Most of us procrastinate every once in a while, but it can become a nasty habit that robs us of productivity and interferes with our relationships. A study from 2022 found that about 25% of respondents identified procrastination as one of their key personality traits. Understanding what compels us to procrastinate can help us keep this practice at bay and even avoid it. The key is to not be too hard on yourself when you do it.
What Does It Mean to Procrastinate?
When we procrastinate, we unnecessarily postpone actions or decisions. With procrastination, there is typically a gap between intention and action. For example, you know that you have a load of laundry that needs attention. However, you have no desire to get it done, so you leave it for later.
Deferring a task does not always mean that you are procrastinating. For instance, if you create a hefty to-do list for the day, you might later realize that you do not have time to complete all the items on that list. Because of time constraints and other factors, you might realize that you need to hold off on some of those tasks until you have time to do them later.
However, if there’s something you need to do and you simply put it off without working on another activity, then you are probably procrastinating. This is especially the case if you give yourself a rationale or expend mental energy to justify putting it off without doing something else that is productive.
Why Do People Procrastinate?
Procrastinating does not mean you are a bad person or that you lack morals or a work ethic. Instead, procrastination often functions as emotion regulation, a way to avoid things that fill us with dread, sadness, or stress. According to Dr. Alex Alvarado, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, “Emotional regulation is probably the most important reason why people procrastinate.”
When individuals use procrastination to regulate negative emotions, they usually try to influence or change how they feel about an aversive or undesirable activity. Suppose the thought of working on your income tax return causes you stress. As a result, you might be tempted to put it off to feel less anxious and perhaps forget about it for a while. In this case, unfortunately, procrastination serves as a short-term solution; you cannot put off working on your income taxes forever.
Some research has investigated procrastination as a trait that negatively correlates with certain personality characteristics like conscientiousness, which relates to being dutiful, goal-oriented, and orderly. Some research suggests that low conscientiousness is associated with greater tendencies to procrastinate.
Procrastination has also been linked to impulsivity, the tendency to act with little or no forethought. Although previous research has found a link between the two, we still do not know how impulsivity among procrastinators emerges or how much it relates to preferences for immediate versus delayed gratification.
What Are the Harmful Effects of Procrastination?
Unnecessarily putting off tasks is not always problematic or harmful. In fact, most people judge themselves too harshly when they procrastinate, especially when they have work and personal lives full of deadlines and harsh expectations.
However, habitual procrastination can take a detrimental toll, especially on work functioning and financial well-being. For instance, procrastination tends to lead to lower academic performance among college students. It also diminishes work quality, often leading to poorer outputs and results. Also, when you procrastinate at work, you might be adding to others’ workloads and unnecessarily burdening them with tasks that you should or could have been doing yourself.
Chronic procrastination can also interfere with personal relationships. Putting off things you intended to do for others could fuel disappointment and resentment in friends and loved ones. Also, despite the short-term benefits of emotion regulation, repeated procrastination can fuel long-term mental health problems like anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. Procrastination can also contribute to increased negative feelings about oneself.
How to Overcome Procrastination
It is unrealistic to completely cut procrastination out of your life. However, you can take steps to avoid or reduce it:
Remember why something needs to be done. When we procrastinate, we often focus on short-term gains, like avoiding stress. However, if we focus on the long-term effects of completing an important activity, we might be more motivated to get it done. For example, doing the laundry today means you will have something nice to wear for that hot date tomorrow night.
Ditch perfectionism. Perfectionism is an overrated characteristic, not a badge of honor. When you try to be perfect or achieve the perfect outcome, you only train yourself for an all-or-nothing attitude. In other words, if something cannot be perfect, it will never get done. Instead of perfection, strive for improvement or excellence.
Be realistic. When planning your to-do list, set yourself up for success, not failure. Instead of creating an ambitious list loaded with lots of projects, identify two or three things that you must do. Not only will you be more likely to get them done, but you will also give yourself more time in case a job takes longer than you expect
Break big jobs into smaller chunks. A huge project can seem overwhelming, which causes stress that you might want to alleviate with procrastination. Instead, break that project down into smaller jobs that seem less overbearing. Doing this will set you up for small wins and make you feel empowered.
Get some accountability. Sometimes, the best way to stick to a task is to tell someone else you are going to do it. For example, if you tell your spouse that you will clean the refrigerator tomorrow, you might be more likely to follow through on your commitment to avoid disappointing or letting that person down.
Promise yourself a reward. Tell yourself that if you finish your reading assignment for class, you will do something fun, like go out to dinner or binge-watch your favorite TV show for the evening. Instead of avoiding the task, you might feel more inclined to earn your reward.
Forgive yourself when you procrastinate. As previously stated, everyone procrastinates occasionally, and it does not help to beat yourself up over it. In fact, overly criticizing yourself for putting things off will fuel more negative self-talk. Instead, forgiving yourself can actually decrease your likelihood of procrastinating in the future.
Thriving Center of Psychology Can Help
If you think you suffer from chronic procrastination, the experienced and compassionate therapists at Thriving Center of Psychology can help you get to the bottom of your habits and decreased productivity. A mental health professional can coach you on how to limit or avoid putting things off while focusing more on positive long-term outcomes.
For professional help in combating procrastination, contact one of the offices in Soho or Manhattan in New York City; Los Angeles; Miami; Minneapolis, MN; Princeton, NJ; or Portland, OR. You can set up an in-person or online teletherapy appointment by making a call or visiting the website.