The science of procrastination and how to beat it
A young man sitting at the desk with a tall stack of books listining to music on his phone looking lost in his music.
Everyone’s guilty of procrastinating sometimes—even the ancient Greeks and Romans did it.
That said, it’s one thing to put off a task for a little while. It’s another to chronically avoid doing things until the absolute last minute. Wysa researched the psychology behind procrastination, what makes people do it, and how they can work to overcome it.
According to the Association for Psychological Science, procrastination comes in two forms: habitual and situational. The latter happens when we’re faced with a task we’re not interested in accomplishing, from boring administrative work, like filing or filling out an expense report, to chores we don’t like doing.
Habitual procrastination affects 1 in 5 people, according to Psychology Today. Although putting off a task may provide initial enjoyment, habitual procrastination can have several negative side effects. For starters, it can cause a lot of stress as a looming deadline approaches. You can get lower grades or produce work that does not accurately reflect your capability. It can manifest itself physically through insomnia, a weaker immune system, and gastrointestinal issues. It can cause misunderstandings that take a toll on relationships. Putting off tasks also eats up more of your time, which can lead to missed opportunities.
The psychology of procrastinating
A bored woman sits on a couch peering out a window.
Why do we procrastinate? Sometimes it’s rooted in perfectionism and self-doubt. Other times we build up anxiety and other negative moods around a task, particularly if we think we won’t like doing it. Distraction and fatigue can also contribute to a desire to procrastinate.
As The New York Times put it, we use procrastination as a coping mechanism when certain tasks spur negative feelings within us.
One of the problems with chronic procrastination is that it provides some moments of enjoyment or relief—particularly when you delay a task to do something you’d rather be doing. You’ve just rewarded yourself for putting off the harder task, so your brain conflates that personal gratification with proper behavior and creates a cycle of procrastination.
A woman at a desk reading resumes online.
When it comes down to it, procrastination is an emotional response, and beating it requires managing your emotions differently. That can be a tall order—and may be helped with counseling—but there are strategies you can try to break a procrastination habit.
Because procrastination stems from negative emotions, try creating a positive association with the task at hand. Try finding something worthwhile in what you’re doing, or create a fun challenge for yourself that will make you want to finish the task. Psychology Today suggests this will help your brain tie the good feelings of short-term rewards to long-term goals.
Create a realistic time frame for yourself, and break up the task into smaller pieces—even if they’re bite-sized—to make it feel more manageable. The APA notes that setting your own deadlines and incentivizing finishing before a deadline may also help you complete tasks and realize longer-term goals.
Setting yourself up for success
Create structure and remove distractions. If you feel the impulse to check news, social media, or email rather than do work, disconnect from the internet.
Find something or someone to keep you accountable for achieving your work. Just as people hire a personal trainer to get them to the gym or a life coach to help them jump-start their career, Harvard Business Review suggests an accountability buddy can motivate you to get the job done.
Practicing self-compassion can also go a long way to combat feelings of doubt and perfectionism. McLean offers a graceful approach that involves reminding yourself that you’re not a lazy person while also encouraging introspection. Sometimes the work doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be done. If it’s not perfect, it’s still OK. If your procrastination is rooted in self-doubt, you can overcome this “task paralysis” by reminding yourself that you could achieve it, which can motivate you as you complete future tasks.
You also may grow out of it. A 2016 study published in PLOS One on people aged 14 and up found that people aged 14 to 29 procrastinate most often. As people age, McLean notes, the inclination to procrastinate declines. This may be due to brain maturation, better coping skills, and the awareness that time is finite.
Story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Ania Antecka.
This story originally appeared on Wysa and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.