Procrastination (1983) is a deep dive into procrastination – and why people struggle with it. Drawing on personal and professional experience, it offers a tested program and tips on how to conquer procrastination tendencies.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Learn why you procrastinate – and how to stop.
- A Psychologically Complex Issue
- An Unrealistic Thought Process
- Realities and Perception of Time
- The Psychological Aspects of Procrastination
- Taming Procrastination
- Relationships with Procrastinators
- About the author
Approaching unwelcome tasks with an “I’ll do it tomorrow” mindset is not unusual behavior. The problem is, tomorrow quickly becomes today, so the procrastinator sets a new tomorrow goal. This tomorrow goal eventually becomes a next week goal, then a next month goal, then a next year goal – that is, a never goal. Time runs out for everyone, but it does so far more quickly for procrastinators. If you procrastinate, do you know why? Psychologists Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen outline the reasons and roots of procrastination. More importantly, they show you how to fix your vexing, life-sapping procrastination problem. We suggest that anyone who procrastinates should buy this book. Now would be fine.
- Procrastination is the result of a mix of biological, emotional and experiential factors.
- It can stem from poor self-confidence, lack of self-esteem or fear of failure.
- Procrastinators often associate negative feelings with tasks they don’t like.
- Though the tasks may be benign, procrastinators avoid them to dodge their depressed feelings.
- Most procrastinators are unrealistic about how long tasks take.
- To avoid procrastination, break projects into discrete steps and set short-term daily goals.
- Routinely reward yourself as you proceed from step to step.
- Adjust your goals or deadlines if you cannot achieve your objectives in a timely manner.
- A “perfect” time to do something never exists. Just do it.
- Ultimately, you are in charge of your life and your time. Make a conscious choice not to procrastinate – on a task-by-task basis.
Introduction: Learn why you procrastinate – and how to stop.
While almost everybody procrastinates at some point in their lives, it can be a chronic issue for some. When procrastination becomes a consistent pattern, it can be as frustrating for the procrastinator as it is for those around them.
This summary to Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen’s Procrastination offers insight into a long misunderstood behavior. Drawing on the psychologists’ personal and professional experience, it explains what procrastination is – and provides tips to beat it.
A Psychologically Complex Issue
While women tend to procrastinate less than men, it can affect everyone, in a range of occupations. Being self-critical and avoiding certain emotions, like fear and doubt, play surprisingly large roles in the behavior.
There are a lot of complex elements involved, which is why an instant change isn’t often possible – you can’t just flip off your procrastination switch. But it is possible to reduce the behavior with time and effort.
It’s also worth mentioning that procrastination doesn’t equate to stupidity. When people procrastinate, they often put off an important task until the last minute. In that scenario, the work might be rushed or turned in late. The resulting consequences can make procrastinators feel bad about themselves and question their abilities – but it’s important to remember that the subpar work is a result of a habit; it doesn’t indicate anything about intelligence.
An Unrealistic Thought Process
Think back to a time you procrastinated – were you dealing with an internal struggle of negative feelings and thoughts? The thoughts you had were likely assumptions rather than absolute truths. Maybe you thought everything you did had to be flawless or it would result in disaster.
This kind of defeatist thinking is usually self-imposed, incorrect, and unfounded – and it often leads to deeper procrastination habits. The sooner you realize that these thoughts are based in emotions like vulnerability and fear, the easier it’ll be to reduce the habit. Procrastinating won’t save you from having to deal with these emotions, but it could makes things worse – you might get stuck in a constant negative cycle.
Many people put things off because they’re worried about possible negative outcomes. But you don’t need to be perfect to live a valuable life and to be important. In fact, nothing is ever truly perfect in an absolute sense. In the same vein, no failure should ever be the end of the world. Humans tend to see things a lot worse than they actually are.
We all experience failure at some point, and that’s OK – good even! Failure and setbacks are actually learning experiences that can help you move forward; they’ll only hold you back if you let them. Your feelings of self-worth shouldn’t boil down to a single task, mistake, conversation, or action. Not doing things perfectly, as well as you wanted to, or even as well as other people hoped you were going to doesn’t mean something is wrong with you.
So practice cultivating understanding, patience, self-reflection, and kindness toward yourself. In doing so, it’s possible to move past the negative cycle, improve with each failure, and decrease procrastination.
How you perceive yourself can be a funny thing. In many cases, it has nothing to do with how others perceive you – especially when it comes to the negative thoughts you may have about yourself. Maybe your efforts never seem good enough to you, while others think you’re thriving.
Procrastinators often feel as if the attempt meant nothing. However, trying can mean everything – it’s a success in its own right. What you do to achieve a particular goal is just as big a part of the success as the achievement of the goal itself. So don’t forget to celebrate your successes!
Say a deadline is fast approaching – you need to put together a presentation for a meeting. You procrastinated a bit, but nowhere near as much as you usually do. You worked hard to get it done in time, the presentation was fantastic, and everyone loved it. Your efforts in putting together the presentation and how you fought against your urge to procrastinate were successful.
It’s OK to feel worthy of success, regardless of how big or small that success might seem. As a procrastinator, being on time or early for an appointment is an accomplishment on par with acing a presentation.
Success can be scary though, right? It can make you feel vulnerable or worried about being in the spotlight, or even reignite concerns about failing. All of these thoughts and feelings can manifest themselves as procrastination, which holds you back or delays the success you deserve. And now you’re stuck in a repetitive cycle.
It’s normal to feel scared and concerned about outcomes. The trick is to not let them snowball into overwhelming negativity – which in turn results in procrastination that blocks you from feeling better and achieving success. Don’t let procrastination self-sabotage the triumph you deserve.
Realities and Perception of Time
No discussion about procrastination would be complete without an element typically associated with the habit: time, or more specifically, time management.
Think about all the occasions you were late getting somewhere or were late doing something. Do you remember how it affected you and the other people involved?
Take a moment to think of time. Are you picturing numbers and dates? This is known as objective time. But there’s also subjective time, which is your perception of how time passes. Subjective time isn’t as cut-and-dry; it varies from one person to the next. Ideally, there should be a balance between the two – but that’s not so easy for people who procrastinate.
While this can be frustrating for the procrastinator, it also tends to affect those around them. Since each person has their own view of time, it’s not uncommon for those with vastly different interpretations to clash. Cultural differences can also play a part. In one country, being late may be seen as rude, while in another, it’s practically expected. In some cases, coming to a compromise could work – but that’s not always an option, especially in the business world.
Interestingly, while people tend to continually view actual numbers and dates in the same way, a person’s subjective time evolves over the course of their life. It doesn’t always line up with what’s expected or anticipated at a particular stage. But the older you get, the clearer the effects of certain procrastinated decisions can be.
The good news is, there’s still time to make positive changes and reduce your procrastination tendencies.
The Psychological Aspects of Procrastination
There are lots of psychological factors that can impact a person’s procrastination behavior. Certain conditions, like ADHD, depression, and low self-esteem, often make it flare up. So do stress and a lack of quality sleep. When you sort out things on a medical level, it may lead to positive changes with your procrastination.
We mentioned earlier that dealing with procrastination can be easier than dealing with feelings and emotions. But you have to battle these feelings if you want to challenge procrastination. You can’t avoid them or hide from them – but you can do daily work to make positive changes.
Everyone has unique life experiences that influence their current procrastination habits, so try to find coping techniques that help you manage your particular ways of thinking. One general piece of advice is to stay grounded in the present. Memories and feelings from the past aren’t always kind – so let them go. The kinder you are to yourself, the easier it’ll be to stop procrastinating.
We all know it’s not easy to break long-standing habits. Just ask a carnivore who’s trying to stop eating meat – or a night owl who is trying to become an early bird. But building a sustainable new habit can be done, almost painlessly, through baby steps. Going from procrastinator to someone who faces things head-on is no exception. You might not even see the tiny shifts you’re making, but tackling one small goal at a time will lead to big results.
The first trick is to take note of when the familiar feelings and thoughts you associate with procrastination start to creep in. How and when do you procrastinate? What do you procrastinate on? Pinpointing these details may help you understand why you’re procrastinating.
Therapy and mindfulness exercises can both help you become more self-aware and recognize when in the day you’re most productive. For instance, maybe you know you’re energized and optimistic first thing in the morning, so that’s when you should tackle essential tasks. Following a plan that works for you and your specific situation is key – as is persevering through setbacks, no matter how frustrating and disappointing they may seem. Remember, everything is temporary.
Set yourself up for success by outlining goals and establishing a plan you can follow. And don’t diminish your efforts – you’re not failing just because the effort you made might not be as significant as you wanted it to be. Trying to do everything at once will lead to overwhelm and inaction. You know what to do: start small, and reward your little victories. It’s a process that takes time, energy, and effort – but with each success, you’re one step closer to being happier, healthier … and earlier.
Relationships with Procrastinators
Maybe you know a procrastinator and are trying to figure out why they do what they do. You may also be trying to learn how to better compromise with this person. Their procrastination is undoubtedly disappointing and frustrating – but it’s not as simple as telling the person to do better.
Certain things, like nagging or doing what you asked the procrastinator to do, may actually result in more harm than good. On the flip side, being open to collaboration, providing clear communication, rewarding positive steps, and listening to the person express their feelings can all help – a lot! Make sure you also tell the procrastinator in your life how much you appreciate them and their efforts, and what you like about them.
A lot of good can come from being compassionate and trying to understand things from their perspective. But as you start making changes in your relationship, remember that the procrastinator has a role too. You both need to be willing to accept and work with each other to find a solution.
If you’re not getting any buy-in, you may need to reconsider the relationship. It’s not a decision to make lightly – but if the relationship is negatively affecting your well-being and isn’t improving, it might be your best option.
Procrastination Isn’t a Laziness Issue
One in four adults tends to put things off until “tomorrow.” Usually it does not stem from laziness, irresponsibility or lack of discipline. It comes from fear, emotion, lack of self-esteem, perfectionism, catastrophic thinking and even poor upbringing. Life’s challenges scare procrastinators, so they delay to shield themselves. This fear-generated thinking prevents them from moving ahead. Procrastination can involve unhelpful biological factors, including genetic inheritance, an inadequate sense of time or “wishful thinking.” Many procrastinators have mistaken ideas, such as, “I have to be perfect.” “Everything I do should go easily.” “I must avoid being challenged.” “It’s safer to do nothing than to take a risk and fail.” “If I do well this time, I must always do well.” Such all-or-nothing thinking constitutes the “Procrastinator’s Code.”
“Because procrastinators compromise their well-being in many ways, procrastination has serious consequences for health.”
People who fear life or are unsure of their abilities tend to avoid challenges by delaying them so they don’t have to deal with external – or internal – criticism if they fail. After all, you can’t mess up if you never try. Procrastinators are often perfectionists who cannot tolerate doing something wrong. They believe if you fail at a task, you fail as a human being. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” becomes “Nothing ventured, nothing failed.”
“ The emotional roots of procrastination involve inner feelings, fears, hopes, memories, dreams, doubts and pressures.”
Procrastination even creates its own convenient reasons for failure: “I started the project late, so I didn’t have enough time for it. Therefore, my failure to complete it doesn’t count.” Such thinking allows procrastinators to see themselves as capable individuals who just never have enough time to perform up to their potential (because they always put things off). And yet, they feel like failures when they are unable to complete projects on time or up to standards. Procrastinators are motivated by another common, subtle and difficult to identify phobia – fear of achievement. This often manifests itself in these flawed mindsets:
- “Competition” – When you compete (by doing something well and on time), you showcase your ambition. Avoid the spotlight.
- “Commitment phobia” – If you proceed steadily toward your goal, you are liable to achieve it. What then? Are you sure this is what you really want?
- “I’ll turn into a workaholic” – “If I stop fooling around, I will always have to work hard. I don’t want that.”
- “Success is dangerous: Somebody always gets hurt” – Complete tasks on time and people may think you want to show off. So you lose. Or those who don’t accomplish what you do feel bad about their efforts and may retaliate in some way against you. So you also lose. If you always lose when you win, why win at all?
- “I don’t deserve success” – “I was a rotten kid,” or “I am a bad adult.” Therefore, I deserve to suffer by being late.
- “What if I’m too perfect?” – “I’ll make people jealous if I do well. I don’t want that.”
“Many people who procrastinate are apprehensive about being judged by others or by the critic who dwells within.”
Procrastinators are often control freaks who don’t like to be pushed. They tend to dig in their heels like stubborn mules when people expect them to do something on time. Typical thinking: “The electric bill is late? Fine. I’ll pay it when I’m good and ready.” Or, “My new client wants me to call her at 4 p.m. Who is she to dictate when I call her?” The procrastinator may respond unconsciously by just not calling until 4:15 p.m. Or, “I have asked my husband 10 times to clean out the garage, but he never does. I’m tired of begging him to do it.” The wife’s unconscious response to this conflict may be to hang back and be tardy when she and her husband go out. Procrastinators often are late out of a need to express their autonomy.
“We are more likely to pursue goals that are pleasurable and that we are likely to attain…and we will most likely procrastinate any tasks that are unpleasant in the present and offer recompense only in the distant future.” (Piers Steel, psychologist)
Some procrastinators exhibit their independence in relationships, including their fear of “being too close or too far away,” by not accomplishing things on time. For example, some individuals find it difficult to function well unless they have close friends or family members immediately available for help at all times. Others cause trouble by procrastinating as an S.O.S. to solicit assistance. Some people fear intimacy and connections. They procrastinate to keep others at a distance. For example, they are always late to meet friends because they worry that being on time will tie them too closely to other people. Procrastinators often don’t work to establish healthy – indeed, essential – boundaries in their most intimate, important relationships.
The Time Enigma, Neuroscience, Emotions and Upbringing
Even for philosophers and scientists, time is not concrete. Aristotle questioned if time even exists if people are not around to mark it. For Einstein, time was a muddle in which the past, present and future were mere illusions. Procrastinators have their own markedly different sense of time. Indeed, many procrastinators seem to regard clock time as beneath them. For some procrastinators, 7: 00 sharp means 7:10 or 7:20 or even later. Many procrastinators engage in “future discounting.” For example, since small children won’t need to go to college for many years, some parents don’t consider it important to start saving now. However, since the big game is on TV this weekend, they feel compelled to run out and buy a giant-screen television. Procrastinators must work with time so that it works for them.
“People who procrastinate may suffer internal consequences, feelings that range from irritation and regret to intense self-condemnation and despair.”
Procrastination has a neurological component. People who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), chronic stress, sleep disorders or executive dysfunction (inability to coordinate thoughts and feelings with goal-directed actions) may also be procrastinators. The brain, an ever-changing biological entity, constantly builds new neural connections and disengages old ones. If you do something repeatedly (for example, if you are always late), the brain reorganizes itself to make this neurological action your “default” behavior. On the contrary, if you improve your tardiness, the brain will develop new neural pathways to establish punctuality as your default mode.
“You have a choice. You can delay or you can act.”
For whatever reasons (some tracing back to childhood), many procrastinators associate painful emotions, negative thoughts or sad memories with certain tasks, so they put those chores off, even if they involve activities that most people would find pleasant and perfectly enjoyable.
Your parents’ influence may be partly to blame for your procrastination. As a child, did they insist that you meet unrealistically high expectations? Do you constantly feel burdened to meet such lofty standards today? If so, do you assume the burden of too many tasks and responsibilities, making it impossible to achieve everything on time?
“Get your ideas and plans out of your head and down in writing in a place that works for you.”
Or did your parents always undermine you, making you feel like a failure before you even began working toward a goal? If these feelings carry over into your adult life, they may explain why you put things off, perhaps believing deep down that you can’t accomplish anything anyway. Procrastination can, in effect, be hardwired in your brain by your upbringing.
If procrastination is a major problem in your life, you may be addressing your internal and external pressures with a flawed defense mechanism that has deep psychological roots. Most people procrastinate because of four primary factors:
- “Low confidence” – Choose realistic objectives that you can definitely accomplish.
- “Task aversiveness” – Just because you don’t like a task doesn’t make it onerous. You may fear the negative feelings tied up with the task. Deal with those emotions and you may enjoy the tasks you delayed. If not, set specific time limits to get the task done.
- “The goal or reward is too far away” – Establish work intervals for all long-range tasks and reward yourself in some way at each interval.
- “Difficulties in self-regulation” – You stand a better chance of attaining goals in a timely manner when your mind and body are relaxed.
“You do not have to be perfect to be of value.”
Give the following techniques an honest chance. Don’t expect to change overnight – change is a process, not an event. If you don’t achieve what you want right away, don’t give up. Try again.
- Choose a “behavioral goal” – Clearly define your objectives. Not: “I will stop procrastinating,” instead: “I will prepare the marketing report by June 1.”
- Don’t aim too high at the start – Begin with one goal at a time. This goal should be “minimally acceptable,” not lofty, ambitious or difficult-to-reach. Not: “I will lose 75 pounds.” Rather: “I will lose two pounds this week.” Be flexible. Maybe two pounds is too ambitious – be prepared to adjust your goals.
- “Make a public commitment” – Use family, friends and even Internet support groups to commit to change. Look for help and support online.
- “Optimize your chances” – If your goal is to write a novel, don’t try to work in a noisy lunchroom or beside a blaring TV. Find a work space that works for and not against you.
- “Break your goal down into small, specific mini-goals” – Huge enterprises can be foreboding, so break goals down into a series of discrete, manageable tasks. List all necessary steps. Start with those you can quickly complete so you achieve positive results from the start. Build from there.
- “Visualize your progress” – If positive imagery works for athletes and entertainers, it can work for you, too. See yourself achieving the steps to your goal, as well as the goal itself.
- “Don’t wait until you feel like it” – You may never feel like it. Plunge in anyway.
- “Be realistic (rather than wishful) about time” – Procrastinators tend to minimize the time that tasks and activities take. Inevitably, things take longer than anticipated, so set realistic deadlines and allow yourself time to meet them.
- “Just get started” – “Little by little” should be the procrastinator’s philosophy. Take one step at a time. Not: “I must finish this job now.” Instead: “What is my first step?”
- “Use the next 15 minutes” – No matter how much you hate a task, you should be able to do it for 15 minutes. With numerous 15-minute work sessions, you can accomplish a great deal. Not: “I can only spend 15 minutes on this, so I won’t bother to start.” Instead: “I can do something worthwhile in 15 minutes.”
- Expect setbacks – In life, things seldom go smoothly. Expect roadblocks and obstacles, but don’t let them stop you. Keep moving forward.
- Delegate – If someone else can do a portion of the job, assign the task out. And ask yourself: “Is it vital to complete this task?” If not, dump it.
- Guard your time – Sometimes, it’s best to say “no” if people ask you to do things.
- Plan your time wisely – Don’t set a goal of 30 minutes of exercise in the morning if you’re not a morning person. Set yourself up to achieve goals, not to fail at them.
- Avoid excuses – Stop making excuses about never getting anything done on time. Not: “I am really worried, anxious and depressed, so I’m not going to work.” Instead: “I am exhausted, so I will work for 15 minutes then take a quick break.”
- Reward yourself – “Focus on effort, not outcome.” Not: “I won’t stop until I complete this job.” Instead: “I am moving ahead nicely. So, I’ll take a break, have a nice lunch, nap for 20 minutes and then start again.”
- Look beyond the procrastination – When you procrastinate, ask yourself why. Get in touch with your feelings. Feelings are often everything to procrastinators. Learn what is really going on inside. Not: “I hate myself because I procrastinate.” Instead: “Why do I feel the need to procrastinate right now? What is this really all about?”
- If you suffer from ADHD or executive dysfunction – Keep track of your immediate tasks with visual reminders, such as Post-It notes and lists. Your brain works faster than others’, so “think like a waiter.” Focus on one task, then the next. Stay on track.
Breaking Free from Procrastination
The choices you make are your own. This means that “you can delay or you can act.” So act, even if you feel strange or uncomfortable. Put away the Procrastinator’s Code. Adopt a different, constructive standard – a “Freedom From Procrastination Code.” Some of its most important tenets include: “It is not possible to be perfect.” “Making an effort is a good thing.” “Failure is not dangerous.” “Challenge will help me grow.” And, “the real failure is not living.”
“Got everything done. Died anyway.” (Epitaph)
Life is about taking risks. You may fail. You may do well. Whatever happens, at least you are moving gallantly ahead. No one can ask you to do more. Don’t hide behind the false protection of procrastination. Put this flawed tactic aside and engage with the world around you. Make your life as relevant and meaningful as possible. Start today – not tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. Come what may, it’s time to live your life fully.
Reducing procrastination isn’t an easy journey, but it’s one worth taking for you and those around you. Embarking on this journey doesn’t mean you’ll fix your procrastination issues overnight – that’s not possible. But putting in small, consistent efforts will ultimately help you reach your goal.
Are you procrastinating on something right now? Stop listening to this summary, and take one small step toward getting it done! Your future self will thank you.
Jane B. Burka, Ph.D., and Lenora M. Yuen, Ph.D., are psychologists who organized the first U.S. procrastination treatment group at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now” by Jane B. Burka is an insightful and practical book that delves into the reasons behind procrastination and offers effective strategies to overcome it. With its clear explanations and actionable advice, the book provides a valuable resource for individuals struggling with procrastination.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part explores the reasons why people procrastinate, such as fear of failure, fear of success, fear of losing control, fear of separation, fear of attachment, perfectionism, ambivalence, rebellion, and self-doubt. The authors explain how these fears and conflicts can interfere with one’s motivation, self-esteem, and decision-making process. The authors also discuss how procrastination can be influenced by one’s personality type, family background, cultural factors, and life transitions.
The second part examines the negative impact of procrastination on various domains of life, such as physical health, mental health, academic performance, career development, financial management, and interpersonal relationships. The authors illustrate how procrastination can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, anger, resentment, low self-confidence, poor self-image, reduced productivity, missed opportunities, wasted time, financial problems, and relationship conflicts. The authors also warn about the dangers of chronic procrastination and how it can become a self-defeating cycle that is hard to break.
The third part provides a step-by-step program to help readers overcome procrastination and achieve their goals. The authors suggest that the first step is to recognize and acknowledge one’s procrastination patterns and habits. The second step is to identify and challenge the irrational beliefs and negative emotions that underlie one’s procrastination. The third step is to set realistic and specific goals that are meaningful and attainable. The fourth step is to develop and implement a plan of action that involves breaking down large tasks into smaller and manageable subtasks, scheduling time for work and leisure activities, prioritizing tasks according to importance and urgency, using rewards and incentives to motivate oneself, seeking feedback and support from others, monitoring one’s progress and evaluating one’s outcomes. The fifth step is to maintain one’s motivation and commitment by celebrating one’s achievements, learning from one’s mistakes, coping with setbacks and difficulties, developing positive self-talk and affirmations, and reinforcing one’s new behaviors.
One of the book’s key strengths is its thorough exploration of the psychological factors that contribute to procrastination. Burka dives deep into the underlying causes of procrastination, including fear of failure, perfectionism, and poor time management skills. By understanding these factors, readers gain valuable insights into their own patterns of procrastination and can start to address them effectively.
Burka’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making the book a compelling read. She combines research findings, case studies, and practical examples to illustrate the various aspects of procrastination and its impact on different areas of life. This approach helps readers connect with the material and recognize their own procrastination patterns.
The book offers practical strategies and techniques to overcome procrastination. Burka provides step-by-step guidance on how to break the cycle of procrastination, manage time effectively, set realistic goals, and deal with perfectionism. The strategies are actionable and can be customized to fit individual circumstances, making them highly applicable and useful for readers.
One notable aspect of “Procrastination” is the emphasis on self-compassion and understanding. Burka acknowledges that overcoming procrastination is a process and that setbacks are normal. By promoting self-acceptance and a non-judgmental approach, she creates a supportive environment for readers to make positive changes in their behavior.
While the book offers valuable insights and strategies, some readers may find that certain sections could be more concise. At times, the content feels repetitive, which may lead to a loss of engagement for some readers. However, this minor issue does not detract significantly from the overall value of the book.
In conclusion, “Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now” is a highly informative and practical guide to understanding and overcoming procrastination. Jane B. Burka’s comprehensive exploration of the psychological factors behind procrastination, combined with her actionable strategies, make this book a valuable resource for anyone looking to break free from the cycle of procrastination and improve their productivity. By implementing the techniques outlined in the book, readers can expect to gain a better understanding of their procrastination patterns and develop effective strategies to overcome them.