Procrastination

Woman sitting at desk, procrastinating with a smartphone next to open textbooksProcrastination is the tendency to avoid unpleasant or stressful tasks that are often very important and replace them with less important, less stressful tasks. A person who avoids calling a debt collector or who posts on social networking sites instead of writing a paper is engaging in procrastination.

What Is Procrastination?

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin term pro crastinus which, roughly translated, means “for tomorrow.” The idea of procrastinating is clearly not new, and people have been procrastinating for at least thousands of years.

One common misconception about procrastinators is that they have poor time management skills. While this may sometimes be the case, there are often deeper issues at play. Some research indicates that those who are prone to chronic procrastination may find help with emotional regulation and stress management more valuable than skills-training for time management. This is because procrastination may stem partly from an inability to cope with difficult emotions in the moment or from a fear of being unable to cope with negative emotion.

Addressing mood regulation when working to overcome procrastination may help individuals gain the tools they need to address the reasons they procrastinate to begin with.

What Causes Procrastination?

All people procrastinate from time to time. The ability to temporarily distract oneself from stress and unpleasant tasks could even be an important coping mechanism in a high-stress society.

While it may come with benefits, procrastination can also limit a person’s productivity. Some people spend so much time procrastinating that they are unable to complete important daily tasks. They may have a strong desire to stop procrastinating but feel they cannot do so.

Procrastination itself is not a mental health diagnosis. It can, however, be a characteristic feature of some mental health issues:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): People with ADHD often have extreme difficulties with time management and organization and tend to procrastinate more often than other people. When ADHD co-occurs with bipolar, this may be particularly likely.
  • Depression: One common effect of depression is low self-esteem, which has been linked to procrastination. Individuals who doubt their ability to satisfactorily complete a task may be more likely to avoid or delay starting on it.
  • Anxiety: Those who experience anxiety may tend to become preoccupied by fear of failure. Lack of confidence in one’s ability to complete a task can lead to procrastination in order to avoid failure in the short-term.

Some research suggests that procrastination is closely linked to mood. People may procrastinate when stressed or overwhelmed in the hopes that their future self will be better equipped to tackle a certain task. For example, people who have very high-stress jobs may often turn to procrastination as a coping strategy.

Long-term procrastination can lead to chronic stress, difficulty with school and work, and trouble in relationships. People who procrastinate may end up working late or avoiding time with family or friends to make up for lost time.

Effects of Procrastination

Psychological studies often associate procrastination with reduced mental health, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of well-being. Some common ways continued, chronic procrastination may affect an individual include:

  • Poor grades or underperformance in work or school
  • Financial difficulties related to putting off important responsibilities
  • Feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame
  • Poor physical health, if exercise or nutrition are often avoided

It’s often apparent to procrastinators that their behavior is self-defeating, but overcoming procrastination isn’t always as easy as “just doing it.” It may be necessary to dig deep and check on emotional wellness before effectively giving procrastination the boot.

How to Stop Procrastinating

Procrastination is a self-defeating behavior, and it can be frustrating to keep delaying important tasks without knowing how to stop. When dealing chronic procrastination, it may be crucial to address the primary cause of the behavior. Some of the most effective strategies for avoiding and overcoming procrastination may include:

  • Address what’s triggering the procrastination. Certain traits, such as lack of structure, ambiguity, absence of personal meaning, and difficulty may characterize tasks that are more likely to cause procrastination. Dealing with the trigger—for example, finding a way to make the task more “fun” if the trigger is boredom—could help someone start on a task they’ve been procrastinating.
  • Find accountability. Ask a friend, partner, or loved one to help you stay on track with important tasks. Checking in regularly on the progress of tasks that may otherwise be procrastinated helps some people stay motivated to continue making progress.
  • Forgive and trust yourself. Some research shows that people who forgave themselves for procrastinating in the past had lower chances of procrastinating in the future. This forgiveness often comes hand-in-hand with trusting oneself. Remembering the ways they are equipped to handle and complete a task makes it easier for some individuals to avoid procrastination.
  • Start small. While getting started can be the most difficult part of a task, finding any small way to start on a task that’s been put off can reduce the chances you will continue to procrastinate on it. For example, someone who needs to file their taxes could outline an action plan and gather all the forms they need as a simple first step to getting started.
  • Work with a therapist or counselor. If there’s a chance a mood issue or mental health concern could be contributing to chronic procrastination, working with a mental health professional could be a key step to overcoming procrastination. Search for a therapist here to find a professional in your area who can help with procrastination.

When procrastination is a symptom of a psychiatric condition, medication and therapy to address the underlying condition can help reduce a person’s tendency to procrastinate.

If procrastination occurs so frequently that it negatively interferes with daily functioning, therapy can help a person identify why and when they procrastinate, replace self-defeating thoughts with more productive thoughts, and learn new behavioral strategies to cope with stress.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Bailey, C. (2017, October 4). 5 research-based strategies for overcoming procrastination. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/10/5-research-based-strategies-for-overcoming-procrastination
  3. Flett, G. L., Blankstein, K. R., & Martin, T. R. (1995). Procrastination, negative self-evaluation, and stress in depression and anxiety. Boston, MA: Springer-Verlag U.S.
  4. Jaffe, E. (2013). Why wait? The science behind procrastination. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-wait-the-science-behind-procrastination
  5. Kaplan, E. (2016, October 6). Harvard research highlights six ways to trick your brain out of procrastination. Retrieved from https://qz.com/770768/how-to-stop-procrastinating-with-tips-from-harvard-research
  6. Procrastination. (n.d.). Cal Poly Student Academic Services. Retrieved from http://sas.calpoly.edu/asc/ssl/procrastination.html
  7. Sirois, F. M. (2007). ‘I’ll look after my health, later’: A replication and extension of the procrastination-health model with community-dwelling adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(1), 15-26. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2006.11.003
  8. Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1984). Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31(4), 503-509. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1985-07993-001

Last Updated: 02-7-2019

  • 3 comments
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  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    August 5th, 2015 at 8:53 PM

    I wonder sometimes if procrastination is the only way some people have of slowing down. You can only do every day at breakneck speed for so long. You’re not allowed to say “this workload is too much” or simply “I’m drowning”. Maybe procrastinating is the only way to grab some time, and it doesn’t matter because there’s only an finite amount of time for an endless amount of work.
    You start to feel hopeless very quickly, especially when you’re the weakest link who isn’t able to keep pace with everyone else. You can’t ask for help, because everyone is struggling under a mountain much larger than yours.

    Do you have any idea what the job market is like today? If I were laid off now, I’d be homeless in six months; I don’t have a master’s degree, or enough collateral to take out loans for grad school. I don’t make enough now to ever get married or have kids, because I’m saving so much for my own retirement & taking care of my folks. I haven’t taken a vacation in over a year, because I’m responsible for making deadlines. I’m drowning every day…for what? Why work so hard every damn ninute just to be ground into a little more dust tommorrow?

  • Isaac

    Isaac

    October 4th, 2016 at 12:08 PM

    Help!!!
    Iam a lazy as$!!!

  • Connee

    Connee

    November 5th, 2016 at 3:45 AM

    For several years I was overworked and begged for help – but was ignored. I learned to procrastinate in order to balance my day/work. Now I need the tools to direct my energy into dealing with the issues head-on -I need to learn to not procrastinate. Any suggestions?

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