Procrastination – Not so bad after all? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 28.08.2018
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Procrastination – Not so bad after all?

You're on deadline but you've got nothing done. You get up, look in the fridge, water the plants. It's procrastination at its best. Hate it? Well, it might not be all bad, says psychologist Jana Kühnel.

It's Saturday and I'm extremely frustrated. I've got a project due on Monday and what am I doing? I'm standing in front of my fridge, with the door open, and I'm gazing into its depths, completely lost in thought. I'm not even looking for anything in particular. I'm just … procrastinating.

Procrastination is when you can't get a job done because you're always putting it off. And I get it all the time.

So although I'm supposed to be finishing my project, I'm staring at the inside of an empty fridge, hoping against hope that an idea (or a delicious piece of chocolate) will jump at me.

But why?

"You experience procrastination when you lose sight of long-term projects and instead focus on more attractive, short-term goals," says Dr. Jana Kühnel, a psychologist at the University of Ulm, Germany. 

Kühnel says some people are more prone to procrastination than others. Apparently, I belong to the first group.

Self-control is key

Symbolbild | Hund vor Kühlschrank (Colourbox)

Caught in the act ... of procrastination

Ironclad self-control is what you need to escape the lures of procrastination. 

"An action has to be continuously protected against attractive alternatives," says Kühnel.

Even a short walk to the fridge is an attractive alternative — at least it is to me.

"But it's important to distinguish between different types of procrastination," she says. "Sometimes, it can lead to severe suffering in people. That's called dysfunctional procrastination."

Functional procrastination, on the other hand, is quite different. If you're a functional procrastinator, avoiding a task could be the same as taking "micro-breaks." 

"Going to your fridge is a micro-break so long as it doesn't happen in an uncontrolled manner," the psychologist explains. 

I'm pretty sure that my fridge-excursions are completely out of control, but Kühnel reassures me.

"When you're at home, micro-breaks are much more apparent. But even at work you take short breaks by talking to your colleagues or glancing at your phone. You're delaying your work for a short moment. But that can also be helpful," she says.

We all procrastinate differently

Some people are unaware that they are procrastinating until their brains reach a peak performance. 

"Every person has a particular timeframe in which they work best," says Kühnel. "Postponing your work until such a time when you're at your best can be an intentional method to help you deal with demanding work."

Environmental factors also play a role in procrastination. So, for example, if you work in a distracting environment, you will probably find it harder to complete your tasks. For me that would be my home and my fridge.

And if on top of that your tasks, or work, are boring, that subconscious desire to delay them can be even stronger.

What can you do against procrastination?

Symbolbild | Frau mit Laptop im Cafe (Colourbox)

A change of scenery can help. Try working in a café?

Bearing in mind that procrastination isn't all bad, and that it can in fact be good at times, there are a few tricks to help you keep it under control. 

Kühnel talks about "implementation intentions." You should try to formulate your plans as precisely as possible and set yourself firm ground rules.

"For example, you could say to yourself: When I come home, I will immediately put on my running gear and go for a run," Kühnel explains. "But the ground rules have to be as concrete as possible."

People who are free to organize their days as they like should try to schedule their most important tasks during their daily performance peak — within that timeframe when they work the best. Some people are more active in the morning and can tackle more then than others, who might work better in the afternoon.

"It also helps to shield yourself from attractive alternatives to work. So instead of working from home and walking to the fridge every so often, you could sit in a café or another place that doesn't have those distracting features," Kühnel says. "You could also increase the hurdle, for example by leaving your phone in another room, so you have to get up to get it."

Yes, try that … unless, of course, you need your phone for your work.

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