If you always put things off, are late for every meeting or appointment, and find yourself unable to get yourself organized, you’re probably already aware that you’re a procrastinator. Or perhaps someone you know is prey to this bad habit. For example, you’ve asked a colleague to send you a report by 3:30 and at 3:29 you still haven't received it. Now you’ll have to find it yourself. Maybe it's your partner or roommate who always holds things up: The vacuuming was supposed to be done an hour before your party, but there's still cat hair all over the place 10 minutes before your guests are supposed to show up, so you have no choice but to do it yourself (again).
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.
Editor: Haroon Christy
Procrastination can lead to stress, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a quick and easy way to beat it? The Procrastination at Work Scale (PAWS), devised by Utrecht University’s U. Baran Metin and colleagues (2016), can help you tackle procrastination, one bad habit at a time.
PAWS was intended to identify the ways in which people kill time at work, making themselves late or having to rush to complete their duties, but it applies to other realms of your life as well, including the work you do at home to manage your family, household chores, and obligations such as bill-paying. The Utrecht team wanted to validate their new scale, and in the process of doing so, they showed the one, key factor that seems to lie behind most of the reasons people procrastinate in the first place. (You'll learn about that shortly.)
First, let’s be clear on how to define procrastination. In Metin et al.’s words, it’s best thought of as a “self-regulatory failure in volitional action and self-discipline, resulting in needlessly and irrationally delaying intended tasks in different walks of life” (p. 255).
Now let's identify which of the 12 types of procrastination you (or someone you know) engages in. Here are the items from the PAWS. How do you rate on each? Give yourself a score of 1 to 7, with higher numbers reflecting the habits you're most likely to fall prey to:
- When I work, even after I make a decision, I delay acting upon it.
- I delay before starting on work I have to do.
- At work, I crave a pleasurable diversion so sharply that I find it incredibly hard to stay on track.
- When a work task is tedious, again and again I find myself pleasantly daydreaming rather than focusing.
- I give priority to lesser tasks, even if there is something important I should do at work.
- When I have an excessive amount of work to do, I avoid planning my tasks, and find myself doing something totally irrelevant.
- I take long coffee breaks.
- I delay some of my tasks just because I just do not enjoy doing them.
- I text (or use Facebook messenger, etc.) at work.
- I spend more than a half hour on social network sites at work per day.
- I read news online at work.
- I do online shopping during working hours.
If you rated each on the 1 to 7 scale (with 7 being “always”), a score of 36 or above is on the high side, based on the results reported by Metin and colleagues. However, the scale breaks down into two parts: soldiering, or avoidance of work tasks; and cyberslacking (self-explanatory). The first eight questions measure soldiering and the remaining four, cyberslacking.
In the Dutch study, the one key factor predicting procrastination was boredom. Work that was under-stimulating and didn’t provide enough mental engagement was most likely to create conditions ripe for procrastination.
The good news is that procrastination may be seen as a product not just of an individual’s tendency to slack, but of a problem in the individual’s environment. If you want to avoid procrastinating, try to place enough demands on yourself so you can resist the temptation to delay, distract, and divert.
With this in mind, here are the 12 items on the PAWS turned into practical steps for implementing change:
If you delay in making decisions, give yourself timelines. Then ease yourself into them so that you don’t set unrealistic targets, but set achievable ones that help you perform more efficiently.
The delays you may make before starting your work or chores can have value—if they ease you into the proper mindset. However, as with the previous item, set limits on how long you give yourself to prepare before launching into the task.
Craving a diversion may just reflect the fact that you’re bored. But there are ways to beat that. Even with something as mundane as raking leaves, you can find ways to make it more of a challenge. How neatly can you pile those leaves, for example?
Daydreaming can be useful—to an extent—but if it takes you out of the mindset you need to complete the task, dig down deep into the task itself to find something of mental value. Or daydream while you complete the work, if it's one that's mindless enough.
Prioritizing is one of the best ways to avoid procrastination, but if you’ve got your priorities reversed, reward yourself for completing important (but difficult) tasks when you get them done on time.
Don’t let the thought that a task is too insurmountable keep you from ever starting it. When you have a lot of work to do, break it down into manageable chunks.
Cutting down on breaks is easy if you have something to look forward to afterward. That break can be your reward instead of the distraction that prevents you from ever getting started.
Mundane tasks, at home or at work, can’t be avoided entirely, but the more quickly you complete them, the more quickly you can get back to doing what you truly like.
Texting people when you’ve got something else you need to do is an activity that you need to limits. Save your texting for after you’ve finished what you need to do, or at least after you’ve finished a part of it.
If you’ve got the time—again, after you’ve finished your work, chores, or other obligations—spend as much time as you want on Facebook. If not, dole it out proportionately as a reward for completing parts of a task.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of reading the news online, and losing track of time. Reserve a certain part of your day for keeping up with the news and stick to it. You can also read the news while you’re having a coffee break.
- Online shopping is one of the most potentially time-draining methods of cyberprocrastination. It generally takes longer to buy something online than you expect. If you’re worried that the great deal you’re trying to snag will disappear, make your purchase and then turn back to the task at hand. If you're shopping for fun, use it as a reward for staying on task long enough to finish what you need to do.