It’s getting late. Maybe you’ve put the laundry in. Reorganized your kitchen cabinets. Scrolled through the latest dumpster fire on social media. Watched untold episodes of your most recent binge-able. Caught up on the news. Laid on the couch and questioned all your life choices. Folded the laundry.
What you probably haven’t done? The one task you actually needed to do. And, if you do eventually do it, it’ll most likely be at the eleventh hour when the looming deadline and some combination of mounting guilt, shame, and fear about the potential consequences of not doing the task finally kick you into action.
We all procrastinate sometimes. But, for some of us, procrastination can be more chronic. We might consistently put off everything from work tasks to personal goals to taking care of our mental and physical health.
And while we might sometimes pull it off successfully – maybe even enjoying a slight thrill from escaping consequence-free – the reality is that we’re not really escaping consequence-free. Research shows that chronic procrastination can lead to worse academic and work performance, employment and financial issues, stress, loneliness, shame, and worse physical and mental health.
But if it’s associated with so many terrible things, why do we procrastinate? And what can we do about it?
Why do we procrastinate?
Well, we don’t procrastinate out of laziness. Instead, researchers understand procrastination as prioritizing short-term mood repair over long-term goals, where we only start a task when the reward for completing it – or the punishment for not completing it – is stronger than the relief we feel by avoiding whatever negative feelings doing the task brings up.
Put more simply: something about the task makes us feel bad, so we put off doing it until something makes us feel worse about not doing it or better about doing it. We’re having trouble tolerating negative feelings like boredom, fear, self-doubt, resentment, depression, or anxiety.
And this can lead to a vicious cycle where we keep procrastinating because:
- The relief of avoiding those negative feelings can be kind of addictive;
- Pulling a task off last-minute can be a kind of ego-boost and adrenaline rush;
- We start to believe we can only perform under pressure; or
- We never get to show ourselves that we can survive and work through the negative feelings that a task might bring up.
What can we do about procrastination?
There are, however, several things you can try to get out of this vicious cycle:
- Be kinder to yourself. No, really. Beating yourself up about procrastinating doesn’t help; in fact, it probably just adds to the well of bad-feelings that we’re often trying to avoid by procrastinating. Instead, forgive yourself in moments when you procrastinate – research suggests that this can make you less likely to procrastinate on future tasks.
- Be curious. Suspend your self-judgment, take a step back, and try to be curious about what’s going on for you. Ask yourself: how do I feel when I think about this task? What do I think will happen? What am I afraid of?
- Make the distractions less fun. Make the things you would usually do when you’re procrastinating less pleasant or harder to do. This can reduce the temptation to engage in distractions, and the relief that you feel when you do them.
- Make the task easier. When a task feels too big or brings up big emotions, it can help to break it into smaller pieces. Once you’ve broken it down, focus only on the next action.
- Making doing the task more rewarding. Often, the distractions and not doing the task are incredibly relieving and rewarding. So, try to make doing the task more pleasant. Reward yourself for every step you take towards completing something you’ve been avoiding.
- Just start. How many times have you had the experience of putting something off for ages, only to get it done in record time and wonder what on earth you were putting it off for? Often, the hardest part is starting. So, don’t worry about doing it all or doing it ‘right’: just start, and tell yourself you can stop after 5 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds. Chances are, once you’re over that initial hump, you’ll actually want to keep going.
- Practice acceptance. For some people, the worst and most painful part of procrastination is the self-judgement, blame, and shame around it. If – and only if – you are still able to get tasks done eventually, and successfully, with limited practical consequences on your life, consider accepting procrastination as part of your process.
And finally, if procrastination continues negatively affecting your life and your well-being, don’t put off reaching out for help.