November 14, 2022

Why We Procrastinate and How To Stop

Let's be honest. Is there something else you're supposed to be doing right now? If you’re reading this article instead of tackling one of the many projects you have on the go, feel no shame: This is a safe space, and you’re among friends!

Have you ever sat down to work on a report or project and realized it’s much less stressful and more rewarding to check out the latest sports score or watch TikTok reels? If so, join the crowd: at least 20% of the adult population are chronic procrastinators.

In this article, we bring you the science behind procrastination and eight science-based techniques to help you start getting things done. Believe me, they work. If they didn’t, I would never have finished this post.

Procrastinating Has Little to Do With Laziness

Contrary to popular belief, procrastinating has little to do with laziness. And it’s far more complicated than simply being a matter of time management.

To understand what causes procrastination, it’s important to be clear about what it is — and isn’t.

Experts define procrastination as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. 

A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but the real reason people procrastinate has to do with emotional self-regulation — in particular, an inability to manage negative moods around a certain task. 

We usually don’t procrastinate on fun things. We procrastinate on tasks we find difficult, unpleasant, aversive or just plain boring or stressful.

If a task feels especially overwhelming or provokes significant anxiety, it’s often easiest to avoid it.

Another reason people procrastinate is because of low self-esteem. One might think: “I’m never going to do this right,” or, “What will my boss think if I screw up?”

There Are Big Costs to Procrastination

Procrastination is a risk factor for poor mental and physical health. 

The mental health implications include experiencing general psychological distress and low life satisfaction (particularly regarding work and income), as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Procrastinators are also more likely to experience headaches, insomnia, and digestive issues, and they’re more susceptible to the flu and colds. The association with health problems is best explained by stress, but another factor is that procrastinators often delay preventive treatment, such as regular checkups.

Research suggests that procrastination is associated with sleep problems, such as shorter sleep duration and an increased risk of insomnia symptoms and daytime sleepiness.

Procrastination has a high cost to others as well as oneself. 

Finally, procrastinating is also linked to heart problems. People with heart disease are more likely than healthy people to self-identify as procrastinators. And procrastinators with hypertension and heart disease are less likely to take action to cope with their illness, such as changing their diet or exercising.

What You Can Do Right Now

The good news is a tendency towards procrastination isn’t hardwired. 

Strategies for overcoming procrastination will vary depending on why it happens in the first place. 

Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Recognize that “maybe I should have started earlier, but I don’t need to beat myself up.” 

Focus on doing your best. Don’t get caught in the trap of worrying about what others think.

Find meaning in the task in question. Write down why it’s important to you and think about how completing it will be valuable to your personal growth or happiness.

Start small. A big project seems a lot to tackle, but smaller tasks are less daunting. Start by working out each step you need to take to finish. This can be particularly helpful to indecisive procrastinators. These people, who are often perfectionists, do best when they split up a task into manageable parts, rather than feeling pressure to perform perfectly on a big, daunting project.

Set deadlines for yourself for those small steps. If you work best under pressure, this can help you get the same rush of adrenaline you get when you wait until the last minute.

Make your intentions public and be accountable to someone. If you can’t stick to your own deadlines, get others to help you. Post your goals on social media and ask your network to hold you accountable. Or find someone supportive to whom you can be accountable. 

Do “quick to-do's” super quickly. Make a fast assessment of your impending tasks and think if you can take action immediately, then do it. For example, review your emails, and if you can respond to any of them immediately, do it. Tell yourself, “there’s no better time to get this done than now.”

Reward yourself for the small wins. Procrastination and "perfectionism" often go hand in hand. and high achievers might not necessarily feel it's worth celebrating the successful completion of a small task. Still, these are achievements worth noting and rewarding yourself for (if the reward isn’t more time on Instagram.)

Consider counseling

For some people, procrastination is so persistent and damaging to everyday life it may be symptomatic of a psychological disorder such as depression, low self-esteem, or anxiety. If your behavior is causing you distress or significantly affecting your performance at work, school, or home, don’t be afraid to consult a professional. 

A number of mental health organizations maintain up-to-date, searchable databases of licensed therapists. For example, the American Psychological Association, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the Association of LGBTQ+ Psychiatrists. You can also find counselors by contacting your state psychology or counseling association or getting a referral from a friend, colleague, or doctor you trust. 

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