Procrastination can steal hours of our time, but the latest research has some answers about how to reduce it, finds David Robson in his new 60-second psychology column

PROCRASTINATION, we are often told, is the “thief of time”. When I notice my days slipping away in some unfulfilling activity, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss for all I might have achieved and guilt for failing to keep that burglar at bay.

According to the psychological research, our self-admonishment may only make it harder to break the habit, because procrastination is often a way of coping with stress and self-criticism. If I feel anxious about writing a new chapter of my book, for example, I may choose to hide my head in the sands of social media rather than facing the feared reality of a bad first draft. This is counterproductive, since the lost time will only make poorer performance more likely, but it provides short-term relief from the anxiety I am facing.

Studies show that the higher our fear of failure, the more likely we are to procrastinate. If we then beat ourselves up, it is only going to raise our levels of stress and anxiety, which may cause us to look for more relief in temporary distractions – disrupting our next task, too. The result is a vicious cycle of self-sabotage.

For this reason, psychologists suggest that practising greater self-compassion may be one way of reducing procrastination. Imagine you are talking to a friend in a similar situation. What kind words of encouragement would you use? This exercise reduces self-criticism and people who practise it tend to find it easier to meet challenging goals. Engaging in self-compassionate thinking increased the time students spent studying after having previously failed an exam, for example.

You might also consider employing a little “strategic indulgence” – a concept I recently discovered at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Put simply, this means including procrastination as part of your daily schedule. One of my main sources of time-wasting is funny YouTube videos, for instance, so I might decide to enjoy those for 10 minutes at 11am, before returning to writing.

With strategic indulgence, we can still experience the short-term mood boost we crave. But since it is a deliberate decision, we don’t have the feelings of failure that come with our spontaneous procrastination, so we are then less likely to descend into that spiral of unproductivity.

It seems to work. At the conference, Lile Jia at the National University of Singapore revealed early research showing that students who work distractions into their schedule tend to maintain higher motivation and make better progress towards their goals, with less stress.

In today’s hustle culture, it is reassuring to see research that celebrates self-compassion and self-indulgence. The thief of time may be an inevitable guest, but, with the right mindset, we can ensure its visits are short.

David Robson is an award-winning science writer and the author of The Expectation Effect: How your mindset can change your life

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