The Sunday Magazine

There's a reason we procrastinate and it's not laziness

Fighting the urge to push something off until later starts with understanding why we want to in the first place, says Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University.

Procrastination is driven by our desire to avoid difficult emotions, says expert

Tim Pychyl suggests tackling procrastination by considering the first step required to accomplish something: what small, concrete action will lead to progress? (The Yooth/Shutterstock)
Listen23:36

Charles Dickens called procrastination the "thief of time." Mark Twain on the other hand, advised: "Never put off until tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow." 

Procrastination, the nefarious practice of deferring, delaying and postponing is something we all do in the moment we decide to put off a task for tomorrow. The relief is overwhelming. It feels like cutting class on a sunny day.

Tim Pychyl is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and author of the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. (Fangliang Xu)

But the next day, that dreaded task looms and feels even more insurmountable. According to conventional wisdom, procrastination is a simple matter of bad time management and weak self-control.

Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, challenges that assumption. "We believed that it was poor time management and that if we just worked a bit harder and had more self-discipline, we could do the job," he said in an interview with Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition. "But it doesn't seem to be that at all."

Pychyl specializes in studying the root causes of procrastination and has written a book about it called Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.

Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.


Why we feel so guilty about it

What research has indicated across a wide variety of studies is that it is an emotion regulation situation. What's the song of the procrastinator: "I don't want to, I don't feel like it," and usually there's the chorus of: "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." 

So it's about our feelings, it's not just a matter of buckling down and getting it done. There are negative emotions associated with doing a set task and we know how to get rid of them: avoid the task. 

You can avoid the negative emotions for the time being by procrastinating, but then there's always tomorrow.

It's not just a matter of buckling down and getting it done. There are negative emotions associated with doing a set task and we know how to get rid of them: avoid the task.- Tim Pychyl

How the pandemic is making it worse

Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who died of cancer, talked about this in his final lecture, which was about how time is the only thing that's non-renewable in our lives and we don't know how much of it we're going to get. I think that's why in every major world religion there's this notion of sloth as a sin.

I can see why wasting time is deeply held as a sin and that's not only as a religious expression but as an existential one in terms of: "This is my life. I need to get on with it." So often, that's what makes procrastination so interesting.

How the pandemic is making it worse

We are in a time when uncertainty, worry and anxiety are dominating us emotionally. We are inevitably going to end up delaying things, but if we only have one word for that delay, which is procrastination, we end up beating ourselves up for it.

I would argue that yes, many things are being delayed, but we need a lot of self-compassion right now. We don't need to impugn ourselves with this notion of procrastination.

There are a lot of people right now trying to give people a licence to procrastinate. When I see that, I think, "No, we need to find ways to better cope, not give licence to delay things." What a privilege it is to be able to work from home and continue to have an income, so I would never say that it's OK not to do your best work. There are people that are desperate for jobs and they don't have them.

Many things are being delayed, but we need a lot of self-compassion right now. We don't need to impugn ourselves with this notion of procrastination.- Tim Pychyl

How we can overcome the urge to procrastinate

Things like mindfulness and meditation work in the long term but if you've ever tried to do some mindfulness meditation, you realize we're not very good at it. We're usually thinking about the next thing we should be doing or how uncomfortable we are, etc.

I have another suggestion that's really life-changing and people could do now if they wanted. In my book, The Procrastination Puzzle, I wrote a whole chapter titled, "Just Get Started."

I had people write back to me and say, "Dr. Pychyl, now you've been studying this for how many years and what you came up with is: 'Just get started'? If I could just get started then I wouldn't have a procrastination problem." I thought: fair enough.

Here's the magic — the next time you face a task that your whole body is screaming, "I don't want to, I don't feel like it," ask yourself: what's the next action? What's the next action I'd need to take to make some progress? Don't break the whole task down. That will be sure to overwhelm you. I think if most of us broke our whole task down, we'd realize that life's too short, you can never get it all done. Instead just say, "What's the next action?" and keep that action as small and as concrete as possible.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Randy Pausch was an M.I.T. professor.

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