There’s no time like the present, or is there? When it comes to getting through the to-do list, many of us are happy to worry about it later. We wanted to find out why we procrastinate – a.k.a. put things off – and understand the scale of procrastination in the UK. And while we’ve all hit snooze on the alarm button, are there dangers to dithering that we should take seriously? From lost friendships and dashed dreams, to putting off life insurance, we asked 1,000 people in the UK (aged 16 and over) to spill the beans on their procrastination habits.
- Over half the UK (52%) believe procrastination has affected their life in one way or another.
- 16-24-year olds are five times more likely to use mindfulness techniques to help with procrastination than over-55s (17% compared to 3%).
- Of those who said procrastination has affected their lives, respondents were most likely to say their studies (35%), never pursuing a dream (29%) and the breakdown of friendships (17%) were the biggest impacts.
- A deadline (34%) was the most likely incentive to stir procrastinators into action, compared to boredom (24%) and a monetary prize (21%).
- Londoners have been a lot less motivated to get through their to-do list since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic: 40% say they’re now less motivated – considerably higher than other regions, such as the south-west on 24%.
- 30% of people in the UK have said the pandemic has made them less motivated to get through their to-do list, compared to 21% who said ‘more’. In particular, 34% of 25-34-year olds said feelings of anxiety were the biggest reason they were feeling less motivated.
Why do we procrastinate?
Dilly-dallying… time wasting… kicking the can down the road… whatever you want to call it, there’s no doubt that many of us like to delay the inevitable. Dr Piers Steel, one of the world’s pre-eminent researchers on procrastination, defines it as ‘the voluntary postponement of an unpleasant task, often against one’s better judgement’. But what is this to do with?
There are lots of reasons, say the experts. Some associate procrastination with ‘avoidance’ – a method of coping with anxiety. Others observe that the impulsive nature of procrastination is a symptom of a lack of structure, or a lack of confidence to complete tasks, where putting things off becomes the easy option. Some point to a lack of perceived value in performing certain tasks – ‘why bother?’ – and according to newer schools of thought, procrastination is about regulating your emotions. Under this theory, the comfort of replacing a task with a more pleasant activity can enhance your mood. Some even reject the idea that they procrastinate in making late decisions and prefer to say that they thrive under pressure. And while these are all plausible theories, the truth could include some or all of the above.
So, with no time to waste, we wanted to discover how people are affected by this phenomenon, and whether the UK really is a nation of procrastinators.
We wanted to measure the prevalence of procrastination, so we asked the public to choose one of five personality types to describe their approach to time management. Based on those who selected an option, here’s what we found.
What does this tell us? One in 10 of those who answered are chronically committed to putting things off, but if we add the 13% of ‘procrastinators’ who delay tasks for up to a week, almost a quarter (23%) of people are in the dilly-dallying camp. Perhaps surprisingly, the combined figures for those who like to get things done – the planners and action takers – is a solid 46%. The rest of us – the easy goers – seem to fit somewhere in the middle.
But the headline figures don’t tell the whole story. Of those who chose a personality type, the biggest planners were people aged 25-34; some 34% of this age group selected this option compared to 21% of 16-24 year-olds. Could it be that millennials, for whom university or school is a distant memory, are more inclined to stick to a routine if they’re midway up the career ladder?
The action takers were most represented in the age 55+ category at 28%. Action takers are early risers – 56% said they are most productive in the morning, climbing to 57% among the over-55s. But is getting up early the key to getting things done? Just 27% of chronic procrastinators like to be up and about in the morning, but they’re the biggest night owls – 35% say they’re most productive from 8pm onwards, compared to 15% of action takers.
If you’re one of those people who loves to put things off, don’t worry – you’re not alone. We asked the UK public what activities they’re most likely to leave until later. Of those who selected an option, here were the top five answers.
Outside the top five, a small but solid percentage of respondents said responding to emails (13%) was the activity they were most likely to put off – if any – while for others, car maintenance tasks (11%) and taking out life insurance (8%) were top of the ‘delay’ list.
But who are the nation’s biggest procrastinators? We wanted to uncover which regions of the UK are happiest to kick unpleasant tasks into touch.
In the UK as a whole, a majority of people (52%) say procrastination has affected their life in one way or another. Based on our procrastinator profiles, and once the ‘none of the above’ option was excluded, Greater London had the highest rate of chronic procrastinators at 14%, while planners were most prevalent in Yorkshire and the Humber at 35%.
But procrastination doesn’t just appear out of a clear blue sky. Life is full of distractions, and our survey found that many people can’t help but fill the time with other activities. Here are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to daily distractions, based on respondents who expressed an opinion.
Clearly, the phenomenon of social media has brought many benefits, but is also a major cause of procrastination. Across the age groups, there was a large age discrepancy in terms of who cited social media as a procrastination problem; just 27% of 16-24 and 25-34 year-olds said social media distracted people from their tasks, but the figure was highest (39%) among respondents aged over 55. So while social media can undoubtedly turn heads in the middle of a task, the generation most associated with high social media usage perhaps sees it as less of a time management issue than those who use it less.
Procrastination and the pandemic
When we think of procrastination, we sometimes think of those ‘whoops’ moments we’ve all had after dithering over a decision. According to our survey, 4% of people have missed a flight (rising to 11% among 25-34 year-olds), 3% have missed a table reservation (increasing to 5% among men) and 7% claimed procrastination had made them late for work; again, 25-34 year-olds were the most likely to confess, with the figure rising to 13% among this age group. But while many of these mishaps are the sort of mistakes we can sometimes look back on and laugh, procrastination can also have serious consequences, and indeed be a symptom of living in stressful times.
The Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged many people to assess their life priorities, but has the pandemic made you more or less motivated to get through your to-do list?
- 30% of people in the UK said the pandemic has made them less motivated to get through their to-do list, compared to 21% who said ‘more’.
- 44% of females who said they feel less motivated cited low mood – this was 13% higher than the statistic for males. We know from research by the IFS and the UCL Institute of Education that during the pandemic, working mothers have been more likely than fathers to spend their work hours caring for children.
- Londoners are a lot less motivated following the pandemic than people elsewhere: 40% are less motivated – considerably higher than other regions. Some aspects of the pandemic have hit the capital hard; according to the Office for National Statistics, 21% of Londoners don’t have private outside space, compared to 12% of Great Britain, and 7% of north-east England – the region where people are most likely to have a garden.
- 34% of 25-34-year-olds who said they feel less motivated said feelings of anxiety were the biggest reason.
Beyond the pandemic, there was a strong sentiment among respondents that procrastination has had a detrimental impact on their lives. Of those who said procrastination has affected them, respondents were most likely to say that the biggest impact was on their studies (35%), never pursuing a dream (29%) and the breakdown of friendships (17%). Procrastination has even affected some people’s romantic lives; 13% said that their dithering meant they never asked out a ‘crush’ on a date, which rose to 17% among men. The biggest outliers were those aged 55 and over, 70% of whom claimed that procrastination hadn’t affected their life, compared to 18% of 16-24-year-olds.
Overall, a picture emerges that procrastination is a habit that can lead to unwanted consequences, have a negative impact on our mental health, and at the same time, be a symptom of low mood. How can we have a healthier relationship and live more sustainably with our time-wasting ways?
No time like the present
We wanted to uncover some of the best strategies for ‘dealing with dawdling’, and who better to ask than our survey respondents who’d already tried to kick the procrastination habit. What can we learn from those caffeinated action takers who love getting things done? Here are their top five answers.
But what would persuade people to stop procrastinating? 34% of our respondents said a deadline would do the trick, while 24% said they’d be prompted by boredom, and just 21% would be motivated by a monetary prize.
One answer could lie in the way young people embrace ideas of mindfulness. We found that 16-24-year olds are five times more likely to use mindfulness techniques to help with procrastination than over-55s (17% compared to 3%). Also, 25-34-year olds are more likely than any age group to use exercise to help with procrastination.
Keeping our mind, body and soul in good health, while choosing to start with the smallest tasks first so that we can build momentum for the bigger chores – or even the other way around – could be one way to conquer procrastination for good. For example, many people say there are psychological benefits to making the bed as the first activity of the day, as it gives a sense of achievement, a small sense of pride, and will encourage you to do another task. During their training, U.S Navy SEALs often have their beds inspected each morning, and as retired navy admiral William McRaven explained: “If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.”
A nation of procrastinators?
Life is full of distractions, and in a technology-saturated world it’s little wonder that our attention spans have come under strain. But while we’re all guilty of the occasional lapses in concentration, it appears Britons are remarkably resilient when it comes to rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the task at hand. While the nation is split between procrastinators and planners, young people in particular are setting an example by embracing mindfulness, which could help even the most dogged of dawdlers to get their focus back and enhance their wellbeing. In a world where remote working and on-screen distractions are here to stay, it’s more important than ever that we can beat the procrastination habit.