Why You Procrastinate and How to Overcome It
Do you worry that you might be lazy and undisciplined because you never seem to be able to get assignments handed in on time? Or are you putting off finishing that work project because you are sure you work best under pressure?
Procrastination shows up in many ways in our lives, but the result is often the same: it sabotages our productivity and leaves us feeling trapped in the negative cycles of shame, frustration, and undue stress.
But the good news is that we can do something about it.
According to leading experts on the subject, one is not born a procrastinator. Rather, it is a learned behavior and, with the right tools, we can unlearn it.
So, let’s explore some of the reasons why we engage in the widespread phenomenon of procrastination and discuss how to overcome procrastination by changing our behaviors and approaching our to-do lists in new ways.
Psychological Reasons and Triggers that Drive Procrastination
So exactly why do we procrastinate? There is no one simple answer to this question, but to help us understand ourselves better, let’s first take a look at some of the main triggers that drive these delay tactics that don’t really serve us.
Distractions and inability to create and maintain structure
Procrastinators tend to be easily distracted and often struggle to create and maintain structure in our workspace. Distractions may range from social media, chatty work colleagues, clutter on our desks, or any other environmental aspects which draw our immediate attention away from completing the task at hand.
Low motivation and task avoidance
One common reason that we avoid attending to a task is because we perceive it as boring or unpleasant. And this makes sense, right? Why would anyone be motivated to do something boring that doesn’t offer an immediate reward?
The time delay between the effort to complete a task and the reward
The greater the time delay between completing a task (especially one perceived as boring), and the reward for completing that task, the greater the likelihood for us to procrastinate attending to it. Think of the hours that we have to spend writing an essay, and then the long wait before it is returned with feedback.
In contrast to this, we know that activities that provide immediate gratification – checking social media for the latest updates and dopamine hits – don’t usually involve any procrastination.
Poor time management skills
Procrastination is all about delaying spending time on the things that we know we should be doing, spending too much time focusing on one small aspect of the task at hand, or not spending any time at all on the task until the last minute.
Lack of self-confidence: insecurity, self-doubt, and fear of failure
When we lack confidence in our ability to complete a task with success, we are less motivated to even begin. The fear of failure may feel intolerable for some.
Lacking self-confidence may mean that we don’t try new things. The downside of this is that we are missing out on opportunities to learn more, develop new skills, and actively combat those feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
For those of us who hold ourselves to very high standards of perfection, and who wish to accept nothing but the best, procrastination is common. The fear of not doing something perfectly means that we don’t do anything at all.
The other way in which perfectionism can result in procrastination links to aspects of poor time management. Once a perfectionist has started on a project, they are more likely to spend an unreasonably large amount of time attending to and perfecting one small aspect, thereby delaying the completion of the entire project.
Anxiety and other emotional difficulties
Feeling anxious about something is likely to make us want to delay engaging with it for as long as possible. The negative cycle that we then fall into is that the more we delay engaging with the inevitable, the more anxious we become, and so on.
Anxiety is related to the fear of feeling overwhelmed in a situation and not trusting that we can regulate ourselves emotionally. Feelings of depression, helplessness, and being overwhelmed are common among procrastinators.
Chronic procrastination has also been linked to certain mental health conditions, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
An interesting consideration is that the parenting style of the caregivers that raised us may also influence the likelihood that we become procrastinators later in life. This is because there is a direct link between the parenting style by which we were raised and our concept of self.
The more authoritarian and critical the parent, the lower our concept of self is likely to be (which means lower self-confidence and increased insecurity and self-doubt), and the higher the likelihood of procrastination.
Believing that we are more productive under pressure
Sometimes we think that we work better under pressure, or are more productive under pressure. However, leaving things to the last minute will inevitably cause more stress and anxiety. Over time this can be detrimental to our health and well-being.
It also means that when unexpected demands pop up that we haven’t accounted for, we might not be able to get the things done that we need to.
What Procrastination Costs Us
The detrimental effects of chronic procrastination on our mental health and general well-being can not be ignored. Research has identified that procrastinators are more likely to suffer from:
- sleep disturbances,
- increased anxiety,
- and depression.
Issues relating to increased self-criticism, lower self-esteem, and feelings of remorse and regret will also occur more frequently.
The negative loop that we can get caught in has the potential to reap devastating effects on our self-confidence and ability to move forward with our lives.
Students who are constantly delaying studying for their tests or completing their assignments are more likely to receive lower grades and suffer from stress and anxiety.
Reduced income, increased unemployment, and shorter duration of employment have also been associated with chronic procrastination in the workplace.
What about the effect on one’s physical health? Putting off health check-ups, as well as medical procedures, can be particularly dangerous to those who may benefit from early diagnosis and intervention.
How to Stop Procrastinating
Fortunately, there are several tried and true tips and tools you can use to overcome procrastination and make the most of your time and energy. The tools are simple yet effective in developing skills of time management, prioritizing tasks, and addressing some of the underlying emotional and psychological causes of procrastination.
“Eat the Frog”
The idea behind this popular productivity technique is that one tackles the most challenging task for the day first; this effectively gets it out the way so you don’t expend unnecessary mental energy staving off feelings of dread the rest of the day. The sense of achievement at completing the hardest task first thing motivates us and builds confidence. The process is pretty straightforward:
STEP 1: Choose your hardest task for the day.
STEP 2: Do that task first thing in the morning, do not put it off until later.
STEP 3: Repeat every day.
This is an excellent tool for chronic procrastinators, as it forces you to take on the very thing you want to avoid most at the start of your work day.
This is a time-management tool that involves creating a concrete daily schedule, in which specific tasks and activities are assigned to specific time slots in the day. Instead of trying to work through an open-ended “to-do” list, time blocking requires that you are very specific about how you spend every slot in the day.
The structure that time blocking provides is a great way to shut down procrastination: instead of wasting time deciding what you’ll do next, it’s all mapped out for you in advance.
Task batching means that you group your tasks into categories and allocate a set amount of time to complete tasks in each category. For example, you could set aside 2 hours to complete all “finances” category tasks, which could include balancing your checkbook, paying outstanding invoices, or filling out tax forms.
By grouping similar tasks together in one time block, you avoid having to mentally jump back and forth between tasks (context switching). This saves valuable mental energy, keeps you on track, and makes it much less likely you’ll become overwhelmed and want to put off your tasks all together.
Day theming can work well for those who have multiple areas of responsibility. It involves assigning a specific theme to a particular day. Having a prescribed activity in advance for each day can help you feel less avoidant and stressed about the coming day. For example:
- Monday - Planning day
- Tuesday - Writing day
- Wednesday - Staff meetings
- Thursday - Financial review
- Friday - Review of the week
Day theming helps procrastinators in much the same way as task batching: by eliminating context switching and saving mental energy, it also lowers the likelihood you’ll feel overwhelmed and want to delay taking on your tasks.
In the Pomodoro Technique, you work for a set amount of time (one Pomodoro, usually 25 minutes) on a specific task and then take a short break for approximately 5 minutes. After every 4-5 Pomodoros you take a longer break of 20-30 minutes.
A timer is used which rings every 25 minutes when it is time to take a break. The idea is that one remains focused on the task at hand for shorter, more manageable periods of time, or 'Pomodoros'.
The technique is useful for procrastinators, because the small manageable time blocks are less intimidating and thus easier to commit to.
Use a Productivity App
There are several productivity apps that are useful for procrastinators. Many of them are based on some of the productivity methods we’ve mentioned. For example, there are several apps based on the Pomodoro Technique available.
If you’d like to experiment with different methods, the kōno app-based productivity system is a great option as it allows you to mix and match the different approaches to see which works best for you.
Mindfulness is a powerful anti-procrastination tool, as it helps us stop being avoidant and encourages us to be more present and aware of our thoughts and feelings. The practice of noticing and letting go of our feelings of self-doubt, fear of failure, and anxiety reduces the potential for them to trigger our procrastinating behaviors.
Our frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain also become stronger through the practice of mindfulness. So, when our attention does stray, we are more easily able to bring our focus back to the task at hand.
Practice self-compassion and forgiveness
Taking time to look at the root of one's thoughts and feelings can be helpful when it comes to addressing some of the deeper psychological issues related to procrastination, such as perfectionism, fear of failure, and anxiety.
Speaking to a qualified health professional or a life coach may provide the emotional support needed to look deeper into some of these issues. Giving yourself the gift of self-compassion and forgiveness will allow you to make mistakes and learn and grow from them without spiraling into shame, guilt, and hopelessness.
You now have an idea of why we procrastinate and how procrastination can affect our emotional states, physical health, and incomes. So, whether you are an occasional or a chronic procrastinator, it’s worth trying out some of the tools we’ve mentioned to address this destructive tendency.
Remember: you don’t have to make big changes to see a difference. Start tomorrow off by eating that frog or doing your first Pomodoro and begin your shift from being a procrastinator to being proactive and productive.