Is procrastination making you unhappy?

Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, explains the connection between procrastination and happiness, and how you can put an end to putting things off.

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Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, explains the connection between procrastination and happiness, and how you can put an end to putting things off.

Q: What do we tend to put off most often?

A: The exact grab-bag of tasks that people procrastinate differs from person to person. For some it is working and for others it is household chores. The common element is that the tasks we all tend to put off are whatever we personally find aversive or boring. In my book, I call it “Value” and it is one of the key elements of the equation that explains why we dilly-dally. If we don’t like it in the first place, we will likely end up putting it off. Despite these differences among us, there is one task that is on most people’s procrastination list: cleaning up clutter. Most people aren’t fond of doing it.

Q: Is procrastination ever a good thing?

A: Only accidentally. If you procrastinate, by definition you are putting off something despite expecting to be worse off. If you didn’t think it was a bad idea, then it isn’t procrastination in the first place. However, when we procrastinate, on occasion something fabulous happens and the task we needed to do gets canceled or becomes irrelevant. We won the procrastination lottery! But most times, this doesn’t occur. Delay can transform manageable tasks into snarling beasts that threaten to consume us. Even if we do finish them in time, the experience is often so sleep-deprived and anxiety-filled that, like a day after binge drinking, we make promises to reform. Of course, later we still fall back into our old bad habits. It is no wonder that in the long-run procrastination makes us significantly less healthy, wealthy and happy.

Q: Do you think there’s any connection between procrastination and happiness?

A: We know there is a connection. A survey done by the Procrastination Research Group with over 10,000 respondents found that 94 percent reported procrastination has some negative effect on their happiness, with 19 percent indicating that the effect is extremely negative. I do similar research on my own website, procratinus.com, and I found that 70 percent of procrastinators are less happy than the average person.

The reason for this is largely due to regret. In the short term, we regret what we do, but in the long-term, we regret what we don’t do or have put off pursuing. In my book, I identify the life domains where most procrastination occurs, which are your health, career, and education. These are the same life areas where we experience the most regret. To give you an idea of how bad it can get, here is a confession from a chronic procrastinator: “Procrastination is destroying my life and has had disastrous results at work, in school, and now even threatens my child custody situation.” For some, it can be pretty tragic.

Q: What’s your advice for someone who wants to stop procrastinating?

A: There isn’t a one-size fits all approach as people can procrastinate for lots of different reasons, just as a car can break down for reasons ranging from the tires to the transmission. However, there is one technique that works really well for almost everyone – temptation control. The easier it is to access a temptation and the more prominently it is presented, the more likely we will abandon our long-term goals and become distracted. For example, email is one temptation; it’s low-level work that we indulge in when we should be focusing on the big project. Here is what to do. Go and disable all the pop-up, sounds, and notifiers that indicate when new email comes in. Instead, check your email when there are natural breaks in your productivity, not when you hear a bell. You’ll find yourself able to get about 10 percent more done in a day and, once you add up all those days, you will have over an extra month a year from this one step alone.