Why We Procrastinate and Why It Can Be a Difficult Habit to Shake

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By UB’s Dave Gershan, PsyD

You can probably remember a time when you set out to complete an important task – today was going to be the day to get it done – only to find yourself browsing the Internet, watching that Netflix show, alphabetizing your book shelf, doing laundry, or catching up with an old friend. And then, after the list of miscellaneous jobs has been completed, it is already time to go to bed, so the task will need to be put off until tomorrow…again.

Procrastination is defined as voluntarily delaying an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. Procrastination is something we have all done and, at some point in the future, will probably do again. It is a common, ubiquitous human behavior. Many industrious, successful people are guilty of procrastination, as evidenced by this comical quote by the great writer and humorist Mark Twain: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

Some may mistake procrastination for laziness. Procrastination is not laziness, and it is not merely putting something off, as that can be an optimal choice leading to a positive consequence. Furthermore, procrastination is not just poor time management. It is more than counting minutes, hours, and days because procrastination involves emotions.

Psychologists view procrastination as an avoidance behavior. People avoid many things (e.g., snakes, heights, public speaking), as well as tasks (e.g., doing homework, seeing the doctor, applying for a new job) because they cause anxiety, dread, or other negative emotions. In addition, people avoid tasks not only to escape the negative experience, but also to choose a more emotionally positive one – to give in because the pleasure associated with a different activity is too tempting. This can be an unconscious process. People are not always aware that they are procrastinating; they don’t always engage in an internal dialogue debating the pros and cons of procrastination in every instance. Procrastination can be habitual and feel automatic, as most of us know from experience.

Procrastination can be viewed as an emotional strategy to handle stress. And while strategies to handle stress can be a good thing – and procrastination can be relatively harmless – chronic procrastination can negatively affect our lives and interfere with our long-term goals. In fact, research has shown that chronic procrastinators have higher rates of anxiety and depression, as well as a poorer sense of wellbeing.

Often times people associate procrastination with schoolwork and job duties, but procrastination can occur in many different areas of life, such as household tasks, health goals, exercising, financial goals, social activities, family obligations, romantic relationships, and hobbies, to name a few. Everyone is different in how much and how they procrastinate.

People engage in procrastination activities as a diversion or substitute for the key task that needs to be accomplished. These activities can be pleasurable or hedonic (e.g., watching TV, playing a game on your smartphone, or surfing the Internet), lower priority tasks that feel productive (e.g., organizing your iTunes library or tidying up a room), social activities, and a myriad other distractions – people are creative and procrastinators are no exception.
To avoid the guilt that procrastination induces, we often make procrastination excuses to justify our procrastination. These excuses often imply that we are better off delaying the task given the circumstances. For example, “I can’t start now because I don’t have everything I need” and “I’m too tired so I’ll do it later” are typical procrastination excuses.

Unhelpful rules and assumptions about us, others, and the world can be the root of procrastination. Some examples are: “Life is too short to be doing things that are boring, so fun should always come first,” “Things need to be done my way and I need to be in charge,” and “I must do things perfectly.” Such rules and assumptions can generate discomfort (e.g., anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment) about doing a task. As stated above, procrastination is a strategy to avoid this discomfort.

When our unhelpful rules and assumptions about a task cause discomfort, we often avoid the task by engaging in procrastination activities. While this avoidance provides some short-term relief (an initial positive consequence), it makes us more likely to keep procrastinating (a long-term negative consequence), because avoiding tasks until we have to do them in a high-pressure, high-stress situation can make them seem more aversive. Thus, procrastination can be a vicious cycle that feeds into itself and snowballs into a significant problem.

The good news is that this procrastination cycle can be broken. The first step in breaking the cycle is to explore and adjust our unhelpful rules and assumptions. The next steps are to tolerate the discomfort, dismiss procrastination excuses, and replace self-criticism with self-talk that is more positive and motivational. It is important to remember that while approaching the avoided task can cause discomfort, the discomfort will likely lessen with each successive completion of the task.

Here are some additional tips for combating procrastination:

  1. Become more in touch with your future self – to foster compassion for your future self and connect to him or her on a more personal and emotional level.
  2. Develop long-term goals, solidify abstract goals into more concrete ones, and breakdown larger goals into smaller, less intimidating sub-goals. Completing these smaller steps provides a sense of accomplishment, as well as a boost in mood and self-esteem – protective factors against procrastination. Furthermore, incorporating a reward system (for example, taking a break or having a snack) for completing a sub-goal can be helpful.
  3. Forgive yourself for procrastinating. This absolution reduces guilt, anxiety, and the negative mood associated with procrastinating – emotions that can lead to procrastinating in the first place.
  4. Improve emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills. Trained psychologists and mental health professionals can help individuals build these skills in a therapeutic setting.

If you would like personal consultation on this topic, the providers at Urban Balance are well trained in how to help you reduce procrastinating and move forward with your goals.