Aricle by McKenna Hereford, PhD
Did you have a reaction reading that word? Most of us have read articles or watched videos about this topic, only to find ourselves procrastinating later! A common reaction to even seeing the word is something like “ugh, that reminds me I have to do…” It seems like especially for the last couple years people have struggled with procrastination: “I just can’t get anything done.” People talk a lot about it, but what causes it and what can you do about it?
First, what is procrastination? Basically, it’s the act of delaying or postponing something. It might look like watching TV instead of doing that laundry you’ve wanted to do for a few days or talking to friends. It can look like even staring into space for a while or scrolling on social media. Some people might even clean or do some chores while procrastinating other tasks. Many, if not most of us, engage in procrastination to some extent and it might be annoying but not necessarily an issue. This can become a bigger problem when it starts interfering with our work, family responsibilities, things that are important to our routine, and overall well-being.
But what causes procrastination? Most people think procrastination is a time management issue or even straight up laziness. However, it’s more complicated! Think about times when you’ve procrastinated getting something done. You likely felt some anxiety about the task, such as feeling overwhelmed at how much to do or by how little energy you felt, right? That’s because procrastination is an attempt to manage emotions and not necessarily the task itself! Psychologists believe that it’s likely due to present bias, where we tend to prioritize immediate goals over long-term ones. That’s why it’s so ironic. We engage in procrastination to avoid challenging emotions, only to end up feeling them anyway when we have to get the task done. That’s why we end up beating ourselves up later thinking “why did I wait and not just do it earlier?” When you’re avoiding that laundry, that avoidance likely makes you feel better in the short term, even though you know you have to do it eventually. Unfortunately, this is not an overall effective coping skill, since you have to do the task eventually anyway. We might also get caught in a loop where we unintentionally reward ourselves by procrastinating instead of rewarding ourselves by completing the task. So what can you do to change procrastination? Thankfully, there are several options:
First identify when/why you are procrastinating. This might seem self-explanatory, but sometimes we don’t actually catch this in the moment. Then check in with yourself to see what emotions you’re feeling. Remember, procrastination is an avoidance strategy! Do you tend to have perfectionistic expectations and that’s causing you anxiety? Do you feel depleted and overwhelmed by the amount of work involved in the task? Do you struggle with executive dysfunction and face challenges corralling your cognitive skills together to complete a task? Understanding your emotions and related thoughts or challenges can be a really helpful first step to addressing procrastination. In order to address the avoidance, you need to know what exactly you’re avoiding.
Adjust convenience. We likely turn to things that are convenient for us when procrastinating, such as scrolling through social media. We also maintain any barriers to completing the tasks. Increasing convenience of completing the task, such as making a list, can be helpful! Also reducing convenience of our procrastination strategies, such as moving our phones farther away from us when needing to do something important.
Establish a reward system. This one can be linked to the last one! Maybe you tend to watch TV while procrastinating, so you can use that to entice you to finish the annoying task. Also including your social support in your rewards and holding you accountable can be an excellent way to overcome procrastination. Sometimes extrinsic motivation (that comes from outside yourself) is an effective strategy, and there’s no shame in that!
Habit stacking. When we need to start a task that we will do regularly, it can feel daunting. One way to alleviate the emotional burden is to tack on the new task you need to learn onto one that already has become a habit–one that you don’t even think about regularly. For example, if you know you need to do laundry or take a new medicine, and this will have to happen every day or a certain number of days, you can complete the task right after brushing your teeth at night.
Create a fun competition with yourself. This isn’t for everyone, but if you create some kind of fun-natured competition out of the task, that might motivate some to get it done. Some examples might include beating estimated time for getting it done, seeing if you can complete the task before some event you have later that day, or even including social support in the game! That excitement might overcome avoidance for some people.
As you can see, procrastination is more complicated than surface level! For all of us, it’s an attempt to avoid whatever uncomfortable emotions are arising when facing a task. The particular reasons for avoidance and underlying emotions, though, probably differ for all of us. These tasks are a great place to start in overcoming procrastination, and, maybe most importantly, practicing self-compassion! Often, when we procrastinate, we later punish ourselves in some way which might actually feed into the cycle later. We’re all human and avoidance is common! If difficulty getting tasks done is interfering with your daily life and are considering therapy, give us a call!