Dealing with Procrastination

Posted by | Aug 29, 2012

It’s September and, for many, it feels like the beginning of a new year.  The cooler weather seems to usher in a new start, time to get serious and get down to business after the summer fun.  We tell ourselves that it is time to address our ever expanding “to do” list, and tackle the things we have been putting off.  We all have “those things”.  Some people want to change careers, get physically fit, start a business, write a novel, or release an album.  We all have those things we have been meaning to do for some time, and are putting off.  It all comes down to procrastination.  What can we do about it?  Here are some thoughts to help stop procrastination.

Be strategic.  According to Tim Pychyl, professor, Carleton University, procrastination is a self-regulation failure, or what we used to call a failure of will power.  We often do not want to do the task on our list; we want to feel good now, so we ignore the task.  It takes a lot of willpower to address certain tasks, and willpower is like a muscle; we can wear it out.  To deal with the issue, we have to be strategic. More often than not reaching our goals comes down to creating specific intentions that tell us when and how to act.  General, vague intentions rarely get implemented.  To move into action we need to develop specific plans. Your recipe will look something like: “When X, I do Y and that gets me Z.”  The bottom line is to quit making vague goal intentions and create a specific, strategic approach.

Similarly, Calvin Newport, professor at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and author of How To Win At College, proposes that procrastination is our mind’s way of telling us it does not see a smart plan. When we procrastinate, it is because either the goals do not make sense, or we do not have a believable way of accomplishing it.  Successful, productive people gather evidence and take their time to set goals.  They know what is involved. When we make a commitment that comes from deep understanding of the challenge, we do not have to rely only on willpower, and that leads to success.

Know when to take a break. Sometimes boosting our willpower can be a matter of looking after our sleep, nutrition and physical exercise.  According to Piers Steel, professor at the University of Calgary and author of The Procrastination Equation, the brain is not designed to deal with perpetual temptation, but that is the world we live in.  Willpower is an exhaustible resource that can be renewed through rest.  When we have to say “no” all the time, it means we have less willpower for the next “no”.  Listen to your body’s physical cues and take a break when you need it.

Use the progress principle. Use the power of small wins to propel us forward.  People are more creative and productive when they are feeling positive about their environment and work.  What’s important is making progress on small wins.  According to Teresa Amabile, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, even if the progress is small, the incremental steps can provide a boost to our intrinsic motivation and positive emotions.  Setting up small wins that we can achieve at various stages as we move towards our goal can set up a feedback loop that can help move us forward.  Creativity and feeling productive feed on each other. The more productive we feel, the more creative we will feel, and these feelings will propel us forward.


Amabile, Teresa. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press, August 2011

Newport, Calvin.  How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country's Top Students. Broadway, 2005

Pychyl, T.A., & Flett, G.L. (2012). Procrastination and self-regulatory failure: An introduction to the special issue. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. DOI: 10.1007/s10942-012-0149-5

Steel, Piers.  The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things off and Start Getting Stuff Done.  Random House of Canada, July 2012.