Every one of us has procrastination habits – we’re human, after all. It’s normal to occasionally put things off and complete tasks tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student engaging in some academic procrastination, someone working from home ignoring household chores, or a CEO ignoring their own self imposed deadlines. We all do it.
But problems arise when the ‘putting off’ becomes habitual and takes over our lives. Ultimately, this kind of active procrastination has negative consequences, poking at us in the back of our minds and preventing us from enjoying our free time as well as from achieving more personal growth.
According to the American Psychological Association, habitual or lifestyle procrastinators represent about 20% of the population. If this includes you, your goals and responsibilities chronically take a backseat to more short-term gratification.
In turn, this can send you down a spiral of negative self-talk, which compromises all further effort to break through the habits that are holding you back. Here’s the thing about procrastination: by the time you’re calling it by its name, it has probably already become somewhat of a habit, and breaking the behaviors that lock us into this time-sucking pattern can be quite challenging.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you want to beat procrastination and truly commit to tackling this form of addiction, your relationship with doing things on time will improve. By extension, so will your enjoyment of life in general!
What is procrastination?
What does it mean to procrastinate? When it comes to landing on a definition of procrastination, it helps not to beat around the bush. To engage in procrastination behavior means to have trouble persuading yourself to do the things you should do, need to do, or would like to do.
Rather than working on something important, effort-intensive, time-sensitive, or even downright urgent, you find yourself deeply engaged in something else altogether. Maybe instead of writing a paper or having a tough conversation, you’re suddenly cleaning your house. Ironically, you may have needed to clean for ages, but had been killing time on social media.
And that right there is the crux of the matter: killing time. If we kill it, we have none left for those so-called urgent tasks! The key, instead, is to manage our time well so that we have ample time left for other things—things we may not even have planned for. That, friends, is quality of life, and truly being able to enjoy living in the present moment.
Overcoming procrastination: identifying myths
Although the meaning of procrastination is pretty clear, defining what procrastination is not is just as helpful in understanding our reasons for doing it. Let us dispel a few of the more common (yet persistent) misconceptions about procrastination, shall we?
Myth 1: Procrastination is laziness
From the outside looking in, procrastination can look a bit like laziness. But there’s a significant distinction to be made between laziness and procrastination. While procrastinators might put off doing things, sometimes until the last minute, or even spend their time staring into the great void, don’t be so quick to judge this behavior as lazy. Lazy people do little or nothing and are not bothered by this lack of action.
On the contrary, procrastinators really want to do something but can’t seem to kickstart the process. While laziness is passive and even apathetic, active procrastinators are active and willing—even if you’re choosing to do something other what you need to do, you are doing something.
Regardless of what others may think, start by eliminating the negative feelings and thinking of yourself not as lazy. Instead, practice some semblance of self forgiveness and be more accurate: you’re a procrastinator, that’s all! Words matter. The first step on the road to better self control is a better understanding of the root of your behaviors. It’s how we begin to set about fixing them.
Myth 2: procrastination is relaxation
Another common misconception about procrastination is that it’s a form of relaxation—or, put another way, relaxing is a form of procrastination. Either way, this is problematic and simply untrue. Instinctively, we all know what relaxing feels like: it renews your energy stores, leaving you feeling less tired and more capable of tackling the tasks of life. In many ways, procrastination is the exact opposite.
That muted (yet nonetheless present) awareness of what you should be focusing on, coupled with the often low-level yet continual anxiety at the back of your mind can really drain your energy. Plus, unsurprisingly, it’s a vicious circle: the less energized you feel, the more vulnerable you become to stress or even depression, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that you’ll keep right on procrastinating. In a nutshell, successfully getting things done is what enables us to actually relax. Procrastinating does not accomplish this.
Myth 3: You work best under pressure
This is a very common refrain—if you haven’t made this bold claim yourself, chances are you’ve heard someone else say it. The narrative at play here is that leaving things to the last minute is actually more productive, as the rush involved in making it happen without time on your side is just the kickstart you need to do a bang up job.
Yet in spite of persistent notions that pressure can facilitate productivity, studies show the opposite to be true. What time-pressure facilitates is more akin to stress, guilt, and ineptitude. If you identify as a person who does, in fact, work best under pressure, you might be an exception to the rule, but the more likely explanation is that the habit of completing work last-minute may be producing a ‘high,’ or a sort of euphoria at having prevailed against all odds. After all, we humans do appreciate our dramatic flair.
Why do we procrastinate?
So if it works against us, why do people procrastinate?
Procrastination is driven by a range of thoughts and actions, but at its root, we delay tasks because we don’t think we’ll enjoy them, and we want to avoid unhappiness. Or we worry we won’t do them well. Or we’re intimidated by the perceived complexity of a task (i.e., filing taxes or planting a garden). Or because we’re distracted and exhausted (because, life). Or all of the above and more!
Let’s break these reasons down in more detail, shall we?
Behavioral economists refer to a phenomenon known as “time inconsistency” to help explain why procrastination often sucks us in despite our best intentions.
Put simply, time inconsistency is our tendency to value immediate rewards over future ones. In this way, your present self and your future self often are often in contradiction or even conflict with one another.
While your future self wants to be financially stable, your present self wants to enjoy your earnings because life is too short. While your future self wants to be healthy well into old age, your present self would rather binge Netflix than exercise. The thing is, the consequences of procrastination are often years away, making them seem less than ‘real.’
In this day and age, we are generally not at a loss for options: our modern society worships individual choice and free will, for better or worse. Although the basic underlying tenet here is that the more options we have, the happier we’ll be, people today are not happier than their predecessors.
Although having an abundance of choices at our fingertips has undeniably made life easier in many ways, with more decision-making freedom comes more confusion about what should and shouldn’t be a priority; what’s essential or urgent and what’s not; and sometimes even what’s right versus what’s wrong.
With this modern-day confusion comes a hefty dose of disempowerment. Actually choosing somewhere to start can feel overwhelming or even paralyzing. If we want to cultivate more positive habits, it becomes necessary, under these circumstances, to better clarify our values and personal goals.
Losing touch with the value of time
The hustle bustle of modern life can also make it easy to lose perspective and forget we are all finite, mortal beings with a limited time on this earth. In other words, time (rather than money) is our most valuable asset.
While there are often ways of making or borrowing more money, time that has passed can never be retrieved. Why not let the old adage “life is short” (YOLO) inspire more careful time management rather than overwhelmed procrastination which only serves to quite literally “kill time”?
Procrastination can also involve a degree of self-deception. On some level, most procrastinators are aware of the fact that they’re procrastinating, as well as the consequences. But changing one’s habits actually requires an even loftier effort than completing the task at hand, so chronic procrastinators often convince themselves of certain convenient truths.
For instance, you might tell yourself you work best under pressure, or that it’s a bad time to quit smoking given all the stress you’re currently dealing with. But in reality, starting will always be the first step, and there will never be a ‘perfect time.’
Contrary to dominant associations with laziness, procrastinators are often hyper perfectionists who find it less psychologically daunting to keep procrastinating than to actually tackle a job and risk not doing it perfectly.
If this sounds like you, you may find yourself so worried about the perceptions and judgements of others that you instead opt to opt out. Here’s the problem: putting your dreams and goals on an indefinite hiatus because of what other people may or may not think is simply no way to do justice to your full potential.
Finally, some of us procrastinate because we’re very disorganized, and we find the idea of getting organized excessively overwhelming.
Being organized does not come naturally to everyone—this is why people hire secretaries or assistants, after all. Being disorganized can place an even bigger disconnect between you and the task at hand, since “getting organized” will always be the step that needs to be taken before you embark on the task.
This can lead to procrastination around “getting organized,” while the original task (i.e., starting your own business), gets pushed further and further into some imagined future.
Underlying mental health issues
For some, procrastination is more than a frustrating habit; it can signal a serious underlying mental health issue such as ADHD, OCD, anxiety, or depression.
While an underlying issue may be at the root of your procrastination, it goes both ways: your procrastination may also be fueling any mental health issues you have or even triggering new ones. Anxiety is a prime example. While anxiety may be causing you to procrastinate, your procrastination will almost certainly fuel anxiety.
If you suffer from chronic or debilitating procrastination, one of the above conditions could be the culprit, and it may be time to seek the advice of a trained professional.
Reasons to overcome procrastination
By now it’s probably pretty obvious that procrastinating can have ill-effects on your overall life trajectory and your sense of momentum. Here are a few concrete reasons to resist the persistent pull of procrastination:
It’s getting in the way of your goals and dreams
Procrastination is one of the main obstacles preventing you from getting out of bed, making choices that will further your goals, and ultimately living the life you’ve always dreamed of. Why not do all you can to burn brightly and live in such a way that’s aligned with your best, truest self?
It’s better to regret something you did than something you didn’t do
Recent studies have shown that more people regret the things they haven’t done than the things they have. Not to mention, the regret and guilt we feel as a result of missed opportunities tends to stay with us much longer than negative emotions resulting from something we actually did.
It takes an emotional, physical, and practical toll
Procrastinators habitually get lower grades at school, produce lower-quality work at their jobs, and can also suffer from insomnia or a compromised immune system.
Chronic procrastination can also compromise our relationships with others—both personal and professional. If your procrastination is triggering depression (or vice versa), there’s never any shame in seeking out a good therapist!
How to stop procrastinating
Let’s face it: the world as we know it is highly conducive to procrastination. This just means that learning how to transcend procrastination is one of the most important skills we can acquire. If you know you’re happier during those rare periods of productivity and motivation, consider taking the following steps to establish productivity as more of a force at work in your life.
Step 1: Acknowledge your procrastination habits
There are many reasons we put off doing things until later. If you’ve briefly delayed an important task for an undeniably good reason (i.e., health concerns, or an unexpected increase in your workload), then you might not actually be procrastinating.
But if you’re delaying action on an ongoing basis, or avoiding addressing something that urgently needs addressing, then what you’re doing is procrastinating and needs to be identified as such. A few more signs you’re procrastinating:
- You keep very busy doing low-priority tasks that don’t leave you with any real sense of accomplishment.
- Some items are permanent fixtures on your to-do list, in spite of their importance.
- You spend significant periods of time ruminating over what decision to make—without arriving at any decision.
- You begin an urgent task only to distract yourself with making a snack or checking social media.
- You often find yourself waiting for the right moment or the right energy to get something done.
Step 2: Understand the reasons behind your procrastination
Once you’ve identified procrastination as the problem, the next step is understanding the reasons behind it. Have a look at the section entitled “Why do we procrastinate?” above to gain a clearer understanding of your own personal reasons.
You may be procrastinating for any of the following reasons:
- You’re avoiding a task because you find it boring or annoying.
- You’re disorganized and you don’t know how to get organized.
- You’re organized, but still feel overwhelmed by a given task.
- You have doubts about your skill or expertise and are worried about doing it poorly.
- You’re afraid of success because you see it as a door to more challenging or tedious tasks—never-ending tasks!
- You just can’t decide what to do, or how exactly to do it.
Step 3: Create your very own anti-procrastination strategy
Procrastination is deeply habit-forming, but like even the hardiest of habits, it can be broken. While you may not be able to stop procrastinating on the spot, the following anti-procrastination strategies can help you to stop succumbing to the short-term temptations of procrastination and give yourself the best possible chance of success!
Step 4: Stop being so hard on yourself
If you have a long, sordid history of procrastination, and you regularly beat yourself up about it, stop. Forgiving yourself can actually go a long way toward tempering any negative self-talk, thus reducing the likelihood that you’ll keep on procrastinating.
Pay attention to the things you say to yourself, and the judgements you make. Rather than using phrases like “need to” or “have to,” which can strip you of your sense of agency and be quite disempowering, try saying, “I choose to,” to take more ownership over your work and your goals, and help you feel more in control. Remember: words are never just words—there is a thought to back every one, and in turn, every thought has weight.
Step 5: Create a detailed timeline, complete with deadlines
Start by writing down the tasks you need to complete, and specify a timeframe for doing each of them. This will help you to proactively tackle your work. But—because having just one deadline can be a bit like an invitation to procrastinate (we get the impression we have more time than we do and keep putting things off), go one further and break your project down into steps.
Include every step that will need to be taken to complete said project, no matter how small. You might break the steps down into monthly, weekly, and daily task lists. Then, create an overarching timeline with multiple deadlines for every task—be it big or small. This way, you have a clear understanding of what needs to get done, and by when. This, in turn, creates a needed sense of urgency to act—and to follow through. Here are more tips on setting effective deadlines.
Step 6: Promise yourself a reward…or a gift
If it helps to provide yourself with palpable incentives, you might consider rewarding yourself when you complete a difficult task without delay. Whether it’s a mocha with whipped cream on top, or permission to put your feet up and watch a movie, having a self-reward system in place can be very effective. This will also serve as a regular reminder that finishing things is a highly pleasant experience! While we’re on the topic of rewards, how about a straight-up gift? Consider giving yourself the gift of unbridled productivity with one of these 16 motivational gifts.
Step 7: Ask someone to hold you accountable
Having someone to hold you accountable can make all the difference in the world. This is especially true, given that we, as humans, care what other people think—for better or worse. So go ahead and ask a friend, family member, coworker, or partner to check up on you now and again. Think of it as positive peer pressure! After all, this is the fundamental idea behind many self-help groups.
Step 8: Act as you go
Acting as you go means tackling tasks as they arise, rather than letting them build up over days, weeks, or even months. If there are tasks that you find particularly unpleasant but which can be done relatively quickly, aim to get them out of the way early in the day, so that you have the remainder of the day to focus on work you find more meaningful, or at least more pleasant.
William H McRaven, a former navy SEAL who served for 34 years has shared the one simple lesson that sticks with him, even to this day: if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. The idea here is that just by virtue of making your bed, you have already accomplished your first task of the day successfully. The sense of pride this instills can actually encourage you to complete your next task—and the one after that. It’s a positive chain reaction.
Step 9: Cut out distractions
It should go without saying, but it remains difficult nonetheless: turn off your email and social media while you are doing more focused work so as to cut down on distractions and interruptions. This will help you to get down to the task at hand far more quickly—and before you know it, you’ll actually have finished a task that you thought would take a lot longer. Pleasant surprises await you when you cultivate the self-discipline to compartmentalize this way! If need be, reward yourself with a Facebook or Instagram break once you’ve finished your most pressing tasks!
The bottom line
Bottom line: while it’s true that procrastination can be highly addictive and is typically rooted in more deeply ingrained behaviors and outlooks, where there’s a will, transcending procrastination is entirely doable!
If you do the necessary work to identify the problem, understand why you’re procrastinating to begin with, and then create a robust action plan to help you break on through to the other side, it’s only a matter of time before you begin to notice positive results at play in your life. You got this!