We’ve all done it — delayed a task for hours or days, even though we knew we’d be better off doing it sooner. For example, according to research, 80 percent to 95 percent of students procrastinate, many of then chronically, and about 50 percent of adults report succumbing to procrastination at least once in a while.
So what drives procrastination, and can we really blame the internet?
It turns out that humans have been procrastinating for centuries, and even Socrates and Aristotle discussed putting something off in a lack of self-control. However, this type of task delaying isn’t about being lazy — it’s really about mood regulation and a way to be happy.
The “big glooming task” becomes a symbol of stress and anxiety, causing us to push it off for something more appealing.
The good news is that overcoming procrastination is possible with some self-care and goal-setting. When you’re able to separate your want-self from your should-self, it can make a world of difference.
What Is Procrastination?
Procrastination is an act of unnecessary delay. In most cases, people who procrastinate know that they will not benefit from this delay or postponement, but they do it anyway.
It acts as a barrier to achieving important, meaningful tasks and instead leads us to “waste time” on activities that are trivial or have little value.
There are consequences to chronic procrastinating, of course, including issues related to:
- mental and physical health
- the ability to achieve academic and career goals
- financial well-being
Chronic procrastinators have high levels of stress and often deal with health issues, including depression, anxiety and cardiovascular disease.
Then, guess what? They often put off seeking help for these consequential health issues and add to the vicious cycle.
Research suggests that about 50 percent of adults report procrastinating at times, while 20 percent of them claim to do it most of the time.
A 2018 study found that adult employees spend about 90–180 minutes per workday, during work hours, on personal activities. This is said to cause an annual loss per employee of an estimated $8,875.
If adults are aware of the negative consequences associated with constantly delaying tasks, then why do they still do it? It’s true that certain environments evoke procrastination, so it’s used as a way to regulate mood and mindset.
Research published in the journal Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science found that procrastination takes many forms and has multiple determinants. What motives there are for procrastination varies from one person to the next.
In an effort to define the many motives that drive “task failure,” the following types of procrastination have been suggested:
- The Perfectionist Procrastinator: The perfectionist procrastinator is known for constantly criticizing her work, having very high standards and fearing failure. This causes a sense of anxiety and stress surrounding the task, causing the person to put it off.
- The “I’ve Got Time” Procrastinator: When these people think they have plenty of time to complete a task, they tend to put it off until the last minute.
- The Bored Procrastinator: These people find the task mundane and would much rather fill their time with fun activities that provide immediate satisfaction.
- The Anxious Procrastinator: These people use procrastination as a mechanism to cope with tasks that cause anxiety. By putting off the task, their anxiety is eased momentarily, but it will become more intense over time, until the task is completed. Then the cycle repeats again.
These aren’t scientific categories for procrastination, but they highlight the most common varieties and motivations that are present when delaying important tasks.
Why Do People Procrastinate?
Why do people procrastinate when they know that it will only make things more difficult in the end? Researchers have a term for this — “time inconsistency” — which refers to human behavioral that tends to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
In a nutshell, they believe that people let instant gratification get in the way of their longer-term tasks or goals.
Research published in Frontiers in Psychology notes that procrastinating is often associated with personal, cognitive, emotional and motivational factors. These factors contribute to our desires to find “last-minute,” thrilling experiences, according to researchers.
It’s a short-term mood-regulation strategy that has long-term consequences.
Many studies discuss procrastination in students or young adults, but what about procrastinating older adults? Although research indicates that we procrastinate less as we age, there are some variables that contribute to older adults delaying tasks.
The emotional variables that are associated with adult procrastination include:
- perceived stress
- distress (depression and anxiety)
- fatigue or lack of energy
- hypertension and cardiovascular disease
- low social well-being
- life regrets
- reduced life satisfaction
How to Stop Procrastinating
1. Picture Your Future Self
Do you go to sleep with big plans for the next day, but in the morning you don’t feel nearly as motivated? This is a great example of future self vs. present self.
It’s easy to plan for the future, but achieving short-term goals can be more difficult.
This is why it helps to visualize what you want your future self to look like and make a realistic game plan. If it involves getting that promotion you’ve been waiting for, getting healthier, living in an organized space — whatever your long-term goals may be — keep them in the back of your mind daily so they keep you accountable.
Picturing your future self also helps highlight your priorities, which should be considered when setting your daily schedule.
If becoming healthier is what you hope to achieve, for example, then waking up early and taking a walk outdoors can be a daily scheduled task. This can be followed by eating a healthy breakfast and taking time for mindful meditation or prayer.
2. Keep Tight Deadlines
The more time you have to complete a task, the more you’re able to procrastinate. Research demonstrates that having less time actually makes you more productive, which is exactly why the four-day work week appears to work well in some occupational settings.
To avoid putting things off, it may help to keep tight deadlines, fitting even mundane tasks into your calendar so when it’s not accomplished, there are immediate consequences. When you don’t meet personal daily deadlines, you experience feelings of guilt and failure, which isn’t ideal, of course — but you can work on using those negative feelings as a motivation to get things done on time.
The positivity you feel afterward is much more rewarding.
3. Take Scheduled Breaks
Research on procrastination shows that we often delay working on stressful, difficult or boring tasks because another activity looks more attractive. Taking a scheduled break from unpleasant tasks in order to relieve stress and boost mood can help promote productivity.
The key is sticking to the schedule, of course. Include breaks from work and personal time in your daily schedule, and stick to it.
Take the time for yourself without feeling guilty about it.
Some great ways to spend personal time include outdoor walks, yoga, sharing meals with family, reading an inspirational book, cooking a healthy meal and gardening.
4. Set Limits
Are you spending way too much time on social media, surfing the internet or sitting in front of the TV? Try setting limits for yourself.
This may look like 10 minutes of social media or web browsing before lunch and 20 minutes after dinner.
Again, this only works if you keep yourself accountable and track your activities, but with a little motivation, it can certainly help you achieve tasks and actually enjoy your well-earned free time.
5. Separate the Want-Self from the Should-Self
For procrastinators, there’s a pretty distinct difference between the want-self and should-self. The want-self loves scrolling through Instagram, binging Netflix shows and shopping online, while the should-self is constantly anxious about the tasks that must be completed.
Although the want-self is often stronger, the should-self is smarter and can grow stronger with consistency. Just being mindful of this distinction can help you notice when you are procrastinating and foresee the emotional consequences that are soon to come.
6. Be Kind to Yourself
Our emotions change the way we view a task, often leading to procrastination. When a task seems too hard, stressful or boring, we let our emotions dictate whether or not we’ll get the task done.
Negative emotions contribute to procrastination, which lead to more negative emotions. It’s a vicious cycle and can impact your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Help relieve the guilt and harm that follows delaying a task by showing compassion and forgiving yourself. Try to accept that some tasks will lead to stress, but it can be defined as good stress, or eustress, that needs to be worked through.
This makes you accept your behavior, will make you less likely to procrastinate next time and it’s a step in the right direction.
- Procrastination is delaying a task even though you know there will be negative consequences. About 50 percent of adults report occasional procrastination, while 20 percent admit to being chronic procrastinators.
- The causes of procrastination are based on mood regulation. When a task makes you feel stressed, anxious, bored or fearful, you are much more likely to delay it. This tends to become a vicious cycle that can impact your mental and physical health.
- To overcome procrastination, it helps to keep a schedule, allow for guilt-free personal time, picture your future-self and create goals.