Whenever I want to send myself into the throes of an existential crisis, I start to think about how much time I waste each year not doing the tasks on my to-do list. If I added it up, how many hours, days or possibly even weeks do I spend procrastinating, putting things off and thinking about all of my looming responsibilities without ever springing into action? And what, in some perfect parallel universe, could the dedicated, focused version of me have achieved with all that time? Trained for a marathon? Finally finished Middlemarch? Written a Middlemarch-sized novel of my own?
My last-minute mindset is something I’m well aware of, and yet whenever I’m presented with a deadline, I follow the same pattern: put the work off for as long as humanly possible, then cram it all into a condensed, chaotic period of ’productivity’, which often involves working late into the evening. Even if I make time, say, in the week coming up to the cut-off point to focus on getting this task done, I inevitably waste it. I manage to re-discover a boy band from 2002. I comb through the IMDb page for a random character actor I spotted in the background of a TV show the previous night. You get the picture.
I’m not the only one. A 2007 study published in Psychological Bulletin found that 15-20% of people chronically procrastinate, with 25% describing this as their dominant personality trait. And it doesn’t have to be confined to a work context; as Christmas approaches, many of us will once again come face to face with our last-minute tendencies when we end up doing all of our present shopping in a panicked 24th December dash. So, why do so many people only feel motivated when a deadline is hanging over them?
“Deadlines work because they put just enough psychological stress onto us to motivate us into taking action and give a sense of urgency,” says positive psychologist Niyc Pidgeon. “As the deadline approaches, the completion of the task becomes more urgent and more important, which raises the priority of getting it done.” This can, she says, help us “to make better decisions when it comes to what to focus on”.
There are thought to be two main types of procrastination. Active procrastination is all about using the pressure of a nearing deadline to motivate yourself and push yourself on, explains counsellor Juulia Karlstedt. “When we actively procrastinate, we are usually experiencing some lack of motivation about the task we need to complete,” she says. “Maybe it is difficult, time-consuming or brings up uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. By avoiding the task until the last minute, we can push this discomfort down the line while simultaneously tapping into the most primal motivator of all: fear and anxiety.”
“The closer the deadline gets, the more adrenaline we build up internally to push us over the finish line and it can work great to help us get stuff done,” she adds. The flip side to this, though, is passive procrastination, when we “freeze up and feel unable to engage with the task at hand.
“All of the responses tied to procrastination are connected to our survival responses,” she adds. “In other words, we will either flee, fight or freeze if we use fear as a motivator, and since this is an automatic survival process, we don’t get to choose which one our body uses.”
“By avoiding the task until the last minute, we can push the discomfort down the line”
Managing to sweep in at the last minute and press send moments before a deadline can give us an “adrenaline buzz”, notes psychologist Wendy Dignan, which we’re unlikely to experience if we “take small chunks out of [a project] and just chip away at it”. It’s that buzz – that ‘by the seat of our pants’ feeling – that can make this behaviour so hard to stop.
We might tell ourselves that we function best under stress, then reaffirm that belief by looking back at all the times we’ve managed to pull it off, finding evidence for this ‘last-minute dot com’ coping strategy, Dignan says. “So in that way, [we can] get stuck in this horrible loop… The more you [do this] as a coping mechanism, the less able you are to back away from it. You practice firing those same neurons down those same pathways, and it takes a big leap of faith to do it differently.”
Plus, even if you think you’ve got active procrastination nailed, the long-term exposure to anxiety and stress could mean you “switch to passive procrastination”, adds Karlstedt. “Instead of feeling a rush of adrenaline as [you] get closer to a deadline, [you] feel paralysed and frozen.”
There are certain personality traits that might mean you are more susceptible to procrastination. “You are more likely to procrastinate as a means of motivation and self-regulation and self-regulation if you struggle with anxiety, self-criticism, [and] perfectionism,” Karlstedt explains. “Since high achievers struggle with many of [those] things listed, they are also often more likely to procrastinate because of the high expectations they place on themselves.”
Low self-esteem could also be a root cause, says Dignan. If you don’t feel good enough, you likely fear failure, and the only reason you find to get round to doing things becomes “the consequence of not doing the things” (which might exceed that fear of failure). “It’s always the fear of the worst,” she adds. “It gets to the point of which is the worst thing to lose?”
So, how can hardened last-minute scramblers find a way to break out of this cycle, and is there any way of turning these tendencies into a positive? In the short term, Dignan suggests trying out the ‘two-minute strategy’. “If you can do something in two minutes, you’ve got to do it now.” Another tactic she often recommends to clients involves the humble egg-timer.
If they realise that they’re procrastinating, they have to flip the egg timer up and do whatever it is they’re putting off until the timer runs out, and then they can step away from it, she says. “What often happens is that [after] starting to do something for five minutes, they end up finishing it. It just helps them to get past the fear.”
Realistically, you’re unlikely to cut out your procrastinating tendencies completely, so learning how to work with them and harness them is an important step. Karlstedt recommends “mindfully recognising that you are engaging in avoidance” by considering the benefits it might give you along with the potential costs further down the line.
Learning to think of the task as a process in itself, rather than something to just be ticked off, could have major benefits too. “Creating a balance between the internal motivation to enjoy the process and find meaning within the project you’re working on, and the outer motivation of meeting the deadline can help,” says Pidgeon. “In positive psychology, we call this choosing a growth mindset, which is focused on the journey – not just the outcome itself.”