obvious is to delay a perceived
unpleasant task and sometimes replace it with something that gives more immediate satisfaction. Of
course we all know that procrastination usually simply delays the inevitable. It’s as if we stuff the
responsibility of doing something (along with all the fears, anxiety and other unpleasant feelings
connected to it) into a knapsack and sling it over our back where we don’t have to look at it. The problem
is, we feel its weight following us everywhere we go. Furthermore, as time goes on, we get tired of
lugging around the burden, yet the sack gets heavier and heavier with the accumulation of other avoided
things. We feel an increasing need to avoid, as the mountain of delayed responsibilities looms and our
emotional and cognitive energy resources are depleted. We fall into a vicious cycle.
So why do we procrastinate? There are many possible reasons:
1. Procrastinators are often perfectionists or are otherwise demanding of themselves. High
expectations and unreasonable standards are enough to freeze anyone in their tracks. While
“reaching for the stars” and striving for excellence are admirable and can help us to surpass our
goals, to realize our full potential, to achieve our dreams and to make a difference in the world, it
is important to accept that it is impossible to constantly be pushing ourselves to the limit. We are
not machines. Our energy is not limitless and perfection can never be attained. Procrastination in
perfectionists may be a psychological survival tactic. Knowing that perfection is impossible and
therefore that dissatisfaction with the product of one’s efforts is inevitable, avoiding the task
offers salvation from that suffering.
Sometimes procrastination can be a clue that we have overloaded ourselves and truly do not have
enough time or energy to accomplish all the goals we have before us. Re-evaluation of priorities
and objectives may be an excellent exercise in this case. Individuals who have difficulties
prioritizing as well as accepting and respecting their limits are not only more likely to
procrastinate but are also at risk of developing anxiety and depression symptoms.
2. Feeling fearful. Sometimes fear can paralyze us. Procrastinators sometimes fear that their
efforts will not pay off (whether they are perfectionists or not); they may anticipate and fear that,
even if they try, they will not succeed. This may be based on a single or several past experiences
of real or perceived failure; but regardless, the idea of others seeing them as lacking effort or
motivation is more attractive than that of being perceived of as lacking ability. Procrastinating
then represents a short-term attempt to delay the disappointment associated with anticipated
On the other hand, some people actually fear success. Success brings expectations for further
adequate performance and success. Some individuals may experience this as pressure to perform
and to maintain standards that they feel unprepared or unwilling to meet. Procrastination in this
case represents avoidance of anticipated further responsibilities that might follow the successful
accomplishment of a task.
3. Feeling angry. Occasionally, procrastination is an expression of anger. This anger may be
generalized or may be directed towards an individual. For example, it may be a form of rebellion
against excessive parental control. An academic example would be of a student who delays
working on or handing in a paper because of a past conflict or misunderstanding experienced with
a teacher. The student may perceive procrastination as a way of establishing control, behaving
assertively, or gaining the upper hand. Of course the procrastination has little or no effect on the
teacher, and offers only a false sense of control. The strategy backfires when the student realizes
that the avoided responsibility has not disappeared, that the teacher remains relatively unaffected,
and that in fact more responsibilities are waiting around the corner. A very fleeting gratification is
replaced with other negative feelings, including more anger that may intensify against the original
“target” or may end up being directed towards the self.
4. Tending to dramatize or amplify. Procrastination is sometimes associated with a tendency to
“make mountains out of mole-hills.” Some individuals tend to respond to things more
emotionally than rationally. This can lead them to become easily overwhelmed by
responsibilities. Rather than focusing on organization and problem-solving strategies, these
individuals are carried away by a stream of negative self talk that is often overly dramatic, black
and white and exaggerated. Examples of such negative self talk are phrases such as “I’ll never be
able to complete my work,” “I’m certain to fail my course if I don’t do well on this paper,” “I’ve
never been good at this.” This kind of self-talk amplifies the drive to avoid and offers little hope
for mastering the situation. In other words, it is self-defeating.
5. Being disengaged. Procrastination is facilitated by a feeling of disengagement. People who do
not feel committed to their engagements and responsibilities may see that as a reason
(consciously or not) to avoid their responsibilities or under-perform. This is related to the
concept of motivation. Motivation is commonly defined as a force that affects the direction,
intensity and persistence of voluntary behaviour. Someone who is completed disengaged does
not even have the minimum level of connection (direction) to a task required to feel motivation.
Disengagement can be considered on a continuum: The more engaged an individual is, the more
committed he or she is to a task or issue. Engagement works against the likelihood of
procrastinating, but does not offer 100% protection (for example fear or anger or uncertainty
about having the requisite skills to complete a task may nonetheless push someone towards
Procrastinators often put off doing something until they feel inspired, motivated or in the right
mood. This is classic and dangerous. The truth is that many activities that we delay are low on
our list of favourites. We tend to dive into activities we like, putting off remaining tasks while we
wait for the inspiration to overcome us. Procrastinators often believe that they are deficient in
some way compared to non-procrastinators. They think that other people are able to feel inspired
to action. In fact, an important difference between procrastinators and non-procrastinators is that
the latter have learned that they can not afford to wait for inspiration. They tackle tasks that need
to be done (sometimes the least enjoyable first!) and realize that their energy and inspiration
follows from their engagement and commitment to their responsibilities. Starting something is
usually the hardest. Once the ball is rolling, the momentum helps carry us through. Most people
could wait forever to feel truly inspired to write a term paper!
6. Having low confidence and/or self-esteem. Not believing in one’s skills, knowledge or abilities
can certainly play a role in delaying the undertaking or completion of tasks. In fact, this is linked
to the fear of failure. Individuals with low levels of self confidence and/or self-esteem may be
chronically under-motivated and may habitually delay doing things in order to avoid the
possibility of confirming the perception (which may or may not be accurate) that their
competencies are inadequate. Unfortunately, focusing on what might go wrong or be difficult
rather than what might (or will!) go right simply reinforces low levels of confidence and increases
the likelihood of further procrastination. Of course a lack of confidence may be less generalized.
A student may simply feel that the skills required for a specific task are inadequate. Unless the
student actively seeks ways to improve those skills, the risk of procrastination will remain.
Negative self-talk plays a role here as well. Repetition of self-deprecating ideas such as “I’ll
never be able to do this,” “I can never do anything right,” or “I’m such a loser” magnify feelings
of incompetence and drive the individual deeper into inaction.
7. Time management and decision-making. While some researchers deny the contributing role of
time management in procrastination, others see a link. One thing that seems to characterize some
procrastinators is their misperception or misjudgment of time concepts. While this misperception
may be strategic or may reflect a true perceptual difficulty, procrastinators may overestimate the
time available to them to complete a task and underestimate the time it will actually take. This
combination can clearly be a recipe for disaster. The common statement “I work best under
pressure” is a myth that procrastinators repeat to justify their behaviour. Studies have not found
evidence of procrastinators producing higher quality work because of their habits. The opposite
is more often true. In fact a more accurate statement would be simply: “I do most of my work
under pressure (because I avoid things until the last minute).”
In addition, some procrastinators proclaim that they are simply too busy to meet all of their
responsibilities. While this may be true of some people (who need to reevaluate their priorities),
the truth is that most procrastinators engage in avoidance behaviours. This entails doing things
that distract from the task at hand, but are not essential, such as returning e-mails, chatting online,
tidying up. Part of this problem is connected to difficulties making decisions or choices.
Clarifying priorities and developing a clear plan can help. Furthermore, reducing avoidance
behaviours will free up considerable amounts of time.
Today’s technological distractions (e.g., You Tube, text messaging, Face Book) offer unlimited
opportunities to avoid uninteresting responsibilities for “just a few more minutes.” These
minutes can and do literally turn into hours for many people. This is time that few college
students can spare. While very little recent research exists to more clearly describe Internet use
patterns and effects on students, one study suggests that students spend an average of 100 minutes
a day surfing the Worldwide Web. This study was published in 2001, years before several of the
most time-consuming Internet distractions (such as You Tube) existed. The temptation and ease
with which procrastination can be engaged in today is unprecedented and is of serious concern.
How Procrastination Reinforces MORE
Careful thought about the items listed in the previous section reveals one important common
thread: Procrastination is characterized by a vicious circle. To illustrate, procrastination that
results from fear will end up reinforcing fear, which will then increase the chance of further
procrastination, and so on. The same can be said for anger, disengagement, dramatization, and
the other contributing factors.
This is what the procrastination phenomenon looks like in a diagram:
Getting into Gear:
How to Stop Procrastinating TODAY
Procrastination is a bad habit. But like any habit, it can be overcome. If you are a procrastinator,
start now by making small changes you can handle. Doing something (anything!) positive is
better than doing more procrastinating (which in fact is doing nothing).
Here are some examples of things you can try.
o Establish your priorities and write them down.
Divide your tasks into big and small, urgent and not urgent. Make sure you address
urgent issues sooner than non-urgent ones. In reality, you can probably afford to delay
the small, non-urgent tasks. Don’t let them weigh you down as they truly aren’t that
important. And don’t fool yourself into thinking you are working effectively by busying
yourself with minor, inconsequential activities. You can start with an important task that
is of minor or medium difficulty to get the momentum going and to secure an early sense
of accomplishment and satisfaction.
o Keep a time log of your computer/TV use.
Just for a few days, keep careful track of your use of time, including use of the computer
(or TV) for unessential activities (surfing the Web, chatting, gaming). Estimate the
amount of time this adds up to per week and determine if that amount is reasonable. If
not, set some boundaries and do your best to respect them. Ask for help disciplining
yourself, if you need it.
o Assess your expectations.
Establish reasonable goals that respect and reflect your capabilities. Adjust your goals to
meet your reality. If you are swamped with overdue work, you probably can’t afford to
be shooting for the stars this time. Aim to get on top of things ONE STEP AT A TIME.
Take your eyes off what appears to be the huge mountain and focus on one task.
o Break your responsibilities into smaller chunks and make a plan to accomplish a
certain number each day.
Chunking your responsibilities into do-able segments and scheduling into your day
“down time” where you do something for yourself can reinforce your behaviour and
motivate you to continue your good habits. It can also help redirect your attention away
from the “mountain” of tasks to individual tasks you actually feel capable of
accomplishing. Each journey begins with one, single step!
o Reward your accomplishments.
When you have completed certain steps in achieving your goals, recognize it. Yes,
there will be other things that remain to be done. There always will be. But take a
moment to acknowledge your success in having finished something.
o Put your best foot forward.
Rather than reminding yourself of your worries, your shortcomings and all the things that
could go wrong or that you don’t/won’t like about your task, start by doing something
that you are confident or feel more positive about, no matter how insignificant it seems.
Capitalize on whatever strengths you may have and let them move you forward.
Recognize your abilities and remind yourself of them regularly. Speak encouragingly to
yourself, saying things like “I can do this,” “I won’t give up,” “Slow and steady wins the
race,” “I have succeeded before, I can succeed again,” and so on.
o Be proactive; adopt the NIKE slogan “JUST DO IT!”
Recognize the ways you delay and the statements you say to yourself. Common
statements are “I’ll do it later,” “I’ll do it when I feel more in the mood,” “I have lots of
time,” “I don’t really feel like it,” “It’s not that important,” “It can wait until tomorrow,”
“This isn’t important,” “I work best under pressure,” “It’s not due until….” When you
recognize that you are talking to yourself this way, tell yourself (forcefully!) to STOP!
You are probably procrastinating….. Just do it!
DOING will motivate you.
DOING will encourage you.
DOING will energize you.
DOING will bring your fears into perspective.
DOING will make you feel stronger, more competent, more confident.
DOING will help you take back control of your life.
GET INTO GEAR AND THE MOMENTUM WILL CARRY YOU TO YOUR GOALS!
French website with some other neat ideas:
*We would like to thank Meagan Daley, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, for her expertise in the
creation of this document.