Whether it be a university essay or work presentation, we have all experienced the compulsion to put off a task until the last possible moment at some point in our lives.
It’s a phenomenon that can seem inexplicable – to avoid doing one thing, we’ll do almost anything else, from cleaning the house to playing Solitaire.
As Dr Piers Steel explains in his book The Procrastination Equation, putting things off is illogical and takes its toll on our health, finances and career, ultimately making us unhappy.
Procrastinators are more likely to put off exercise, saving for retirement, paying bills and applying for jobs, and what’s more, modern day distractions such as the internet mean it’s a problem affecting a growing number of us.
Steel says that in the last few decades, chronic procrastination has grown fivefold. In the 1970s, around 5% of people described procrastination as a key personal characteristic, a figure that has risen to around 25% today.
This is the consequence of ever more enticing temptations such as television programmes, video games and social networking websites, he argues.
But while he says the tendency to delay is partly human nature, Steel believes that by understanding why we procrastinate and setting achievable goals we can overcome the problem.
“Procrastinators who understand the processes behind their inaction can master them and become less stressed about their deadlines and more able to meet them,” he says.
He cites the three major reasons for lacking motivation to complete a task as low expectations of its outcomes, disliking the task itself and the deadline being too far away.
The final reason is the one used most often to justify procrastination.
“The most common excuse I hear from people who procrastinate at work is that they are more creative under pressure,” says Steel. “I can see how it might appear this way. If all your work occurs just before a deadline, that is when all your insights will happen.
“But these will be relatively few and feeble compared with the insights of those who got an earlier start.”
The key to overcoming this desire to leave things until the last possible moment is to break down long-term goals into short-term ones, he explains.
“Actions or goals framed in abstract terms, ’engaging in self-development’ for example, are less likely to be immediately pursued than goals framed in concrete terms, like ’reading this book’,” says Steel. “Since we consistently frame long-term goals abstractly, the result is that we are more likely to postpone them, at least until they become short-term goals and we start thinking about them concretely.”
Helpfully, there are step-by-step guides to overcoming procrastination in areas such as dieting, work and saving money.
In the workplace, Steel recommends telling colleagues when you have set yourself a specific deadline, as making yourself publicly accountable raises the stakes on failing to follow through.
He advises avoiding multi-tasking and asking colleagues for support and advice.
Overall, this is an interesting book that tries to get to the heart of why we procrastinate, as well as offering practical advice. But for those who have a serious problem with procrastination, starting to read a 355-page book might be the first hurdle they fall at.
Book review by Tessa Norman