Most of us tend to procrastinate when faced with a task that we find distasteful, overwhelming, emotionally painful, or just annoying. We do this in spite of the fact that it results in some form of added suffering, especially increased stress. We will spend hours scrolling through our Facebook newsfeed, shopping online, playing computer games, or reading random blogs like this one for immediate gratification and to avoid our responsibilities. Why do we do this to ourselves? In this article, I discuss the ways we procrastinate, why we do it, and ways to overcome it.
What is procrastination?
Despite it being a struggle for many people, procrastination is a concept that has not been entirely understood in research, especially regarding its underlying causes. In general, procrastination is defined as a voluntary delay in an intended action despite its apparent negative consequences. It’s often impulsive and unplanned and it’s commonly seen, not as a lack of motivation, but as a problem in self-regulation in which short-term benefits are chosen over longer-term gains. Some researchers say it may also involve poor time management skills and ineffective learning strategies that would allow the procrastinator to bridge the gap between intention and action. Regardless of how it is specifically defined, it typically results in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, self-shaming that leads to depression, or delays that result in increased anxiety.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Although there is some disagreement in answering this question, there are several factors that have been identified as contributing to procrastination behaviors, including problematic personality characteristics, cognitive functioning, and emotional coping strategies. We each have unique combinations of personality traits and some of us have tendencies toward procrastination due to inherent traits such as impulsivity, perfectionism, chronic anxiety or depression, low conscientiousness, passive-aggressive orientation, or low frustration tolerance. Although these traits may influence our tendency toward procrastination by affecting our beliefs, thinking processes, and emotional coping strategies, we can make efforts to successfully adapt our thinking and behaviors to prevent procrastination from controlling our lives.
How we think about things, including ourselves, can also be a powerful driver of procrastination. One of the top reasons for procrastination has been identified as distractibility, when the mind is easily distracted by small and irrelevant stimuli, resulting in difficulty concentrating or paying attention. Deficits in executive functioning such as problems in working memory, task monitoring, decision-making, time management, and other organizational skills have also been linked to procrastinating behaviors. For instance, difficulty concentrating will result in slower performance and increased chance for errors, which can affect our self-esteem and belief in our ability to accomplish our goals. Regarding poor time management, it is common for procrastinators to underestimate the time it will take to get something done.
Although we often claim we “work better under pressure,” it’s interesting that chronic procrastinators have been found in several studies to control their performance, speed, and accuracy less effectively when compared to non-procrastinators. This belief can reinforce procrastination while also increasing our stress with potentially less than desirable results. Additionally, when avoiding a task by becoming absorbed in an activity (social media, computer games, etc.), the dissociative mindset of this escapism can impair the procrastinator’s already vulnerable self-regulatory ability through lapses in mental awareness and focus.
Our beliefs about ourselves are very influential on our decisions and behaviors and they are shaped by our positive and negative life experiences. For example, a person may have a tendency toward perfectionism based on their personality, but growing up in an environment of overly critical caregivers will reinforce this tendency and result in a belief that they are not and can never be “good enough.” Procrastinators often will tell themselves “I can’t handle it”, “I can’t do it by myself”, or “I messed it up last time, I probably will again.” With such beliefs, a person might feel it pointless to strive to accomplish something and then either put off a task and do it poorly or not do it at all. As a result they often experience disappointment, lowered self-confidence, shame, and uncertainty about their abilities, reinforcing the belief that they are not “good enough.” Other beliefs that can lead to procrastination include an external locus of control (“things are beyond my control”) or or that one cannot handle the pressure of completing the task.
Our thinking styles, especially our self-beliefs, strongly influence our emotional coping strategies and if they are helpful or not. Procrastinators often operate from low self-confidence and high self-doubt, especially regarding the worth of their work and their ability to accomplish tasks in the face of high levels of stress. They frequently view their self-worth as based completely on their ability to complete a task well. By delaying task completion, the procrastinator prevents judgments (including their own) of performance and ability. In this way, they are using an avoidant strategy to manage feelings of stress and worry about their perceived inevitable failure or poor outcome of their efforts.
Procrastination is ultimately an avoidant strategy that often involves cognitive escapism to manage uncomfortable feelings. Current findings suggest that this escapism may be the common variable that links procrastination to other problematic behaviors that may serve to avoid or cope with feelings such as fear, shame, and anger. It’s been found that chronic procrastinators typically maintain negative expectations about their current and future task completion and so engage in escapist behaviors that hamper timely task completion just to protect their self-esteem and also to try to avoid blame. However, this postponement of coping with our feelings and our task only intensifies the negative feelings as we judge ourselves further and increase our stress about the task.
Why is procrastination a problem?
As mentioned earlier, procrastination increases stress and decreases achievement but it also increases the difficulty in coping with negative feelings as it becomes part of an emotional negative feedback loop. When we postpone a task as a coping tool, it can intensify our stress and increase the chance of making errors, our quality of work suffers, and then we judge ourselves negatively for failing to reach our (potentially unrealistic) expectations. The disappointment, decreased self-confidence, and shame that reinforce our negative self-beliefs, often result in wanting to avoid similar tasks in the future. Chronic procrastination has often has been correlated with depression, guilt, low self-confidence, anxiety, neuroticism, and irrational thinking. Although these sometimes are also underlying factors for avoidant behaviors, they are certainly reinforced by chronic procrastination.
The effect of chronic procrastination in reinforcing this impairment in emotional coping can impact our functioning in all domains of our lives, including: our health (postponing important medical treatment or self-care); our career (being chronically late for deadlines); our financial security (delaying payments, avoiding monitoring our spending); and our family and other relationships (not being mindful of others’ needs, avoiding responsibilities that impact our loved ones). All of these impacts decrease our quality of life and overall happiness. It’s a paradox that when we try to buy time by procrastinating, we condemn ourselves to running out of time and later wishing we had more time for things that are important to us.
How Can I Stop Procrastinating?
In general, it is our thoughts that drive our feelings, decisions, and behaviors. Having negative self-beliefs and other distorted thinking lead to uncomfortable and difficult feelings including anxiousness, depression, shame, low self-worth, and anger. The way we deal with these feelings are what lead us to avoid tasks that make us feel these emotions. However, the feelings aren't problematic, it's how we experience and manage them and the thoughts that underlie them. So how can we change our thinking?
Looking at the Evidence
In order to change our feelings and behaviors, we first have to change our thinking as well as being willing to experience unpleasant feelings rather than avoiding them. There are many ways our thoughts can be distorted in unhelpful ways, such as in all-or-nothing thinking ("I'm either successful or a failure"), catastrophizing ("This will ruin my life"), personalization ("Everything is my fault"), and emotional reasoning ("I feel stupid so it must be true") among others. One of the best ways to change our thinking is to confront our negative self-talk with contrary evidence. For example, if you think, “I just can’t get this project done,” are there other projects you have completed in the past? If you have the belief that “I’m worthless,” consider what others do value in you, you can even ask trusted friends or loved ones to help you see yourself from a different perspective.
Acceptance and Self-compassion
As procrastination is a strategy for avoiding uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings, another effective way to overcome it is to accept these negative feelings and allow yourself to experience them without judging yourself. As I discussed previously, avoiding these feelings only gives them more power over you. Self-compassion can be defined as being consciously aware of our own suffering, offering kindness to ourselves, taking a non-judgmental understanding towards our mistakes and failures, and framing our own experience in light of the common human experience. In other words, we are all human beings with feelings and it is okay, even beneficial, to make mistakes since that is how we learn. Self-compassion can enhance self-regulation by reducing negative emotions and negative self-evaluations such as self-blame that can interfere with adaptive self-regulation and emotional well-being. Mindful meditation is one tool to practice self-compassion as it allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment rather than over-identifying with negative thoughts and feelings. Practicing self-compassion can also allow you to have more compassion for others’ struggles and mistakes and thus strengthen your relationships.
If you need help in learning how to confront and replace your negative thinking patterns with healthier self-beliefs or in learning to practice self-compassion, there are several ways to achieve this with professional assistance. Mental health counseling, life-coaching, and hypnotherapy can help you gain personal insight to achieve these things, while yoga and meditation can help deepen your mindfulness and self-compassion.
Our practitioners at Mindful Ways to Wellness in St. Petersburg, Florida offer services to help you overcome procrastination, including mental health counseling, life-coaching, private yoga sessions, hypnotherapy, Tibetan bowl sound therapy, and private meditation instruction. Click here for more information on our services or to schedule an appointment.
References and Further Reading
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Einabad, Z., Dorban, G., and M. Nainian. (2017). The mediating role of self-compassion in the relationship between anxiety and procrastination. Zahedan Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 19(9):1-7.
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Ferrari, J. R. (2001). Procrastination as self-regulation failure of performance: Effects of cognitive load, self-awareness, and time limits on ‘working best under pressure.’ European Journal of Personality, 15(5):391-406.
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Pychyl, T. (2008, May 29). Tackling procrastination: A practical counseling approach. Psychology Today. Retrieved online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/200805/tackling-procrastination-practical-counseling-approach.
Pychyl, T. (2013). Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. New York: Penguin Group.
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Saulsman, L., & Nathan, P. (2009, Revised). Module 5: Practical Techniques to Stop Procrastination. In Put Off Procrastinating. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions. Retrieved online at http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Procrastination%20Module%205_Practical%20Techniques.pdf.
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Wang, S. Zhou, Y., Yu, S., Ran, L., Liu, X., and Y. Chen. (2015). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy as Treatments for Academic Procrastination: A randomized controlled group session. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(1): pp. 48-58.
Whitbourne, S. (2018, January 9). A new way to understand procrastination. Psychology Today. Retrieved online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201801/new-way-understand-procrastination?utm_source=FacebookPost&utm_medium=FBPost&utm_campaign=FBPost.
Wilson, B. (2012). Belonging to tomorrow: An overview of procrastination. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 4(1):211-217.