How I tackled my 5 Stages of Procrastination
Procrastinating? Don’t worry. I won’t make you feel guilty about your procrastination while reading this article. It’s because we’re all procrastinators to a certain extent.
I want you to sit down, relax, take a moment and reflect on yourself and your procrastinating tendencies. It’s going to be a looong read that will maximize your procrastination streak— you’re welcome.
This article is for those who struggle with getting started on their tasks. It’s also for those who want to build better work habits, no matter how early or far along they are in their careers. It’s for those who believe that procrastination is a stigma, an undesirable personality trait, or worse, a medical condition.
By the end of this article, you’ll be able to pinpoint what’s ultimately driving your procrastination. You’ll probably relate to some of my past and present predicaments (and even commiserate). I’ve laid out what worked or didn’t work for me. Hopefully, you’ll be able to chart out an action plan to tackle yours. Take notes and come back again in a few weeks or months and reevaluate some key points.
I might be wearing my heart on a sleeve by writing this article, but then again, human experience is surprisingly similar — this could be anyone’s story. It’s the power of a story that can actuate change. It’s testimony that we can change and grow.
So here goes my visceral account of procrastination and its effects on personal productivity and work management.
Takeaway: Awareness is the key to tackling procrastination. If you can get specific about what’s going on when procrastinating in each situation, the insight will help you fix the problem.
The question is, what are you dreading? Are you bored? Is it the lack of know-how? Do you want to wait out the task? Let’s find out.
What is procrastination? It’s the action of delaying or postponing something, intentionally or habitually. Procrastination can be seen through different lenses.
In terms of work management, procrastination may occur primarily due to task difficulty. It’s also called “situational procrastination” when the task itself drives the procrastination. Procrastination may also take place in the absence of fixed deadlines or timeframes. For instance, some jobs can be postponed, while others can’t.
For sure, you can postpone working on your car’s engine but it’s not like you can procrastinate attending to your patient in the ER. Can you? Should you? I sure hope you can’t. 🙂 Needless to say, procrastination is more prevalent within education, design thinking, and the creative sphere, such as the arts or marketing.
In terms of motivation, procrastination is deeply emotional. It shows a lack of willpower caused by decision fatigue. When you are low on mental energy because of all the choices you had to make throughout the day or week, your brain will want to stop depleting its willpower in two ways. You will either act impulsively or do nothing at all.
Instead of making that tough phone call you’ve been avoiding, you’ll spontaneously call a friend to catch up. Or, you’ll mindlessly scroll through your social media feed for hours, mentally postponing making the call. Either way, you will feel mentally drained.
From a clinical psychology perspective, procrastination is often associated with anxiety, depression, and stress, but it is not a mental health issue in itself.
Recent studies (Prem et al. 2018) define procrastination as a “form of self-regulation failure characterized by the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences”. Self-regulation refers to our ability to manage emotions well.
So, procrastination is a misfire of our brain’s central executive functioning. According to Smarts: Are We Hard-Wired for Success, there are 12 executive skills that comprise executive functioning. These are self-restraint, working memory, emotion control, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, defining/achieving goals, flexibility, observation (bigger picture), and stress tolerance.
Nobody excels at all 12 of them. Most individuals have 2-3 really strong skills, 2-3 incredibly weak ones, and the others are somewhere in between.
So, procrastination could be linked to poor time management (when you think your task will take 1 hour, but it takes much longer), task initiation (not knowing how to start on your task), self-restraint (not being able to control the urge to do something fun), focus (getting easily distracted by notifications), stress tolerance (panic-inducing deadlines), etc.
Takeaway: There’s much to be said about procrastination. But if you understand that it’s mostly an emotional issue, then you can definitely make some positive changes! Take it from me, who went from being a master procrastinator to a (quite) functional “procrasti-worker”.
My 5 stages of procrastination
In a nutshell, my argument is that oftentimes our procrastinating habits are a blend of situational (external) and emotional (internal) factors. You’re never just one type of procrastinator. If you take a look at my 5 stages, it might look like I’m both a sloth and a busy bee — a shameless slacker and an overachiever with perfectionistic tendencies.
Surely there are deeper psychological underpinnings, but I try my best to articulate what I’ve experienced along with strategies or “aha” moments that helped me become slightly more functional.
Takeaway: you’ll notice how throughout my stages, I (mis)appropriated words and mottos. Our actions are deeply rooted in our thinking processes, and we use aphorisms to encapsulate life truths.
What are yours? As you’re reading this article, identify statements you tell yourself in moments when you choose to procrastinate. Some might sound like the following:
- “That’s just how I am.”
- “I will start working on that assignment/task when I feel better.”
- “I’ve pulled that tough deadline off before– I’ll do it again.”
- “It won’t happen again. Next semester/time I’ll work on my assignments/tasks early.”
- “I have plenty of time to do it later – it’ll be fine.”
- “I put the pro in procrastination.”
- “I’ve had such a long day. I’ve earned the right to procrastinate a bit.”
Stage #1. HEDONISTIC DELAY
When procrastination is a form of pleasure.
My mental picture for the 1st stage: an unwilling toddler who won’t eat its veggies, yet demands candies.
Boredom, task difficulty, or lack of know-how lead to task aversion.
As is always the case, I had been a procrastinator long before I even knew the word. But with its discovery, I proudly appropriated it. My personal revelation was that I was a procrastinator.
True in the literal sense of the word, “towards-tomorrow” (Latin, ‘procrastinus’), I jokingly altered the well-known quote “Why put off tomorrow what you can do today?” into “Why NOT put off tomorrow what you can do today?”.
My cheeky rationale was that “Tomorrow you might not need to put in the work anyway” just because once or twice a task had sorted itself out and I didn’t have to do it. For sure, that could happen 1% of the time. Obviously, I now know that the other 99% of the time you have to deliver on your promises. Otherwise, people will give up on you and find other collaborators.
Looking back on that rationale, it was probably a distorted view of the cost-sunk fallacy: “If I start working on it, it has to be perfect otherwise it would have been for nothing”. My explanation for this “all-or-nothing” mindset was that I didn’t want to be a modern-day Sisyphus. This thinking process is obviously way overboard. I had to fix this cognitive distortion (unhelpful thinking habit) later on in life.
I was pretty spontaneous and flexible back in high school. Kidding— I was just unorganized and my daily routine was a joke. It had little structure and no order. I had a lot going on but an inexistent calendar. I was constantly at the mercy of my poor memory. The only structure I had was my school routine and my twin who had to be both my savior and personal calendar.
Back when I was a teenager I had this naïve outlook on life that work magically gets done. That assignments and exams shall pass — you just have to give them time. Till then, indulge in what makes you happy.
This thinking process reflects the prioritization of short-term mood. It’s called instant gratification, or the “pleasure principle”. Its opposite, delayed gratification, promotes abstaining from giving in to immediate pleasurable experiences in exchange for valuable and meaningful rewards in the long run.
Essentially, I would prioritize my feelings in the present – whatever I wanted to do and made me happy at that specific moment (#yolo, carpe diem) – at the expense of my long-term development.
It’s a natural tendency to engage in enjoyable activities and avoid unpleasant ones, but it becomes a serious problem when you can’t control the urge to self-gratify. Too much instant gratification turns individuals into dopamine junkies, constantly seeking out fun activities and quick fixes. And when they don’t get their dopamine rush, their psychological response is tension and anxiety.
Thankfully, back in high school, my idea of instant gratification mostly involved reading books and encyclopedias, learning languages, playing guitar, and volunteering in the local community. Plus, I started freelancing, tutoring, and working on personal projects. These don’t sound too hedonistic, do they? Still, the pleasure principle works the same.
Bartering for the dopamine rush
But I wasn’t always artistically and socially productive. I was guilty of binge-gaming MMORPGs and binge-watching one too many TV series and anime. “It’s OK to watch another episode. This TV series is so much fun— it’ll lift my mood and get me extra excited about that assignment/project. I’ll be able to finish it in no time”.
This phenomenon is called mood repair. I would take it a step further and make excuses for my binges. I even misappropriated the proverb to soothe my conscience, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull (uninteresting) boy”. The problem is that Jack had been lazy the whole day. I kept prioritizing pleasure over progress. I kept wasting time bingeing.
Mood repair makes you feel much worse later when you have to deal with a super tight deadline, or worse, dealing with the aftermath of your failed efforts. Years later I had to imprint this on my mind, that
“No work all day makes Jack a dull (lazy) boy”.
Instant gratification usually piggybacks on task aversion. Task aversion refers to the unwillingness to do frustrating, boring, or tiresome tasks. In short, the more unappealing the task, the more likely you are to avoid it (by procrastinating, of course).
I wasn’t naturally inclined to STEM disciplines, especially Maths, yet I had to follow Maths & IT-focused curricula. You can imagine the dread and resistance I had put up. At the time, I didn’t know what structured procrastination was. It was a kind of childish rebellion against the fact that I was failing Maths. I just didn’t want to put in the effort because the task was too daunting.
I kept telling people that Maths was neither my forte nor my cup of tea. Why torture myself when I was acing all my other school subjects and pursuing (one too many) other interests? But task aversion occurred to almost all kinds of tasks. I would put off boring long assignments until the (mid)night before class. Worse yet, I used to finish easy assignments during the 10-minute break before class.
- Fixed deadlines. Fortunately, you can’t postpone midterms and exams.
- Structured procrastination coupled with a reward system. When toddlers avoid eating the food they dislike, parents give them a morsel and then leave them to play for a while. Soon after, they come for another bite. “Fine, watch that episode, but finish this one task first. You can then reward yourself with another episode”.
- “Bite the bullet”. A simpler approach to Eat the Frog method, which at the time would have been like CrossFit for a couch potato. “Bite the bullet” was a quick mental trick. Like a mental race gun, I would tell myself “Ready-set-go!” and I’d start working on my assignment just as I would sprint at a race.
- Exercising self-control. Saying no to hitting “next episode”. Thankfully, Netflix wasn’t accessible to me back then, so bingeing took an effort.
- Change of perspective: I tried to make the hedonistic lifestyle look childish and meaningless. I told myself I was better than that. Eventually, I would have to value progress over pleasure, right?
Value progress over pleasure. You can’t live on junk food forever.
What didn’t work?
The Getting Things Done® method. This might have been the first productivity system I heard about. It was overkill, though. My messiness could not be contained by this productivity system because I was too inconsistent at the time. Plus, I was not aware I could change or grow. So, failing to implement GTD entrenched my belief that my lack of organization was indeed a natural trait.
My advice is to give GTD a try when you have a few productivity habits going strong or when you have a good routine.
Stage #2. FEAR OF FAILURE
When procrastination is a form of crippling anxiety.
My mental picture for the 2nd stage: a startled kangaroo dazzled by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.
That moment when the reality of the imminent deadline sinks in.
When I got to college, I was ecstatic. Philology and modern languages, reading books, and learning languages meant that my structured procrastination go-tos had become my mandatory tasks. I was now in my sweet spot, or so I had thought. The psychological underpinnings for procrastination were an acute sense of self-doubt and low self-esteem (more on these issues in the 3rd stage).
As mentioned before, motivational procrastination may occur due to depleted willpower. This in turn causes you to act in two extremes, just like kangaroos when they are faced with an imminent collision:
The blinding lights cause roos to dart erratically in front of the car. I call this non-action. Non-action is the failure to act according to the situation you are in. You’re hopping frantically, doing stuff— just not the stuff you should be doing.
College was like a clean slate. But instead of creating structure and order, I took up a lot of new interests, hobbies, new projects, and more clients. I had become a dabbler and my workload was jam-packed. Still, I would say yes to new challenges and act on a whim without planning ahead. Unknowingly, I would double-book and overbook my time. Before my deadlines, I’d suddenly decide to go out with friends, to start another online game, or binge-watch another show.
I had poor time perception and a terrible estimation of how long a side project would take me to complete. Because I wasn’t keeping track of my time whatsoever, I had a form of time-blindness (also called time agnosia). I had difficulty planning and prioritizing tasks & activities and measuring how long something would take me. I was almost always late or in a constant rush, and I would often lose track of time.
Luckily, I started integrating two essential time management practices: a digital calendar and the Pomodoro technique (working with a timer in 25-minute increments followed by 5-minute breaks). I was starting to bring some structure to my daily schedule, to set alarms and reminders (especially early in the morning).
In contrast to the erratic behavior, the kangaroos’ unfortunate instinct is to freeze when faced with bright headlights. I call this inaction. Inaction is idleness, inertia, apathy. Because I was doing a ton of different things, my physical and emotional resources were being constantly used up.
I found myself daydreaming, ideating, but not taking much action to complete the urgent and super important tasks. Honestly, I let my brain wander because I didn’t want to take action. I was avoiding most of my responsibilities. At that point, I had signs of sleep deprivation but I was compensating with power naps and way too much coffee.
My projects demanded my focus and attention, yet there I was planning the Next Big Thing. That happened mostly because I thought future-me was superhuman. “I’ll procrastinate today, ‘cause tomorrow I’ll be well-rested and excited about finishing that book translation project”.
You probably know how that turned out. Poor Skippy-Roo was once again startled by the truck-of-doom called “Deadline”. So, I’d watch another TV show until the wee hours of the night.
- Having a to-do list. This is as obvious as it gets. But at the time, I didn’t have people around me who used to-do lists, let alone promote productivity.
- The Pomodoro technique. No words can stress its immense help. My productive life can be categorized as “before and after Pomodoro”.
- Fixed deadlines. Fortunately, exams and project deadlines kept me in check. Still, I had a few workarounds with clients and deadlines.
- Structured procrastination. It was deeply enriching (but please don’t take it as my personal encouragement for you to keep procrastinating). Do what needs to be done. If the endeavor is too daunting, work around it.
- Owning a wristwatch. I’m not joking. I had to set time-marker cues for better time management and to minimize delays. Examples of such cues: “I have to finish task #2 no later than 5 p.m. to still be on time”; “A 10-person cue means I have 20 minutes to finish listening to this lecture”; “I’ll be folding the laundry during these 2 songs”.
- Creating more structure. I worked on developing fixed routines for ongoing college assignments and freelancing gigs.
- Mind dumping. I would jot down all my distractions and fleeting thoughts in order to improve my focus and attention. Journaling was a great emotional outlet. Plus, writing down the tasks I completed that day gave me a sense that present-me wasn’t that lazy.
- Change of perspective: I didn’t want to become roadkill. Kangaroos are most vulnerable at dawn and dusk. Similarly, I had to avoid time frames and days when I knew for a fact I would not be able to finish my work.
Pro tip: don’t schedule (academic) work during family holidays or winter break if you know for a fact you won’t be productive.
What didn’t work?
Dan Ariely (2002) suggests setting deadlines publicly. I would confidently set my own deadline and announce it to my family and peers (even professors!). But without an external deadline, I couldn’t stick to my own deadlines.
This precommitment failure made me feel terrible about my procrastinating tendencies. Thankfully, I stumbled upon the mood repair strategy of “self-forgiveness” (Wohl et al. 2010), which involves forgiving yourself for all your procrastinating mishaps. It worked wonders at the time.
Stage #3. PERFECTIONISM
When procrastination is a byproduct of perfectionism.
My mental picture for the 3rd stage: Mozart’s midnight creative bursts.
That moment when you are in the zone and you feel like a mad genius. (Kudos to Joe Sparrow for the awesome animation!)
Imagine you’re a composer, and the evening before the performance you are out drinking with your friends. With growing concern on their faces, your friends remind you that you haven’t yet finished writing the introduction to your opera. You are amused by their anxious concern, and keep on drinking. You get home, and you start working on the piece at near midnight. But because you’ve been drinking, you ask your spouse to keep you company so you don’t fall asleep. Still, you doze off till 5 a.m. but somehow manage to finish it by 7 a.m. to send it to the copyist.
This is a true story. In the wee hours of 29 October 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would compose the overture for Don Giovanni, one of Mozart’s masterpieces and one of the greatest operas of all time. Mozart was both a musical maestro and a master procrastinator.
He missed deadlines or finished his commissions only partially. He would submit his works in the nick of time leaving little time for copyists to process his work. As a rule, his compositions were written as close to the deadline as possible.
His father told him off in a letter on December 11, 1777, “If you will examine your conscience closely, you will find that procrastination is your besetting sin” (Life of Mozart vol. 2, by Otto Jahn).
That’s not to say Mozart was lazy. He even excused himself, “Believe me, I do not love idleness, but rather work” (May 26, 1781). A prolific composer, he wrote 626 pieces over 30 years, all while performing abroad and tutoring music students. What helped him greatly in his creative pursuits was having fixed deadlines set by his clients (counts, royals, friends, and even his pupils).
But Mozart was averse to writing, not composing. It was written in haste, not composed in haste. He explains his reluctance to write, stressing that his ideas were not ready to be put on paper. He had perfect pitch and an eidetic memory, so a lot of his compositions were naturally polished in his mind, not on paper.
Obviously, we are not creative geniuses like Mozart. But we too take great pride in our work, and we want it to be flawless. We churn ideas in our heads, and even though our ideas are solid, we still feel the need to work on them just a bit longer until they are perfect. We’ve got plenty of time, right?
It probably happened to you: you’re full of ideas and enthusiasm about your project. In your mind, you know exactly what you want to achieve and you can’t wait to put in the work and flesh them out. But you somehow delay starting to work on the project because you can’t just write something average. You are then plagued by self-doubt, discouragement, and mental exhaustion.
Point in case, my 80-page Bachelor’s thesis written in 2 weeks or Tim Urban’s 90-page thesis, which he wrote in 3 days. Now, that’s a panic-inducing deadline:
A witty take on the nerve-racking effects of procrastination.
Procrastinating perfectionists tend to be self-critical, drowning in a whirlpool of self-deprecating thoughts, questioning whether they’ve got what it takes. If only they shared their progress or struggles with others, they would perform much better with less stress.
But that’s the thing, perfectionists and/or procrastinators rarely want to share their work in progress because it’s not yet polished. They personally don’t like it, so they assume others would hate it, too.
This sneaky cognitive distortion is called “mind reading”. It’s when you think you know what other people are thinking. You assume they’ll think you’re incompetent or a fraud. Yes, you’ve guessed it, mind reading is an offshoot of the impostor syndrome.
Coming back to Mozart. Besides fixed deadlines, he too understood that stakeholder input and feedback mattered. “He had procrastinated and thrown away his time after his usual habit, until now he is forced to set to work in earnest, in compliance with Count Rosenberg’s commands” (November 11, 1785).
In hindsight, I wish I had done that. The truth is, I over-researched my subject matter. The paper had double the necessary word count. The scope of the paper was way too wide. Had I checked in with my supervisor I would have had a not-so-traumatic experience.
Check-in with your supervisor or project leader, submit outlines and earlier drafts, or at least an informal report. Chat about what you’re working on, and agree on doable milestones.
I remember sprinting through the campus to submit my thesis 15 minutes before the deadline (and sleeping 26 hours afterwards). That’s when I told myself, “This won’t ever happen again”.
Because I had set unattainable research aims, even though my BA thesis received its recognition, I wasn’t satisfied with it. The pursuit of perfection is like climbing a ladder that has no end.
- My thesis supervisor’s word of advice. “Alexa, good on you for finishing it! But be careful, you might not be able to pull it off in time in the future”… Her words haunt me to this day, which is awesome! Because those words still keep me in check 6 years later.
- Setting granular tasks. What I mean by granularity: tailoring tiny-sized tasks that I could achieve in one Pomodoro session. My task list was absurd: write 100 words— times a hundred. But hey, it worked for me. I also had a rough checklist of the specialized literature, topics, concepts, and examples to cover.
- Hermit-style work (isolation). I canceled all my plans and self-isolated before this was even a part of our collective memory of COVID-19. A new, limiting environment, with no distractions was an immensely effective strategy for a social butterfly like myself. The key is to be in a place in which you can only do one of two things— either work on your task or stare at the blank walls. I find long train rides also productive.
- Eliminating distractions. Switch off notifications, or leave your phone in another room. Use web extensions to block social media apps.
- Change of perspective. Understand the absurdity of perfection: it’s not satisfied with itself. There will always be a new height, you will always want to do more and do better.
It feels great when you get positive feedback, right? So, check-in with your supervisor early on. (Kudos to Joe Sparrow for the awesome animation!)
What I wish I’d known then
By all means, just finish it. Done is better than (Still) In progress. Postponing the task won’t lift the burden— getting it done will. Plus, chances are you’re already working to a high standard, so stop giving yourself a hard time.
I wish I’d known that I was unconsciously engaging in self-handicapping behavior. This behavior tries to protect self-esteem by finding external sources (procrastination in this case) to blame for possible failures.
When it’s successful, it’s a kind of humble brag— “Ah, look at that, I started working on that paper 3 hours before the deadline and got an A. I could’ve gotten an A+ had I put in more time…”
When it doesn’t go so well, it’s a lame excuse— “Ah, look at that, I got a C- because I had only 3 hours before the deadline. I could’ve totally aced it if I had more time…”
Now, whenever I am tempted to make such excuses, I try to tell others, but mostly to myself:
“It is what it is. Let bygones be bygones. Now I want to focus on my <Next Big Thing>”.
Stage #4. “PROCRASTIWORK”
When procrastination is a way of juggling priorities.
My mental picture for the 4th stage: dashing frantically to keep spinning plates in motion.
The close call of meeting your deadline at the last moment. In the meantime, the tasks you should be working on aren’t even set in motion.
Coined by Jessica Hische, procrastiworking is avoiding the work you should be doing by focusing on other productive tasks. Procrastiworking could be meal planning when you should be cooking, or working on the design of your presentation instead of laying out all the data.
When I stumbled upon the concept of procrastiworking, I was pursuing a Master’s degree abroad and freelancing full time. I had mostly figured out how to get things done by working on my highest impact task first. It was a time of peak performance and high energy.
For once I was productive, plus making good money in the process. I was finally no longer procrastinating, or so I thought. I was frantically busy keeping track of tasks, appointments, responsibilities, and dependencies. Studying through the day, working through the night— plus some fun in between.
I was actually excited about this newfound productive state. And I kept telling others, “You know you’re busy when you’re procrastiworking on an equally important task”. To make it worse, I was smiling through the phrase. But in the back of my mind, I knew I was putting off the Big Thing.
Now I see procrastiworking as a circus act: masterfully spinning plates, dashing from one plate to the other to keep them in motion, dazzling the audience. People might applaud your multitasking skills, but you are frantically dashing from one task to the other, splitting your focus and depleting your resources. And maybe, the plate you should be working on is not even in place for performance.
Because I was constantly working, I lost the drive to work on what really mattered, on honing my craft. A lack of perseverance made me procrastinate – I had reached a point in my personal project that was challenging and needed my focus, but I was unwilling to work through the discomfort.
Faced with situational procrastination, I hated working on some urgent tasks. I procrastiworked so that I could finish most of my low-impact, small projects. I wanted to clear my schedule for the entire day so I could finally tackle the monster project.
It was a kind of time blocking I did intuitively, but not because I wanted to focus and engage in deep work. I simply wanted to minimize the dread, anxiety, and panic. I wanted to finish the project in one sitting— which can rarely be the case. Try finishing book translations in one sitting…
Even though I still had bouts of procrastination due to panic-inducing deadlines, I had the legitimate excuse that I had too much on my plate(s), which had been spinning for a while. I was close to burnout, which is when I decided to stop freelancing.
- Eat the Frog method. Focusing on high-impact tasks and jumping right in, first thing in the morning.
- Prioritization. I used the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to determine the level of importance of my tasks to minimize the impractical little tasks I was working on. I knew I wasn’t going to stop procrastiworking, but I wanted to at least reduce my overall workload.
- Improved daily planning. I made a habit of daily planning the night before. I time-blocked some days to focus on tasks one by one and by the level of importance. Back then I kept a physical BuJo— bullet journaling as a productivity system was effective at that stage when I had lost the drive to work on personal projects.
- Time tracking. Coupled with the Pomodoro technique, time tracking helped me stay motivated. How? My time entries were proof for myself that I was not slacking around (my freelance gigs were not paid hourly). It significantly upped my work rhythm.
- Change of perspective. I realized that being busy wasn’t necessarily something to brag about. It was just an excuse for my scattered endeavors– most of which weren’t bringing much value. Plus, I was leaving no room for lucky opportunities or time for friends and family.
Stage #5. REVENGE PROCRASTINATION
When procrastination is a kind of entitlement.
My mental picture for the 5th stage: midnight Maccas run.
Revenge procrastination feels as if you’re ruling the world. Just don’t forget you have to wake up early the next day.
My current stage of procrastination, the 5th stage, is not new under the sun. This phenomenon is widespread among full-time employees or working parents. It is especially problematic now in a WFH environment brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The term “revenge bedtime procrastination” is the literal translation of the Chinese “bàofùxìng áoyè”, a refusal to sleep early in order to regain some sense of control over daytime life. It’s a kind of childish defiance against a tough workday filled with tasks and responsibilities. It’s when you’re #adulting hard and you feel entitled to some “me-time”.
In a nutshell, to say you engage in revenge procrastination, you know you are depriving yourself of sleep for no valid reason and are well-aware of the negative consequences over time.
It reminds me of midnight Maccas runs when you know you should be sleeping and definitely not eating fast food late at night. A “Maccas run” (McDonald’s drive-thru) is very popular for Australians. It’s when teenagers and/or young adults spontaneously gather their friends to grab a bite at McDonald’s. It’s almost like a ritual and it usually happens at night. Have I done it? One too many times.
Going out of your way for a Maccas run. How a commenter put it, “is a McFeast that worth it?”. So, “is bedtime doomscrolling that worth it?”
Revenge procrastination is a more functional kind of hedonist delay. You know you should be sleeping early to be well-rested for work, but you’ve been slaving all day and you want to do something fun, or relaxing, or something just because you can.
You’re staying late for no reason, and you’re spontaneous about it. You might even call your friends (who might be engaged in the same revenge procrastination) to do something entertaining together. I think this happens because you know you can.
I’ve always been a night owl, so working through the day leaves a lot of (perceived) free time in the evening. My body needs rest, but my mind can’t accept that. My brain thinks I should be doing something—anything— but sleep.
Plus, you are well-aware of the consequences— you know you’ll be a zombie the next day. But you do it anyway: “It’s 2 a.m. but I’ll watch another episode. It’s fine, tomorrow my work schedule is not that tight”. Or, “Let me check my social media feed for a second”. Like a Maccas run, you know revenge procrastination is a bit reckless, but you assume that future-you has good physical and mental endurance. So present-you will just grab an extra cuppa.
How is a Maccas run reckless? In most cases, the designated driver usually has a provisional license (called p-plate in Australia). What makes it exciting is that p-plate drivers have certain restrictions. For example, they can’t drive around past 12 a.m. The idea that you might be pulled over is exciting. This kind of reckless behavior seems harmless. But just as fast food negatively affects the body, so does revenge procrastination.
Also, you go for a midnight Maccas run because you’re hungry or because you probably haven’t eaten properly throughout the day. Similarly, you engage in revenge procrastination because your workload was too heavy or boring. You feel like you haven’t got your daily dose of fun or wholesome activities.
The solution: schedule throughout the day some activities that bring value and fulfillment. Don’t wait for the sundown to do them. This is usually the case for parents who wait to put their kids to bed before they do something recreational.
What has been working so far?
I can’t really say I’ve overcome it just yet. But I’ve been adopting a few strategies to help me reduce my workload and endeavors. Some have been more successful than others:
1. Commitment inventory
People. I take inventory of the time I spend weekly with the people in my life. Whenever I plan my weekly schedule (it’s usually every Sunday), I allocate a fixed number of hours I can spend with people. Time allocation usually depends on how busy I am with work. I also try to allow some pockets of free unscheduled time. I try my best to pepper those interactions throughout the day. For example, a brunch during my work break, a chat during a brisk walk, or a Zoom call that fits both our timezones.
Projects. Similarly, I have a fixed number of hours I can spend on work. So, one tough spring afternoon I decided to reduce my endeavors to half. I decided that from then on, for every project that I took on, I had to make sure I could put in the necessary hours. For every yes, there had to be a no somewhere else. Choose your opportunities and tasks wisely. Ah, it stings a bit at first— but it gets better in time. Start saying no.
Tasks. I use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix à la Marie Kondo. From experience, this combo works really well. I try to declutter my diverse master list, especially to get rid of the things I’ve been meaning to do but have no actionable plan. I am explicit about not working on certain projects, endeavors, or ideas. It’s similar to Warren Buffett’s 25/5 Rule. I try to keep it minimal because I see tasks listed on my matrix as promises to myself or to others that I must keep. So, to minimize possible snafus, I try to keep it as simple as possible.
2. Bedtime routine.
I try to have a consistent bedtime routine. I charge my phone away from my bed so that it’s uncomfortable to use it in bed. Plus, I use Samsung’s Digital Wellbeing feature, which includes a grayscale screen (it makes ‘doomscrolling’ less fun) and a “do not disturb” function.
3. Realistic daily planning.
I have to remind myself why I’ve put the 4th stage behind me— back then, I was more energetic and excited about work, and had the physical resources to hustle. But nowadays I get tired more easily. I have the will to do the things I have planned out— but I’m more aware of my limitations and how poorly I can sometimes estimate and manage my time.
7 Procrastination Lessons I’ve learned
Remember the unhelpful phrases we tell ourselves? Let’s address them in light of everything we’ve tackled so far.
“That’s just how I am.”
What I realized is that these procrastinating tendencies and psychological motivations are deep-seated— and I might have to put up a fight for years to come. Again, procrastination is basically an emotional issue. But now I’m better equipped than ever, and I plan on getting better at combating procrastination.
I now understand that my fear of failure, perfectionism and fear of negative feedback don’t necessitate one another. Even though I might be influenced by a combination of these three, I am not doomed. A growth mindset goes a long way.
“I will start working on that assignment/task when I feel better.”
If what you need is physical rest, by all means, take a power nap. Remember that the best mood repair ingredient is motivation. I’ve learned that motivation is threefold.
There’s the extrinsic (external) motivation that I get from working alongside people— my work affects them and a part of me wants to maintain a good relationship with them and, why not, accept their compliments and affirmation with a smile. Money is also a good external motivator, but definitely weaker than the others.
Goal-driven motivation works well for me. I thrive on project-based work. I tend to choose short-term projects because I’m driven by the foreseeable end result, especially regarding creative work. For example, I set goals for short-term endeavors like video productions of all kinds, writing articles, translation projects— even my practice sessions must have specific songs in the setlist that have a concrete outcome.
I know that the most effective kind of motivation is intrinsic (internal) motivation. It’s when I’m enthused by my work and my interests. It’s when I find enjoyment in my tasks, even if I were to be the only person alive on the face of the earth.
And it’s OK if my tasks get done by a combination of these three. I try to be careful I don’t lose my drive and motivation. I see productivity as building momentum— motivation surges as you’re putting in the effort, not beforehand.
Motivation explains why some people practice structured procrastination, namely working on small, low-impact tasks to get their engines started. I, for instance, like to procrastiwork. I work on mid-impact tasks first to make sure I get some work done as I’m recalibrating between tasks. There are high achievers out there who eat the frog and start with their high-impact tasks first.
“I’ve pulled that tough deadline off before– I’ll do it again.”
This phrase is arguable because of these two things:
- You never know what tomorrow holds in store. I’m amazed at how unpredictable a regular workday can get. I try to leave pockets of free time just to plan for the unplanned, but even so, my daily schedule gets all jumbled up at times.
- I try not to assume that future-me will have the physical and mental resources to keep working under intense pressure. It’s because I want to be a functional individual and balance work-family activities. Tiredness is a reality.
19 y.o. Sophie in Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle. One wise gal.
So, what I do is remember past failures. There were times when I failed epically because I had procrastinated. It’s why I try to hold onto my supervisor’s word of advice (even if it doesn’t always go according to plan).
In addition, I celebrate small victories. But not the kind of victories in which I had to pull all-nighters and managed to finish in the nick of time. No, it’s like a pat on the back for managing to eat the frog on a Monday morning, or successfully employing the 80/20 Rule without freaking out about my social esteem.
“It won’t happen again. Next semester/time I’ll work on my assignments and tasks early.”
This is a cognitive distortion at its finest. The “false-hope syndrome” is when you believe that things will be different next time. The truth is, without major personal growth (self-change), future-you will still procrastinate.
The false-hope syndrome tricks your brain into misattributing your failure to terrible circumstances, bad professors, or impossible deadlines. Word of advice— count your losses and move on.
Also, don’t set too many impossible goals. Take a moment and assess your goals one by one. Are they attainable? For example, a 4.0 GPA might be a “stretch goal”. Go ahead if you want to, but know there is no 100% certainty you will achieve it.
I’ve come across the OKR methodology, which encouraged me to see my goals in terms of professional/personal growth, and not as performance indicators. So, for instance, I still aim for a 4.0 GPA, but 3.7 is desirable, and 3.3 is good enough. This way, I’m aiming for excellence, not perfection.
“I have plenty of time to do it later – it’ll be fine.”
More often than not, it’s not fine. It’s the Parkinson Law conundrum all over again which I’ve laid out in The Complete Guide to Time Tracking.
I’ve made significant progress towards better time management. But somehow, this sneaky belief that there’s plenty of time to do something later is still rooted in my brain. So, whenever I hear myself say it, I take a piece of paper, jot down some of the tasks involved and the amount of time I know it’ll take me.
My trifecta for productivity that’s been working great ever since I’ve implemented it– daily planning, the Pomodoro technique, and time tracking.
Tracking my time in Paymo gives me an accurate picture of my efforts.
Now, having used time-tracking tools for my endeavors, I have a pretty good estimate of my work rhythm. I then open up my digital calendar and time-block work sessions. I do this so that I can get an accurate picture of what my brain’s been telling me versus the objective reality of time.
“I put the pro in procrastination.”
I used to wear procrastination as a badge of honor to excuse some reckless all-nighters. To change, I needed to dissociate my performance from my sense of self-worth. Generally speaking, people aren’t as critical as you’d think. Plus, they have their own work and goals to achieve, so they don’t have the time or energy to scrutinize yours.
Now I’m a reformed procrastinator. Everybody knows life is significant and wants to make it count. My one actionable step in this regard is to stop being proud of my procrastination tendencies.
“I’ve had such a long day. I’ve earned the right to procrastinate a bit.”
I know I’m bartering physical rest off.
Don’t get me wrong, I like my job description and my daily grind, but that’s just it. Even the word grind implies tiresome repetition.
Right now, I want to strike a balance between my personal and professional life. At this point, some trade-offs regarding my need for dopamine are necessary in order to replenish my physical and mental resources. So, I’m working towards better processes regarding my commitment inventory, my bedtime routine, and daily planning.
Do I still procrastinate? For sure!
But just because I know 100 nuggets of wisdom, implementing them isn’t any easier. I still show resistance when I need to bite the bullet. I still struggle with task aversion, so eating the frog takes extra effort. My time perception can get hazy.
I’ve had stages in which I needed a sense of control and fun— (1) hedonist delay and (5) revenge procrastination— some in which I questioned my skills and know-how— (2) fear of failure and (3) perfectionism— and stages in which I hustled— (4) procrastiwork. My assumption is that other states will come with a combination of these underlying factors, but of different intensity and maybe with keener insight.
Still, I strongly believe that awareness, insight, and understanding, coupled with the necessary resources can actuate shifts in thinking patterns and behaviors and build good habits. What I haven’t quite succeeded at is establishing internal deadlines and sticking to them.
What do I want to improve on? My top 3 systems would be the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 Rule), time-blocking (in light of Parkinson’s Law), and Eat the frog method.
In light of my testimony, take a moment to make a plan against procrastination. A year from now you’ll be thankful you’d started tackling procrastination, even if the territory is uncharted or even if you are only sure of that one step ahead. Over time, the fog of war will clear up. What matters now is putting one foot in front of the other.
If you want to read up on productivity, I’ve put together a comprehensive productivity guide with tips, insights, actionable steps, and resources. I’m not shaming you for procrastinating some more.
PS: You’d probably think I procrastinated while writing this lengthy article. Not really. I wanted to share my ups and downs, especially the workings of my procrastinating brain. But, it’s true I procrastiworked as I was mentally working on my next piece. So, stay tuned for other productivity and work management insights.