Procrastination: Why Do We Do It and How Can We Stop?

November 12, 2021

Procrastinators, welcome! This is a no-judgement zone, because, well, we’re all friends here and we’re all guilty of procrastinating.


Maybe you’re procrastinating right now– reading this post instead of starting on that report, or maybe you’re the type of procrastinator who would rather reorganise their bathroom cabinet, alphabetise their spice drawer or clear out their wardrobe than face the growing mountain of emails in your inbox? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, psychologist and author Joseph Ferrari found that around 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators – that’s higher than depression, panic attacks and alcoholism!


And that’s the thing with procrastinating, all of us do it and we even trivialise it even though we know that eventually we’ll be left feeling guilty for not completing the very tasks we’re avoiding. So, why do we do it?


What is procrastination?

Firstly, let’s define exactly what procrastination is. Procrastination is essentially voluntarily delaying a task we need to do by focusing our attention on short-term tasks that prevent us from doing the important ones, despite knowing we’ll be worse off for doing so.


So why do we procrastinate?

Psychologists have determined that the reason why we continuously engage in this – let’s be honest – annoying behaviour is not because we’re lazy or unmotivated (phew!), but actually because we don’t experience positive emotions when thinking about the necessary task at hand. Just think about it: we don’t procrastinate when it comes to the fun things in our lives, we procrastinate on jobs that we find difficult, unpleasant, boring, or stressful.


That means contrary to what we might think, those time-management apps we spend so much of our time on compiling our to-do lists might not be so helpful after all. They might help us from feeling overwhelmed and anxious by organising our tasks into a list format, but it turns out why we’re procrastinating on actually getting started on those tasks is not necessarily to do with our self-discipline and time-management, but more to do with our happiness levels. That’s why when we think of those tasks, we avoid them until they’re simply impossible to avoid – you know, when you start a task mere hours before its deadline?


But is procrastinating really as bad as we make out?

It’s not particularly great and that’s not just because we feel guilty about it. Procrastination only delivers short-term relief to the stress we feel, but in the long run can actually be making it much worse. It reduces our levels of motivation and self-control and increases our risk of headaches, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Dr. Piers Steel goes as far as saying procrastination is a form of self-harm!


So, let’s break this down… sometimes you’ll find yourself procrastinating on a task because when you think about it, it triggers negative feelings. By pushing it further away, you’re boosting your feelings of positivity, and because of those positive emotions, you continue to prolong the feeling as long as possible. And this is where we get stuck. Stuck in a vicious cycle of negative emotions and momentary relief instead of digging deeper to work through those negative feelings. If you think about it in layman’s terms, procrastination is a bit like the placebo effect – it tricks you into feeling better short-term but it’s not actually treating the bigger issue.


So how can we stop procrastinating?

It takes a lot of willpower and is not as easy as we wish, but here are 5 tips that help us beat procrastination and be more productive:


1.      Establish what tasks impact you most negatively

As it’s been found (and now that we know) that procrastination is a consequence of negative emotions surrounding specific jobs, determine what tasks cause you to feel most negative and why.


Are you overly stressed about a project that gets you worked up whenever you think about it? Do you doubt yourself, feeling as though you’ll let people down because you worry you’re not smart enough to do a good job?


Getting to the root of the issue will help you in overcoming whatever fears you might have.


2.      Prioritise your task list and stop doing the ones you hate (if it’s possible!)

If certain tasks are impacting you negatively and don’t need to be done for work or education, etc. try and stop doing them altogether.

If there is no way to avoid them, try and get the ones you dread the most out of the way first. You’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment for doing so and it may even motivate you to get other jobs out of the way.


3.      Attach meaning to your tasks

Write down why the task your doing is important to you. Maybe it’s helpful to others, or maybe by completing it you’ll avoid the negative repercussions like a late fee for example?


Think about how you’ll feel after getting the job done. When you focus on your happiness and personal growth rather than the initial negative feelings, you’ll feel more connected to the task and less likely to procrastinate.


4.      Keep procrastination props out of sight

This might be an obvious one, but If it’s harder to engage in your usual procrastination activities, you’ll be less likely to do it.

A massive example of this is leaving your phone charging in another room or popping it into a drawer whilst you get on with your tasks. We’re all guilty of wasting time mindlessly scrolling social media, but the likelihood of you doing so will lessen and if you can’t see notifications illuminating your screen, you’ll be less inclined to reach for it.


5.      Don’t pressure yourself and practice self-compassion

I’m sure there’s not a single person who wouldn’t love to be more productive with their time, however, putting too much pressure on ourselves to be productive can actually increase our chances of procrastinating.


With that in mind, if you do find yourself procrastinating, don’t be too hard on yourself about it. Recognise that maybe you screwed up and forgive yourself for it. Berating yourself and feeling guilty for being unproductive won’t benefit you, but practicing self-compassion has been proven to increase people’s motivation to improve themselves.  


Now you know that procrastination isn’t a trap you fall into because you’re not the best at prioritising, dig deep to understand what you’re avoiding and why. And remember, it’s ok to procrastinate from time to time – you're not the first to do it and you certainly won’t be the last! 


Focus on treating yourself with kindness and work towards building positive habits that will stop you from creating never-ending to-do lists or cleaning your apartment for the third time this week!


For more productivity tips and tricks, check out last week’s blog post, Life Admin: Putting The Pro Back In Productivity.

Emily Davies

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