Procrastination is the act of intentionally and voluntarily putting off and delaying any work or commitment one may have to perform. It simply means one is avoiding a work or a decision – academic, professional, personal – even when there is a negative consequence or unpleasant deadline and conditions attached to it upon incompletion or inaction of it.
We all have been here. We have put off major/minor decisions in our lives, or delayed doing household chores, or put off doing an assignment or two, or working on some project at the office. Whether the decision or work or action be major or minor, according to its priority we all have done it at least once in our lives.
When we procrastinate, we are choosing to enjoy the present, essentially in exchange of all the challenging emotions (like stress, fear, frustration), the particular procrastinated work might be invoking in us. At these moments we prefer to find pleasure or joy for the here and now, no matter how short lived it is. Whatever be the intention or motivating factor behind the procrastination, it protects us from having to deal with all the unpleasant emotions that come with it. But as formerly stated this is short lived. No matter how much every time you put it in the burner, there comes a time when you absolutely have to face it. And this in essence brings back all the unpleasantness you were trying to avoid – the stress, fear, self-doubt, insecurity – along with added pressure.
We have postponed doing difficult things – like a challenging conversation, difficult confrontations, a dentist appointment or checkup, doing financial planning, starting a diet, writing a difficult paper, any new changes in our lives etc. But small delays like these may not have an impact on our behaviors or pose a problem that needs addressing. It becomes an issue, when procrastination is our go to choice constantly. Procrastination becomes a major issue to be addressed when it starts interfering with our performance in our professional lives, our social lives and when it limits us in moving forward with our lives.
How to detect.
When procrastination becomes a daily pattern in your life, it starts showing glaringly in your life.
These are some of the signs to look out for to recognize procrastination as a pattern:
You put off tasks in numerous spheres of your life, such as at work, home, and with friends
You frequently struggle to meet deadlines.
On a weekly, if not daily, basis, you procrastinate.
You are easily distracted
Feel as though it is starting to harm your relationships with close ones
Having difficulty admitting your procrastination to yourself or others
Putting off making decisions
Struggling to get started even if you dislike yourself for it.
Delaying starting tasks that look boring or hard
You notice you are spending your time on unimportant or insignificant chores.
Notice that your stress over everything you have to do is starting to interfere with your sleep or bodily wellness
You can’t seem to quit delaying things, despite suffering negative effects at work, school, or home.
Why do we procrastinate?
A common belief regarding procrastination is that it is a time management problem. But contrary to this, procrastination is in fact a coping mechanism adopted by people to deal with challenging emotions, thoughts and beliefs that certain tasks invoke in us.
Now there are many reasons as to why a person procrastinates. It could be due to
A lack of interest and motivation
Perfectionism (refusal to submit work with flaws)
Fear of making mistakes, or rejection
Fear of success or fear of failure
Mental health conditions
Procrastination could be opted by individuals due to a lack of interest or motivation, or not enough time to do the task, or distractions (like phone, television, watching series, etc), or the task being too easy or not sufficiently challenging or finding no value in doing it. Along with these, there are many emotions as well as personal beliefs that might affect one’s tendency to procrastinate. These could be challenging emotions of fear, insecurity as well as self-doubt, lack of self-confidence that a task might be eliciting from one, or fear of rejections, fear of success or failure that prompt one to put off facing the task. The fear of failure or making a mistake or the fear of submitting a project that is less than perfect can prompt one to procrastinate from facing the challenging emotions and thoughts. Similarly fear of success is also a factor that inspires one to choose procrastination as a coping mechanism – necessarily in that the work that they deliver might be a success invokes unsettling and unfamiliar feelings in the person and thus, the fear of success.
One might put off the task dreading the emotional toll or distress it could have on one. One might have already had a first-hand experience of the frustration the task creates in one or one could have formed their own beliefs about how daunting and stress-inducing the task is going to be. For instance you might put off making that particular call to a person, or visiting them, not because of the lack of time or effort it takes, but it might have the potential of opening your own unresolved issues or emotions in relation to the person.
It could also be one’s own personal belief on one’s lack of ability, confidence or the perspective that the task is a hard one to tackle – so one put off starting on it. Same can be said when it comes to procrastinating any decisions as well.
In addition to procrastination’s link to managing challenging emotions, procrastination also has underlying links to mental health conditions. Procrastination is linked to anxiety, along with perfectionism. It is also involved in depression as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Thus one can procrastinate as part of having mental health conditions as well.
When you procrastinate, for the fleeting feeling of relief or pleasure, it doesn’t just go away – the reasons and the challenging emotions and stress that comes with it. This feeds on and gets piled up into a much bigger ball of stress and difficult emotions. As you keep delaying it, your time to work on it decreases as well. So as the deadline approaches, along with the pressure of less time comes your unhelpful thoughts- doubting yourself, your abilities and characteristics, self-criticizing thoughts as well. And though you keep avoiding the task in order not to feel or face the difficult emotions and stress, for the little time of peace you could have, unconsciously you are persistently feeling the tension of it, the pressure of it.
And the more you feel it, the more you avoid it and this goes on in a loop. And as time goes by, this continuous loop adds to your stress, anxiety, depression, physical problems, insecurity, reducing self-value, shame, guilt, burnout, interpersonal conflicts.
Procrastination vs. laziness
Laziness and procrastination are often interchangeably used, yet they are very distinct. Procrastination is – in order to avoid completing the task that you know you should be doing, you actively opt to do something else. Laziness, on the other hand, points to apathy, passivity, and a refusal to take action. Laziness is the willful refusal to put forth the necessary effort, whereas procrastination involves delaying doing tasks, intentionally. Procrastination is not the same as being lazy, and you can procrastinate even if you’re not lazy or be lazy but not procrastinate. Hence it is wrong to assume that procrastinators are just lazy or that they don’t care about their work or responsibilities or their tendency to procrastinate. In fact this is a biased thought. People who procrastinate could also be highly efficient and hardworking people within an organization. They could also be dedicated people who are motivated to take action to manage their tendencies as well. Procrastination could be misunderstood to be the same as laziness, with the similarity of prioritizing short term pleasurable activities for goals. But even with this partial similarity there are many other factors that sets apart procrastination from laziness, as formerly mentioned (observable patterns and reasons to procrastinate) and it’s not rightful to use them interchangeably.
Is it bad or good?
A 2005 study conducted on procrastination divides it as active and passive procrastination. Active procrastination is where people purposefully delay actions because they work well under pressure. Whereas passive procrastination is when people intentionally procrastinate and find themselves unable to perform tasks.
A 2003 study reveals that procrastination is linked to poor health, treatment delay, perceived stress and little wellness behavior. Another study shows that students who procrastinate experience lower grades, high levels of stress and poor performance. Similarly employees also experience negative consequences in relation to procrastination, such as low income and unemployment. Procrastination is negatively linked to performance. Also people who procrastinate tend to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression and it reduces subjective well-being as well. A 2011 study reveals that reducing procrastination has many advantages such as people performing essential and main duties, individuals’ abilities to do right work increases and that individuals’ stress decrease and their self-confidence increase; and that they use time as well.
A 2010 study shows that not all procrastinators face negative consequences or decline in their performance or health. The type of procrastinators classified as active procrastinators make purposive use of time, control of time, self-efficacy beliefs, coping styles and outcome including academic performance. Another study reveals that procrastination is not necessarily a maladaptive construct and that it can be an adaptive way of prioritizing tasks of varying importance. Also delaying tasks at times can give you enough time to plan it effectively and help you come up with creative ideas to deliver the task. At the same time while you delay a few big intimidating tasks, active procrastinators focus on completing other tasks, which can in fact motivate one. Also for someone who works best under pressure, can work on their tasks efficiently. Especially for a person who likes it to cut close to deadline the circumstances and pressure can in fact add to their inspiration and creativity. A 2021 study reveals that people who showed moderate levels of procrastination generated greater creative ideas than those in the high or low ranges.
How to manage procrastination tendencies
Managing procrastination can begin with being patient and compassionate with oneself. Forgive yourself for making mistakes, delaying the work. Stop criticizing oneself and remember to use a few comforting and kind words for yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes. Once the realization sets in, learn from it. Remind yourself that it’s ok to struggle with it and that you are doing your best.
The next step is to challenge and change false beliefs about oneself. Try to work with the inaccurate unhelpful thoughts and beliefs. Refrain from overgeneralizing, discounting the positives or catastrophizing or focusing only on what you perceive as negative. Bring attention to oneself, on the words and phrases you say to yourself about yourself. Once you recognize that you are going into an unhelpful negative thought spiral, stop. Start by rephrasing the sentence in a different way, considering other possibilities as well – instead of self-defeating or self-deprecating.
You can also go a step further and address any fears you might be experiencing that urges you to indulge in the tendency to procrastinate. And check for evidence as to whether the fear is proven or real (could be based on past experiences). If so, try to pay attention to the present and rephrase sentences you say to yourself when you experience fear or when you make mistakes. Look for evidence for the same in the present. Change your internal dialogue. Repeat affirmations to yourself and pay attention to your strengths and qualities. Show self-compassion.
Try to focus on the next small immediate steps you can take to do the task, instead of focusing on the finished end product. Start breaking the task into a group of smaller steps that you can work on. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Try not to overwhelm oneself by looking at the huge task at hand. Commit to and carry out small tiny steps in the beginning. Focus on the small tasks you can finish off. Soon you will be able to carry out and finish off the project.
Schedule your tiny tasks and create a priority list for the day. Make use of technology, apps available to perform this.
Minimize the distractions around you. Use the means of possible distractions around you as rewards and reinforcements. Do a small chunk of work for a prescribed time and then take short breaks to indulge in your phone, laptops, chat or watching series. Try to increase the value and benefit of the tasks. Don’t forget to reward yourself. Utilize certain methods such as the pomodoro technique to manage the time and your tasks. This involves following steps –
Choose a task. You must be willing to give it your full attention.
Set a timer for 25 minutes. Promise yourself: I will give this task my undivided attention!
Work on the task until the timer rings. Minimize your distractions during this time. Everything you do during this time should be task-related. If your thoughts begin to wander, write them down on a separate piece of paper and return to it during a break.
When the timer rings, place a check on your list of tasks. You’ve completed Pomodoro!
This is just one suggestion of a method to follow, there are many more available which you can follow up and utilize from the internet.
Make changes to your environment. Avoid whatever elements present in your environment that distract you from your work. Use your schedules, priority lists, even inspiring quotes, sentences (affirmations), or even music to motivate you.
Let go of the perfectionist mindset. This can go a long way. Share your small successes with your close friends with whom you feel safe. Practice this. Make it a habit.
At the same time try to be mindful of any stress you might be experiencing during this. Come up with your own personal ways to manage them. Rest well. Take time for self-care as well.
You can also make use of your resources – friends or colleagues and ask them to keep a check on you and ask whether you have completed the set task for the time.
If you are finding it difficult to manage your procrastination tendency with the above mentioned steps, and you notice that still your choices are disrupting your professional, personal and social life as well, you can reach out to a therapist or counselor in order to explore and work on in resolving and managing procrastination tendencies.
In addition, if your procrastination tendencies are underlying factors or symptoms of other mental health conditions, seek out support from mental health professionals and take care of yourself.
These are some of the steps you can take in order to deal with your tendencies of procrastination.
Everyone procrastinates. And though procrastination does have certain negative impacts on one’s performance, health and wellbeing, one can’t deny its hidden benefits. From a different perspective procrastination can aid certain people as well. However if you find yourself procrastinating often, and that it is generating too much trouble to the extent it is causing disarray in multiple spheres of your life and relationships, pause and address the roots of the issue. Often taking the first step instead of focusing on achieving to complete a task proves to be beneficial.
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step” – MLK Jr.
Here are some books you can read up on to know more about procrastination and managing the same.
Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy
Do It Today: Overcome Procrastination, Improve Productivity by Darius Foroux
Do the Hard Things First: How to Win Over Procrastination and Master the Habit of Doing Difficult Work by Scott Allan
Hope you find the writing helpful. Stay tuned for more content on mental health and wellbeing.