Procrastination Primer: Why You’re Doing it and How to Stop

10 strategies for stopping procrastination —and getting things done.

You pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit down to work on a freelance project. Five hours later you’ve watched season one of Master of None, stalked your ex from high school (okay, and a few from college), and memorized the menu of the new café opening on the corner.

About that project…

It seems it has been taken hostage by productivity’s relentless evil twin: procrastination.

“I am fascinated by why we do what we do, and procrastination is one of those behaviors,” said Rachel Kozlowski, licensed clinical psychologist. “I’m also admittedly a procrastinator myself.” But you don’t have to surrender yourself to a life dictated by last-minute tasks.

Here’s your guide to why you’re procrastinating, how it’s negatively impacting your life, and strategies you can implement to power through your to-do list.

What is Procrastination?

At the simplest level, procrastination is avoidance. The “avoidant emotional coping response voluntarily delays an action, even when you know it won’t serve you in the future,” said Kozlowski. Tasks are usually put on the back-burner in favor of doing something that will provide a mood boost in the short term, like watching TV or siding the internet.

Playing a role in this is Parkinson’s law: the idea that work expands to fill the amount of time we have available to complete it. (So even though that PowerPoint only takes an hour to whip up, it spends an entire week on your to-do list.)

While it may feel like you’re the lone ranger binge-watching Scandal when you should be redesigning your website, in actuality 20 percent of the population are chronic procrastinators—a condition in which procrastinating becomes a personality trait, cutting across all aspects of your life. If procrastination is a go-to habit, you may fall into this bucket.

Why Am I Doing It?

Procrastinators are excellent at justifying their behavior—they “work better under pressure” or “will do it tomorrow”. But in reality these people aren’t as good at visualizing their future selves. “They see the future as an impersonal abstract and are less emotionally connected to their future self,” said Kozlowski. “It’s really interesting: Research has shown that the areas of the brain that activate when we think of our future selves more closely resemble what happens when we think of strangers than when we think of our present selves.”

And it may be the fear of the future—and the failure or success it will bring—that has some people keeping their future selves at a distance, exacerbating a penchant for procrastination. This idea is known formally as the Jonah Complex, which claims that the fear of succeeding can prevent people from reaching true self-actualization. The idea of successfully completing a project may come with a fear of being in the spotlight, raising people’s expectations of you, or an increased workload. On the flip side, the possibility of not adequately completing a task can be paralyzing for some, causing them to put off it off in fear of failure.

Procrastinators also tend to be highly impulsive, and shut down when they’re anxious—taking acting to eliminate the negative feelings through short-term mood boosters, like checking Instagram or Facebook, watching TV, or even engaging in otherwise healthy activities like exercising.

Habits of Chronic Procrastinators

Those that have a tendency towards putting things off show some similarities in the way they approach—and avoid—tasks. Do they sound familiar?

  1. Moral Compensation. We often do something else that makes us feel accomplished, when it’s really just avoiding the task at hand, like going to the gym instead of updating your resume. “You’re getting the good juice from another task, and won’t feel motivated to accomplish the thing you’re putting off,” said Kozlowski.
  2. Waiting for motivation. Waiting for inspiration to strike is just another way that chronic procrastinators mask the real issue at hand—you’re putting it off! Instead of waiting for an outside influence to inspire you, force yourself to sit down and at least start on the task, even if it’s just brainstorming for five minutes. It will get the juices flowing, and provide that “spark” of motivation you’re waiting for.
  3. Multitasking. You may feel like having multiple pots on the burner is helping you bang out that to-do list in record time, but research shows that multitasking makes people 40 percent less productive. “It’s not real,” said Kozlowski. ‘We aren’t doing multiple things at once; we are actually rapidly switching between tasks, doing both things less efficiently and taking longer to complete them.”

Okay, So I Procrastinate. What’s the Big Deal?

It’s important to recognize what in your life is being affected by the habit, said Kozlowski:

Time: “It’s a pretty valuable, non-renewable resource—one that you can’t get back once its wasted.”

Relationships: “You need to ask yourself, who else is affected by this? Procrastinators often transfer responsibility onto others.”

Sleep: Research has shown a link between procrastination and insomnia, which is a vicious cycle: “Being sleep deprived is more harmful for cognitive function and performance than being drunk.”

Performance: Research also shows that procrastinators do more poorly in school and work.

Stress: “People who procrastinate are more stressed in general, and this impacts your physical and mental health.”

Health: “Those who procrastinate are less likely to take action to fight disease and engage in coping strategies. There is a correlation between the behavior and sickness like catching more colds.”

That Sounds Bad. How Do I Stop?

The first step is to recognize you’re doing it and pinpoint why. And the fact that you’re reading this article is the first step: “Mindfulness is a critical component of emotional intelligence—being aware of your emotions, accepting them, and making effort to work through those feelings can help you get to the bottom of why you’re struggling with a task,” said Kozlowski. “Mindful people are better able to control their future behavior.” So now that you’ve recognized there is an issue, here are a series of strategies to help you stop procrastinating: 

  1. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this task anyway? Keep asking why, why, why, until you drill down to the heart of the issue. “Often this stuff is way more entrenched than simply not wanting to do something, so it’s helpful to see the meaning behind a task and what you will ultimately be getting from it.” If you need to redesign your website, why is that exactly? Asking why may lead you on a path that goes something like: I will better demonstrate my skills, which will get me more customers, which will bring in more money, which will enable me to start my own business. When you reach the ultimate reason, this task now has tangible meaning for you.
  2. Rule out depression and ADHD. If you feel unmotivated across various aspects of your life (school, work, relationships) there may be a bigger issue at play. Low energy, short attention span and difficulty staying organized are all signs that you may need to treat depression or ADHD through therapy and/or medication.
  3. Use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage. This is the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about things that you’ve started but haven’t completed. “Our brains want to complete tasks and get things done,” said Kozlowski. Breaking up a large task into smaller, more manageable steps won’t only change your perception of the task and your ability to get it done, but once started, it will continue to be top of mind, encouraging you to complete it. For example, if you need to make a PowerPoint for work, start by simply making the title page. Knowing the started, but unfinished, presentation is sitting on your computer all encourage you to return to the task.
  1. Make an if/then plan. To implement this tactic, fill in the blanks to the following statement: In situation X, I will do behavior Y. For example, instead of saying, I need to buy cleaning supplies this week, tell yourself: I am going to buy Clorox today on my way home from work at the CVS on 3rd street. You are then making a commitment to act on before the fact, and also creating environmental cues for yourself.
  1. Implement microcosts. You can decrease likelihood of procrastination by taking steps to make tasks easier to complete, and harder to avoid. Set a password before you can surf the web, take the batteries out of your remote, put your alarm clock on the other side of the room, or leave your gym bag in front of the door.
  1. Implement time management strategies: Use lists (a master list and a must-do-today list) and schedule your most important tasks first; use alerts on your phone to remind you to complete certain assignments, and take breaks to improve concentration.
  1. Reward yourself. Give yourself incentives to make progress on a task that you are struggling with. Tell yourself: “I will write one more paragraph, and then take a 15-minute break.”
  1. Change your physical workspace. Open floor plan offices are increasingly popular, but they actually reduce employee wellbeing and decrease productivity and performance due to distractions, noise, and inability to control the environment. Even if you do work in this setting, there are steps you can take to optimize your workspace. Make sure the temperature is comfortable and lighting is sufficient, and if you’re working on a creative task, consider playing background music, which can boost creative thinking. And decrease the distractions you can control by turning off data on your cell phone and staying off social media.
  2. Just do it. It’s also important to recognize that you don’t have to feel better before you act, and things don’t need to be intrinsically motivating to be completed—your feelings will follow your behavior. “If you just get started you’ll get a huge mood boost that will help you make progress and accomplish a task that for some reason you thought you couldn’t,” said Kozlowski.
  3. Or don’t. “If you really can’t find a reason behind a task, you need to consider it more critically and see if it’s something you should be doing at all,” said Kozlowski. “If not completing a task doesn’t interfere significantly with your life, don’t do it!”

We apologize in advance to your DVR—it’s going to have to hold on to those shows a little longer; you’ve got work to do!