Do you put off work you know you’ll need to accomplish eventually, even if this habit increases pressure for you and others? Procrastination may seem like a way to avoid stress, but it’s more likely to increase stress in the long run. And the tendency isn’t always limited to work and school; chronic procrastinators often delay important tasks in their personal lives, like household chores or scheduling doctors’ appointments.
Luckily procrastination isn’t a permanent characteristic. Like any other habit, it can be unlearned—and the first step is usually to figure out the cause.
The mental block
Many of us think of procrastination as a time management problem. Though less-than-stellar time management can be a factor in constantly missing deadlines, it’s not usually the heart of the issue, according to research from Stockholm University. The study connects procrastination patterns to personal emotional distress. Even if you can’t think of anything specific that’s stressing you out, you may have an underlying mental stumbling block preventing you from getting to work.
Every individual is different, but here are some common causes of perpetual procrastination:
Impulsiveness. This one may seem surprising, since impulsiveness is associated with immediate urges to act. But a time-sensitive job can cause an impulsive person to shut down, not to step up. Your instant desire is to get away from the anxious feeling created by the undone task, and the easiest way to avoid this feeling is to avoid the task completely.
Perfectionism. If you can’t do the job right, you don’t want to do it at all. You may be feeling internal pressure to be flawless or comparing yourself negatively to supervisors and colleagues.
Anxiety. Folks who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, or who simply have a tendency to worry about everything that might go wrong, may be frozen by the "what ifs" before they even get started. Worriers may overestimate how much time they need to complete a task and get discouraged, thinking the end will never be in sight.
Anxiety also goes hand-in-hand with extreme stress, which can narrow your mental focus to immediate, short-term problems rather than long-term planning.
Depression. A persistent lack of energy and enthusiasm, especially for activities you used to tackle with no trouble, is often a telltale sign of depression. If you’re struggling with a larger sense of helplessness and purposelessness about your responsibilities, it may be time to call in a mental health professional.
Inability to picture the future. There’s another reason smart people with the best intentions put things off, and it’s a phenomenon economists call time inconsistency—a mental tendency to seek rewards in the moment rather than wait for rewards later. Procrastinators may be unable to visualize how their present behaviors will affect their future selves.
To picture the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal or completing a project, for instance, you have to imagine yourself days or weeks down the road. Making choices to benefit your future self isn’t always easy to do, especially when your present self would prefer to do something else.
Reframe your thoughts
Once you change your thinking, your actions tend to follow. If you’re getting stuck in the same mental loops each time you procrastinate, this technique can be especially helpful.
- Instead of "I can never get this done," think "I can’t do all of this right now, but here’s one step I can take." Even the smallest step imaginable is better than nothing.
- Instead of "This project is stressing me out," think "It’s normal to have anxious feelings, even if they’re unpleasant." Your anxiety may indeed be disproportionate to the actual task, but acknowledging your feelings makes them easier to deal with.
- Instead of "I don’t want to do this now," think "I’ll feel so much better later if I get this done." Remember your future self? A clear vision of you in the future, feeling relieved about what you accomplished, can be a powerful motivator.
- Instead of "I’m incompetent" think "This task is challenging but doable, and if I need help, I can ask." Lack of confidence can fuel procrastination, especially if the project at hand has high stakes.
- Instead of "This job will take so much time" think "This is how much time and effort I need to spend on the job." Some tasks don’t require much mental energy at all, while some need a little more planning. Of course details can change once you get started, but a concrete ballpark idea of how much work you need to do will keep you from picturing the task as a long, endless slog.
Many experts recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques as a tool to reframe your mindset if you struggle with procrastination. CBT is all about breaking thinking patterns, understanding your behavior, and working towards change from the inside out.
Make a plan
When it comes to actually Getting Stuff Done, you need a good starting point. It goes without saying that you should make your procrastinating tools harder to access. Block social media apps if you tend to waste time there—or just log out of them, since the extra step you take logging back in may discourage you from going down the Internet rabbit hole. But what if you're feeling blocked trying to start the actual work?
A to-do list can calm you if you’re overwhelmed—there’s something about having written directions that makes work less intimidating. You can order the list in a few different ways:
- Priority. Start with the most important item.
- Difficulty. Some people find tackling their easiest responsibilities first gives them the energy boost they need. Others prefer to get the most dreaded jobs out of the way.
- Time commitment. Estimate the time it’ll take to complete each task—that way you have an end in sight.
You can also try different ways of combining tasks. For example, you can make a list of three to six items you want to accomplish the next day. Order this list by priority. Item One is your key objective; the other items come later. Or you might do some "temptation bundling," which involves pairing an unpleasant activity with a pleasant one. If you hate organizing the database at work, for instance, put on some of your favorite music during this task and only during this task.
Break larger projects into bite-sized sections that don’t take much time to accomplish. Offer yourself small rewards for completing each section and a bigger reward for finishing the entire thing. And if you don’t know where to start on a project, start anywhere—you can always organize later.
And try abiding by this maxim: if an action takes less than five minutes, do it now. Your future self will thank you.
Do you have any tips for beating the temptation to procrastinate? Let us know on Twitter.