Help! How Do I Stop Procrastinating?
Written by Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC. Interim Crisis Coordinator and Clinical Supervisor at the Counseling CenterFeb 13, 2023
“I should write about procrastination… it’s such a common struggle,” I say to myself as I stand up for my second cup of coffee and continue scrolling mindlessly through TikTok, convinced that I will commit to my work in the next 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, I’ll be ready to start. Rinse and repeat throughout the day until panic sets in while doing a deep dive on the science of sound and why it's louder in the cold.
The reality is: everyone procrastinates. The degrees are varying, and there is a difference between a chronic procrastinator and occasional bouts of procrastination, yet the overall feeling is all too familiar. As human beings, it is not uncommon to push away unsavory tasks for a later time, and hardly anyone can say that they’re exempt from this mundane experience.
To work on changing a behavior, it is necessary to observe the source of such and go past the label. Case in point, procrastination is often conflated with the concept of laziness, an overly simplistic judgement of a rather complex behavior. By staying here, we fail to see the causes that give way to the outcomes we are observing and without understanding the origin it is hard to know what to do. Sheer self-criticism, guilt and regret only help to affect our self-perception, but rarely ever sustain a behavioral shift (otherwise we could all improve at the flip of a dime by the mere grace self-berating labels).
Instead, we want to understand what is making us to procrastinate in that moment (hint: lazy is almost never the correct answer) and learn how to tackle the root cause of the problem. Furthermore, always allow for the flexibility of knowing that delaying a tedious task every now and then is nothing more but a sign of existing in flesh and bone, not a character flaw or a failure of will (as long as it not pervasive and/or impacting our lives in significant ways). This article is for our chronic procrastinators, the ones that are missing deadlines, feeling constantly stressed out, or have poor quality of work due to lack of time. The ones who, like me, decide at midnight that my room is due for a good cleaning and that report will just have to wait one more day...
So, Why Do We Procrastinate?
Frustration, guilt, anxiety, pressure, stress, are things that we often feel when we’ve procrastinated on an important task. And yet, why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Why not just “do it”?
No consistent behavior is without reward; meaning, despite some of the repeatedly unpleasant consequences of ignoring our to-do list there is also something that is gained in the moment. Here are the most common causes of why we engage in this selective task-denial and what we gain from it:
Inability to Self-Regulate our Emotions and Impulsivity
One of the most common and significant factors playing into procrastination is avoidance of uncomfortable emotions such as boredom, stress, confusion, or simply the overall feeling of being overwhelmed. This singlehandedly is one of the main causes of escapist art. Our inability to identify and manage the emotions around a task inevitably leads into avoidance; in other words, pushing it away it is not due to the activity itself but the emotion that the activity generates. We get to evade the discomfort by doing something more pleasant in the moment, like binging our new favorite show (highly rewarding) all the while micro-dosing on smaller forms of tolerable discomfort (mainly the present stress of knowing the task is not getting done).
Tied to lack emotional regulation is impulsivity, another variable that is hard to control and presents highly in some people. Impulse is tied to emotion, the stronger the emotion the more intense our impulsive behaviors will be.
It’s Not That Urgent
When procrastinating, we’re battling the immediacy of the present moment vs the intangible aspects of the future. In psychology we call this “temporal discounting”. Things that are in the future are just not as real as the things in the present. Some of us seem to only find the motivation to do something under pressure. If the consequences don’t feel immediate then the task might as well be nonexistent, and it is hard to engage in a need that “does not exist”. Additionally, waiting for the last-minute doubles down on the need by creating a feeling of emergency which forces one to focus. The problem with this is that is also comes along with a good dose of persistent anxiety and stress that can take a toll when it's an often occurrence, as well as impacting the quality of the work we’re engaging in.
The Task is Confusing or We Lack Understanding
Another cause of procrastination can be that we quite literally don’t know where or how to start. When faced with something we don’t fully understand or feel incapable of tackling then it becomes easy to push it away. This can range from an activity being feeling so big that we don’t know how to organize or initiate it, to lack of knowledge and mastery in the topic.
Fear of Failure
One thing to know about perfectionism is that it can go hand in hand with procrastination; a close paring that almost seems paradoxical in nature. The unifying bond being a fear of failure. Failure is a part of life as much the experience of sleep is, but what happens when this is tied to our perception of worth? When our self-imposed standards feel unachievable as the expectation is nothing short than perfect? Or when our self-worth exists in a black and white dichotomy of either failure or success. If a big part of our identity sits on the value of the performance this can naturally become paralyzing. Perfectionism paralyzes action.
Procrastination also allows us to deflect the responsibility of outcome in something other than ourselves, meaning, if we fear doing poorly on something leaving it for the last minute allows us to pin the result of the work on the lack of time.
Cognitive Distortions About Time and Self
In a nutshell, this means we tend to overestimate or underestimate things like how much time the project will take, how motivated we will be in the future, how much time we have left, or how our emotions about the task will change.
Neurodivergence or a Mood Disorder
Another cause for procrastination can also be issues with executive functioning (which can include task initiation, time management, organization, prioritizing and planning); and/or a mood disorders (such as depression or anxiety), which can also greatly impact motivation, energy levels, concentration, and memory.
What Can I Do About It?
Now that we’ve identified the main causes let’s start by exercising that self-awareness. Procrastination inevitably requires a good dose of self-deception; the rerouting of the task is prompted by an excuse that—by all means—sounds reasonable at the time. So, first things first, be honest and realistic with yourself. Every time you feel like pushing away a task, stop for a minute and ask, what is driving this?
- If you notice you’re procrastinating to avoid an unpleasant emotion, remember that only prolongs the feeling to a later time, and it doesn’t even eliminate the present discomfort of anxiety or guilt for pushing it away. It also doesn’t allow us to fully enjoy the present moment in the same way as if the task were completed. Either way, we’re neither getting rid of the discomfort nor getting things done. Moreover, remind yourself that the thought of how unpleasant an emotion will be is usually much worse than what the actual experience is like, we tend to overestimate the discomfort we’ll experience. The easiest way to eliminate the negative emotion around a task is to get it started, think about how relieved and satisfied you will actually feel once it’s done and out of the way!
- Create a false sense of urgency. One way doing this is by using positive social pressure, make a commitment with friends, partners, or supervisors, show them a completed version of the work before the actual due date. An alternative of this is also finding a “task buddy”, partner up and do it together, this can keep the engagement going. Lastly, schedule due dates ahead of time and make sure to place it your calendar, avoid adding the actual due date if you can. Time yourself with tasks and be honest about the amount of time that it will take to complete.
- Another tool is to start thinking about yourself in the future and practice compassion for that future self. “How much would future Jess appreciate this if I finish it right now?” “How stressed will future Jess be if I leave this for tomorrow?”
- If the issue is perfectionism, know that your identity lies way beyond your achievements (there’s so much more that makes you, you). Furthermore, we all exist in a succession of failures and successes, big and small, and not a single one defining us as a whole. Remember we’re not seeking perfection -as we know on some level that’s unachievable- in reality, we’re fearing failure. So, step away from evaluating tasks and events in all or nothing mindset and reframe them in the form of an ongoing spectrum.
- If the task feels overwhelming or confusing then break it down into baby steps (really, baby steps, like simply opening up your computer). Start with the simplest of things and don’t worry about what comes next. Allow yourself to make mistakes and feel confused, and make sure to reach out and ask for help when needed. It’s ok to not know how to start things, especially when they’re complex or it’s our first time trying it, so cut yourself some slack and start slow! The most important thing is just to get started.
- Change your perspective on the task, don’t stay with the negative thoughts. Feeling like you have to do something unpleasant will always be hard, instead think about why you want to do it. For example, change “Ugh, I still have to finish this annoying paper” to “I’m almost done with this, after I’ll be able to fully enjoy my weekend.”
- Be open about how much time the project will take and place alarms to keep you in track. Break it down into pieces to make it digestible, and add a small rewards after each section is completed to provide a sense of enjoyment and keep you motivated.
- Add novelty to boring tasks, have to clean your house? Put music on and make it a dance session. Need to write a paper quickly? Make it a game and see how many thoughts you can write about the topic without stopping.
- Don’t beat yourself up. As mentioned before negative self-talk only works to further increase the negative feelings we’re experiencing, which can make it even harder to believe that we can do something or be good at it. Work on focusing on the things you can do. For example, instead of saying “I’m a mess, I always do this, I’m going to fail” think about the thing you are able to do “I can get the first half done right now and leave the easier parts for the morning.”
- Eliminate distraction that can be highly rewarding and provide instant gratification. For example, add an app blocker on your phone that limits the time you can use certain apps or place yourself in a room that offers no distractions.
- Lastly, just get started. I know, this sounds like the elusive ultimate goal. But with procrastination oftentimes the biggest hurdle is simply getting started. Once you engage yourself with the smallest first step the rest falls behind and doing that may be the single best tool to get us to finish.