Ever put off a chore simply because you weren’t in the mood to handle it? So has nearly everyone else on the planet.
Procrastination reflects the human bias toward the present, or the desire to gratify immediate needs and worry about the future when it arrives. When you procrastinate, you’re pushing aside a specific task, as well as any unwanted feelings it calls up, like stress, boredom, or self-doubt.
This might offer some short-term benefits — namely, the relief of dodging a frustrating job or unpleasant emotions. Still, you can’t ignore the task forever. When the pressing need to complete it resurfaces, you might find yourself right back in the same place.
It’s not at all unusual to stall when you come up against situations that inspire discomfort, like writing a paper, scheduling a dentist’s appointment, or having a difficult conversation with your partner.
Chronic procrastination, though, is a horse of a different color. When putting things off becomes your go-to solution, it can begin to affect your mental and emotional health, not to mention the ability to get things done.
Read on to learn more about possible causes of chronic procrastination (spoiler: It’s not laziness) and get some tips on tackling it productively.
Procrastinating usually doesn’t help, but occasional procrastination isn’t necessarily harmful, either.
Who hasn’t left the most obnoxious chores for last, or even a different day entirely? Or breezed in just under the wire for an important deadline, like doing taxes on April 14?
That said, when procrastination becomes a pattern in your day-to-day life, it can start to cause some problems.
A few key signs can help you recognize chronic procrastination, such as if you:
- regularly have a hard time meeting deadlines
- put things off in multiple areas of life — not just at work, for example, but also at home and with friends
- find yourself procrastinating on a weekly, if not daily, basis
- get distracted easily
- feel like it begins to affect your relationships with loved ones
- have a hard time admitting your procrastination to yourself or anyone else (Maybe you don’t exactly lie about it, but you also have plenty of reasons for putting things off.)
- catch yourself filling your time with minor or less important tasks
- feel like your stress about everything you have to do begins to affect sleep or physical health
- can’t seem to stop putting things off, even when you face unwanted consequences at school, work, or home
People commonly link procrastination to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other mental health concerns.
While it’s true that chronic procrastination often happens as a symptom, it sometimes plays more of a contributing role in ongoing mental and emotional distress.
Procrastination and emotional regulation
Research suggests that procrastination often relates to your mood and emotional mindset.
In other words, procrastination doesn’t happen because you’re lazy and unproductive or don’t know how to do something (though self-doubt can certainly factor in). It happens because you dread the emotional distress you foresee.
Maybe you already experienced this irritation and frustration firsthand and don’t want a repeat. But you could also have some preconceived ideas about how awful and difficult that chore or assignment will turn out to be.
Either way, you set the task aside, promising yourself to handle it later when you feel better able to manage those feelings.
Sometimes, it’s easy to see where the distress comes from:
- You put off a quick phone call to schedule your dental check-up, because you’re certain you have a cavity or two and feel anxious about facing an afternoon of drilling.
- You avoid calling your sister after an argument, because you know you need to admit you were wrong and apologize.
You might have a harder time pinning down other sources of emotional distress, especially when they relate to ongoing or deeper-seated sources of emotional turmoil.
For several months in a row, you promised your mom you’d sort through boxes from your adolescent years. But, whenever you visit, something always keeps you from getting started.
It’s not the magnitude of the task (you only have a handful of boxes) or the sorting involved (you usually enjoy organizing things).
When you really dig into your feelings, you realize you never addressed the lingering misery of your high school years, and you know a lot of your possessions and mementos will rekindle feelings of awkwardness and discomfort.
Procrastination as a mental health symptom
The source of procrastination sometimes runs a little deeper than a difficulty regulating emotions.
If you live with anxiety, for example, you might spend a lot of time worrying about what specific tasks involve or feeling nervous about what could go wrong. These kinds of fears can absolutely lead to delay.
The link between anxiety conditions and perfectionism can also play a part in procrastination. When you don’t believe you can do something perfectly, you might feel anxious about doing it at all and continually put it off instead.
Depression, which often wears away at energy and self-worth, can also involve procrastination. You might neglect certain responsibilities because you can’t muster up the motivation to complete them, or because you doubt yourself and your skills.
Procrastination can also result from
- concentration difficulties
You can learn more about the connection between ADHD and procrastination here.
Procrastination as a contributing factor
Here’s the thing about procrastination: The negative emotions you associate with a given task don’t go away when you avoid that task. They feed on themselves and grow, rapidly.
Say you put off creating a work presentation. You want to impress your boss, but you’re worried about meeting their high standards.
Of course, the more you delay, the less time you have to do the work. As the deadline approaches, you don’t just doubt your ability to create a successful presentation. You also feel overwhelmed about the amount of work involved, and you’re stressed at the thought of not getting it done in time.
You know you’ve created a sticky situation for yourself, but you care more about the peace of mind that avoiding the project provides. It’s this fleeting peace that generally reinforces the procrastination loop.
Ask yourself: Do you actually feel calm? Probably not. You’ve likely noticed an undercurrent of anxiety rippling through your waking (maybe even your sleeping) thoughts.
And therein lies the rub. Procrastination creates a cycle that’s difficult to escape, because the temporary reward of putting something off reinforces your desire to do it again — even though it creates more problems.
A procrastination habit can eventually complicate the emotional concerns that triggered it in the first place.
At work, you want to pitch a new project to your main client. But you put off the proposal, because you worry you won’t do a good enough job at convincing them it’s worth their investment.
At the last minute, you hurriedly patch together a presentation. Unimpressed, they pass on the project.
Your fear of failure led you to procrastinate, and failing makes you feel even worse. Instead of redoing the proposal to try again, you begin to doubt your abilities and feel even less motivated to do the work.
Over time, procrastination — and the loop it tends to create — can lead to:
- shame and guilt
- diminished self-worth
- job overwhelm and burnout
- relationship conflict
- physical health concerns
These strategies can help you break the procrastination cycle — even when it’s an ingrained habit.
Offer yourself forgiveness and compassion
Forgiving yourself for procrastinating in the past may help reduce the chances you’ll procrastinate again in the future.
Just like the forgiveness you might offer someone who wronged you, self-forgiveness allows you to let go of past events and move forward.
So, instead of giving yourself a hard time, tell yourself it’s all right:
“Waiting to do that project didn’t turn out so well, but it’s OK to make mistakes. Now I know what not to do next time.”
Self-compassion can also go a long way toward easing the harsh criticism and self-blame that tend to trail in procrastination’s wake.
Instead of focusing on how you messed up (which usually makes matters worse), offer yourself some words of comfort.
If it helps, consider what you might say to a friend:
- “It sounds like you’re struggling right now, but I can tell you’re doing your best.”
- “That assignment sounds really stressful. I know you want to do the best work possible, but it’s just a first draft, right? You can always improve on it later if your team has any suggestions.”
Don’t you deserve that same kindness?
Challenge false beliefs
Cognitive distortions, or patterns of irrational and inaccurate thoughts, can easily contribute to procrastination.
A few examples:
- Overgeneralization. “I did really poorly on that last paper. I’m not going to do any better on this one.”
- Discounting the positive. Instead of feeling reassured by praise you received from your supervisor, you think you just got lucky with easy assignments. Worrying you might make a mistake on your next task leads you to put it off.
- Catastrophizing. “That argument last night was awful. They must hate me now. If I call to apologize, they’ll break up with me. I just know it.”
- Mental filtering. After a first date, you forget all about the good chemistry and mutual interests and focus on the awkward moment when you made a joke they didn’t get. “They must think I’m so dumb,” you decide, and you put off giving them a call.
Coming up with other potential explanations can help you reframe distorted thoughts:
“I bet they feel pretty bad about the argument, too. Maybe they’re afraid to call me.”
You can also list a few facts that challenge those beliefs:
“I haven’t received any negative feedback. Plus, my supervisor said she trusts me with more challenging tasks. I think I really know what I’m doing here, and I can trust myself to keep doing a good job.”
Take things slow
Handling tasks one step at a time can also make a difference.
Instead of overloading yourself by thinking about everything still left to do, focus your thoughts on the step that comes immediately afterward.
While doing research for a paper, you might tell yourself, “Once I have five good sources, I can create an outline.” Then stop there. Don’t worry about writing the introduction.
Who knows? As you work on the outline, you might come up with the perfect introductory statement without even trying.
Create obstacles and rewards
If you tend to pick up your phone when you’re supposed to be working, turn off your phone and put it somewhere out of sight before you get started with the day.
Make sure to reward yourself for your efforts, too. After you get a good chunk of work done, take a break to watch a funny video, catch up with your friends, or swap selfies with your partner.
Thinking in terms of rewards rather than punishments can help you encourage yourself, too.
- Instead of: “If I don’t work out tonight, I can’t watch the next episode of ‘Lucifer.'”
- Try: “I’ll go for a jog after work, and then I’ll watch an episode of ‘Lucifer’ before bed.”
If you’re a long-time procrastinator, breaking the habit may require a little extra support.
Connecting with a therapist may be a good next step when procrastination:
- affects your performance at school or work
- creates problems in your personal relationships
- leads to feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, or makes existing symptoms worse
A therapist can help you identify and explore possible emotional triggers. They can also provide more insight into any underlying mental health concerns contributing to procrastination.
In therapy, you can also learn strategies to challenge negative self-talk and reframe unhelpful thought patterns.
Pinpointing the specific emotions driving procrastination makes it easier to find effective coping strategies. So challenging chronic procrastination generally means tracing it back to the source.
Not sure how to start? No need to delay — a therapist can offer more guidance and support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.