We spoke to an expert to understand why people procrastinate and tips for combating it.
We’ve all been there. A deadline looms in the not-so-far-off distance — we have to schedule a dental cleaning, wrap up a big project, or study for a test. The task isn’t fun, so we delay by reorganizing the kitchen or playing a video game or just ignoring it altogether. Put simply, we procrastinate.
Avoiding tasks isn’t uncommon. In fact, most people are guilty of it at one point or another. The problem is that chronically delaying a to-do list doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it typically makes a situation worse. As a deadline draws nearer, people can experience guilt or shame. They may begin to feel stressed. Plus, there are consequences for not completing a mission — disgruntled coworkers, frustrated friends, or poor grades, depending on the task.
Anyone who has struggled with procrastination knows that stopping the cycle is about as easy as pulling yourself out of quicksand: the more you struggle, the deeper you sink. We wanted to understand why people procrastinate in the first place. Is it self-inflicted laziness or something a bit more complex?
We spoke to Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist and author of two books about procrastination, to understand the psychology behind the desire to chronically delay tasks and why some people are more likely to procrastinate than others. Here’s her expert insight along with important tips for how to stop procrastinating.
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What is procrastination?
Sirois’s colleague has a saying that goes something like this: All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination. It’s a simple phrase, but it’s vital for understanding what counts as procrastination. Because, as Sirois’s colleague suggests, there can be legitimate reasons for putting off a task.
For instance, if a manager asks you to move off a project to focus on something else, that’s not procrastination. And if you delay cleaning your home because you’re prioritizing family time, that’s also not necessarily procrastination, either. These delays are necessary. Procrastination, on the other hand, is unnecessary, explains Sirois. Think: delaying a project because you find it boring or intimidating.
“We all have things that are unpleasant, but we find ways to manage that mood. When people procrastinate, they’re not doing that.”
Procrastination often involves something important — a big deadline, an important meeting, a special goal, an exam. Putting off the activity also typically has negative consequences. If you delay studying for a test, you’ll likely fail. If you continually wait until the last minute to complete work tasks, you may lose the trust of your manager.
There’s also a difference between an occasional procrastinator and a chronic one. Sirois explains that in the latter scenario, procrastination is so pervasive that it’s seen as a personality trait — that person’s procrastination usually shows up in more than one area of their lives.
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Why do people procrastinate?
One theory for why people procrastinate has to do with mood management — or a lack thereof, explains Sirois. Those lacking these skills may attempt to externally deal with their emotions by avoiding whatever negative feelings the task creates for them, whether that’s stress, anxiety, insecurity, or something else. It’s an avoidant form of coping, she explains.
“We all have things that are unpleasant, but we find ways to manage that mood,” says Sirois. “When people procrastinate, they’re not doing that.”
This avoidance is also part of what makes procrastination so enticing. Temporarily delaying a task can actually feel good because you’re stepping away from the negative emotions that come with it. But Sirois says those good emotions are fleeting.
“Research shows that people who procrastinate feel a lot of guilt, a lot of shame,” she says.
According to Sirois, studies show that both environmental and genetic factors can play a role in whether someone possesses the traits that make them prone to procrastination — these traits include struggling to manage emotions and avoiding hard feelings. A person prone to procrastination may also have differences in the parts of their brain associated with thinking about the future. About 46 percent of these traits can be inherited, Sirois explains. That said, environmental factors also contribute. Someone raised around adults who continually delayed tasks or who had unreasonably high expectations may later struggle with procrastination.
Additionally, there’s an association between procrastination and perfectionism, though Sirois says it’s unclear which causes the other. There are two types of perfectionism — a version where someone strives to meet internal standards and a version where they attempt to meet the expectations of others, such as their partner, colleagues, or parents.
Those who procrastinate tend to struggle with the second type of perfectionism. A person preoccupied with making the perfect cake for their partner may delay getting started because they’re worried about letting their partner down or about making a bad cake. Sirois says these people also tend to fantasize about their undone task being perfect. In the cake example, they imagine baking the ideal confection without having to endure the potential pitfalls of it not turning out as well as they hoped. That thought can feel soothing, even if it’s not rooted in reality.
“You keep the task in this land of the undone. And in the land of the undone, everything is perfect because you can imagine the outcome without any of the problems that life will throw at it,” explains Sirois.
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What are some ways to stop procrastinating?
This may seem counterintuitive, but Sirois says the best way to stop procrastinating is to forgive yourself for doing it in the first place.
Those who are chronic procrastinators often lack self compassion. They’re very hard on themselves. But these negative feelings of shame and guilt can actually make it harder to stop procrastinating, she says.
In 2010, researchers demonstrated the efficacy of forgiveness on procrastination. They followed a sample of more than 100 college students as they prepared for midterm exams and asked them to report their levels of both self-forgiveness and procrastination. Those who reported high levels of self-forgiveness for procrastinating when studying for their first midterm exam ultimately studied earlier for their second one instead of putting it off.
“[Forgiveness] takes away some of that shame. And then there’s a mindfulness part where you don’t just focus on the negatives,” says Sirois.
Another tip is to make the task small and manageable. The feelings of insecurity, anxiety, or stress that come with assessing a large task can be lessened if it’s broken up into smaller pieces.
“Don’t be hard on them. Be compassionate. Procrastinators are harder on themselves than anyone else is.”
Additionally, it helps if your environment is supportive of your mission. If you’re the type of person who delays a project by playing video games, it could be beneficial to put the gaming console in storage while you work. Or if you’re prone to delaying certain health goals, it may help to lay out your gym clothes or running shoes for easy access in the morning.
And if you know or love someone who chronically procrastinates, Sirois says these same rules apply. You can support them by helping them create a productive environment and, above all, by being kind to them.
“Don’t be hard on them. Be compassionate,” she says. “Procrastinators are harder on themselves than anyone else is.”
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