Skip to main content
work-life balance

Tim Pychyl, Carleton University professor of psychology, says 20 per cent of the population report chronic procrastination problems but all of us are prone to some degree.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Sloth is the human condition.

We are overly optimistic. We like to deceive ourselves. And we have a Stone Age brain that prefers immediate rewards.

Procrastination, which causes people to give in to the allure of immediate rewards and delay an intended act, wreaks havoc on work and life, not to mention the balance between them.

"We've got the deck stacked against us," says Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who researches procrastination.

About 20 per cent of people report chronic procrastination, when the condition interferes with the ability to just get on with things, Dr. Pychyl says. But almost all of us are procrastinators to some degree. Ninety-five per cent of student populations report a problem with procrastination, he says, and the other 5 per cent may not be admitting it.

"It's rife on campus because there is so much evaluation apprehension, there's always something else to do, and all the new technologies around them promise an immediate reward: Let's just catch up on our e-mail, update our Facebook, take a minute to browse the Internet. One minute becomes two and two becomes three hours," he says.

Allison Wolf, executive coach for her company Shift Works Strategic Inc., says, "My cellphone is a wonderful distraction. It now has 101 apps on it. It can do anything."

"If you actually got bored, you might do your work," Dr. Pychyl says.

Piers Steel, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, and author of The Procrastination Equation, says we all make plans in the frontal cortex of our brains, but when we go to enact them, the limbic system comes into play. It's the system that responds to environmental cues, has a direct line to the seat of emotions and is the stronger of the two.

The brain was not designed to withstand the plethora of modern temptations and distractions that derails people with good intentions.

Why do people procrastinate? Having an impulsive nature is a major factor, Dr. Steel says. Impulsive people can be distracted easily. They can't protect one intention from another. They have difficulty focusing on the future. They are mostly concerned with the immediate and the concrete: what they smell, taste and feel. Therefore they don't focus on deadlines until they become immediate. Low self-esteem or self-confidence can be a factor, too: people who have tried something and failed.

Also a person may not want to do a job if it has no value or interest to them – or worse, if the task is seen as unpleasant, Ms. Wolf says. To a full-fledged procrastinator, it doesn't help if a deadline is a month away. They fill the stores on Dec. 24. And putting off tasks at work can creep into their personal lives and adversely affect it, too.

Procrastination has obvious downsides, costing, according to some measures, 25 per cent of people's salary at work, and their personal health, Dr. Steel says.

The aversion to unpleasant experiences may keep people from that checkup to determine cancer. A study in the Netherlands is even looking at people who procrastinate about going to sleep at night.

People are less likely to procrastinate in the early phases of a project and if the task is personally meaningful, Dr. Pychyl says. "But that personal feeling doesn't help us a lot when we get to the action phase." If the task is not manageable, people dither.

People with great emotional intelligence can ask themselves the question: What am I getting out of procrastination? Others think only about feeling good now. "They are not thinking about the future self," Dr. Pychyl says. "We really mistreat our future self. When we put things off, we're putting it off for ourselves."

In the end, the most precious commodity that people have is time, Dr. Pychyl says. And it's non-renewable. "When we waste it, we waste life itself," he says.

Get cracking

Here are nine steps to tackling procrastination:

1) Get started. It "primes the pump for action," Dr. Pychyl says. Research shows that when people get started, they change their perception of the task and then wonder why they didn't start sooner.

2) Set goals. Be specific about targets. Do it weekly.

3) Get rid of temptations. Turn off the ding of your e-mail and answer only during natural breaks in productivity. This tactic alone can add an extra month of productivity over a year, Dr. Steel says. Most people check e-mail 50 times a day, and because it takes 15 minutes to return to peak concentration, they never actually get to their A game, he adds.

4) Prioritize. Do the least interesting and dullest tasks first, early in the day, so you have a feeling of accomplishment.

5) Run a dash. Give yourself just 10 minutes to tackle a complicated task, coaching consultant Ms. Wolf says. At least you get started.

6) Act now. When you think about a task, do it immediately, so that you don't think about it twice, Vancouver lawyer Ms. Chamzuk says.

7) Get lots of sleep. Fatigue makes every job more unpleasant. Energy is a limited resource. Choose where you spend it.

8) Develop self-control and willpower. Willpower is like a muscle, Dr. Pychyl says. It's a limited resource, so don't try to engage it in all areas of your life at once. Research shows that if you eat with your non-dominant hand for two weeks, it strengthens your willpower, Dr. Pychyl says.

9) Ask yourself: "What am I getting out of procrastination?" The answer for a procrastinator: "To feel better right now." Look beyond the now. Think about your emotional state in the future.

Interact with The Globe