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What Procrastination Really Is and How to Stop Procrastinating for Good

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10 min

What Procrastination Really Is and How to Stop Procrastinating for Good

Do you often find yourself pushing important tasks to the last minute, whether it’s studying for exams, completing chores, or managing finances? If so, you’re not alone. Procrastination is a common phenomenon that affects many people, leading to feelings of guilt and frustration.

But what if we told you that procrastination isn’t just about laziness or poor time management?

Beating yourself up with questions like “Why do I procrastinate so much?” won’t get you anywhere (but will definitely make you feel bad about yourself).

If you procrastinate, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not lazy or undisciplined, so stop tormenting yourself. What you need is help understanding procrastination and why it’s bad for your mental and physical health.

But to explain what procrastination is, I’ll start by showing you what it’s not. And then I’ll tell you what causes it. Once you learn the causes of procrastination, you’ll know how to beat it. You may be surprised or annoyed, but I promise you’ll also feel relieved.

What procrastination is not

Most people think that laziness and poor time management are the main reasons for procrastination. But they’re not. They’re just symptoms of a bigger underlying problem.

Sure, poor time management is the easiest procrastination definition. But how come you find time to clean the floor under the fridge but not to file your taxes? As Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert, said, “Time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it.” So, procrastination is not a time issue.

You’re not lazy, either. A lazy person wouldn’t want to be active at all. But a procrastinating person is often active, doing anything BUT the task that has to be done. Engaging in other tasks is how we compensate for the guilt that comes with procrastination.

In the words of social/health/personality psychology researcher Dr. Fuschia Sirois, “Procrastination gives us the energy to perform what scientists call displacement activity.”

It’s a self-soothing activity people and animals (yes, they sort of procrastinate, too) resort to when they don’t know or can’t decide how to proceed.

For instance, when a bird sits in a nest with its chicks, and someone approaches, the bird can either fly away, exposing the chicks, or stay and defend them. Instead, the bird may choose a third, completely unrelated option—peck the grass or clean its feathers.

This displacement activity won’t bring any useful results, but it will allow the bird to avoid the stress of making a tough decision.

So remember, every time you procrastinate, it’s triggered by stress. “You’re never going to get rid of the stress in your life,” says Mel Robbins, “but you can change your pattern of avoiding work.”

What is procrastination?

Usually, the act of delaying a task that needs to be completed is the definition of procrastination. The very task is what we focus on when we think to ourselves, “Just do it!”

But deep down, you know you can’t just suck it up and “do it,” and no amount of metaphorical Shia LaBeouf screaming in your head will get you to stop procrastinating. You may ask yourself “Why do I feel lost in this moment?”

Because we as procrastinators don’t avoid tasks, we avoid the negative emotions associated with specific tasks, according to New York Times bestselling author and motivational speaker Mel Robbins. And she’s right.

If you feel anxious, overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated by a task or fear that you may fail (shout out to all the perfectionists out there!), you may turn to procrastination as a form of stress relief.

Is procrastination a habit, then? Yes, absolutely. Mel Robbins says it’s “a habit that you have learned and that you repeat whenever you feel stressed.” It can be immediate stress from something happening at the moment or deep-rooted stress like childhood trauma, anxiety, or depression. Either way, millions of people fall into procrastination behavior to cope with stress through avoidance.

Dr. Tim Pychyl, procrastination researcher, defines procrastination as a subconscious desire to feel good right now. His research found that the core of procrastination may be difficulty with self-regulation.

Other scientists agree. Dr. Fuschia Sirois says that procrastination is often the only way people know how to manage stress. “It’s about poor mood management, not poor time management,” she said. Dr. Sirois sees procrastination as a voluntary and unnecessary delay. “People put tasks off despite understanding the harmful consequences, and it’s debilitating.”

Neuroscience and Psychology researcher María Baldellou López also added some helpful thoughts about procrastination: “Understanding procrastination goes beyond surface-level time management; it involves a deep dive into our psychological and emotional landscapes. Procrastination often arises from our struggle to manage internal emotions, leading us to seek external means of relief. Signs of procrastination often include difficulty in setting priorities and succumbing to impulsivity, favoring immediate gratification over long-term goals. Self-awareness is the initial step towards change, requiring honest reflection on how procrastination impacts one’s life. Imagining the consequences of actions in the present moment and challenging self-critical thoughts are essential strategies for overcoming procrastination. Remember, perfectionism often paralyzes progress, so adopting the 80 percent rule can be liberating in completing tasks effectively. If your work meets 80 percent of the desired standards, try to celebrate it as a success and keep moving forward, one step at a time”

What causes procrastination?

Why do people procrastinate, you ask? Honestly, scientists haven’t reached a consensus on an answer. After all, most research on the psychology of procrastination is pretty recent. There are several possible reasons, and we need more scientific research on each of them.

By examining results across multiple studies, Dr. Piers Steel, an expert on human motivation, determined the characteristics that make people more prone to doing things last minute:

  • Task aversiveness
  • Task delay
  • Self-efficacy
  • Impulsiveness

Perhaps surprisingly, his research showed that neuroticism, rebelliousness, and sensation-seeking aren’t among the reasons why we procrastinate.

In Dr. Steel’s book, The Procrastination Equation, he says that some people name procrastination as the defining feature of their personalities. In the 1970s, about 5% of people made this claim, and today, the number has risen to 20%.

Does this mean that the modern world triggers more procrastination than life did several decades ago? To some extent, yes. The pressure to always be productive, constant distractions, and a lack of direction at work intensify the problem of procrastination. Allow me to explain.

With jobs becoming less structured, workers are left to create order themselves and rely on self-management and self-regulation skills. On top of that, they have to “slay all day.” This pressure, together with pervasive distractions, breeds procrastination.

Dr. Steel blames smartphones and social media for disrupting discipline and abusing the limbic system of the brain (the evolutionarily old, primitive part of the brain involved in producing emotions).

Speaking of the brain, let’s see how procrastination behavior originates.

What happens in the brain when you procrastinate

People have three possible subconscious reactions to stress: fight, flight, or freeze. Well, with all the modern stressors that you can’t physically fight or run away from, our brain opts for freeze. Here’s how it happens.

One theory explains that (not everyone agrees, but it is worth mentioning) in the brain, every day is a struggle between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex (the newer, rational part of the brain involved in decision-making). 

The limbic system is where your fight, flight, or freeze reactions originate. Well, when the limbic system wins, it can lead to procrastination.

You see, the amygdala, a part of the limbic system, drives our subconscious reactions and emotional responses. When we experience stress, anxiety, fear, or threat, it can make us freeze. In other words, we don’t act to perform the task.

And the prefrontal cortex can’t rationally tell us, “No, don’t freeze—you can do this” because the limbic system takes over in highly stressful situations.

So what do you do while you’re frozen? You watch cat videos, repot plants, organize your books by color — you get the idea. And all of a sudden, instead of feeling bad emotions associated with the task, you feel good emotions associated with, well, not doing it.

And while you’re enjoying the moment, your brain remembers a pattern: stress feels bad; avoiding stress feels good. And the more you procrastinate, the more your brain reinforces this pattern.

In other words, you develop a habit because when you repeatedly procrastinate instead of completing tasks, the positive reinforcement of the avoidance behavior makes you feel safe and comfortable.

And therein lies the danger. With procrastination being so common, we started normalizing it.

Watching videos instead of working as an answer to “What is procrastination?”

There are no types of procrastination or procrastinators!

All over the internet, you’ll find tests like “What kind of procrastinator are you?” “Are you a chronic or situational procrastinator?” “Do you experience destructive procrastination or productive procrastination?”

Some go as far as making up types of procrastinators for you to relate to:

  • Perfectionist
  • Thrill-seeker
  • Avoider
  • Indecisive
  • Over-doer
  • Worrier
  • Crisis-maker
  • Dreamer
  • Defier

But all this does is normalize procrastination and make it a part of your identity. Well, it shouldn’t be. As Dr. Pychyl brilliantly put it, “You have your feelings, but you’re not the feeling.”

You’re not a procrastinator; you’re a person with a habit of procrastinating. It’s not a label, an illness, or a personality trait. It’s just a broken pattern of behavior, a pattern that influences your well-being more than you might care to admit.

How procrastination influences our lives

Why is procrastination bad? I mean, there are people who seem to thrive on it and say they work best under pressure. But procrastination is harmful by definition. Aside from the social repercussions of being late, fined, or being perceived as unreliable, procrastination takes a toll on your mental and physical health.

People who procrastinate have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension, according to published research by Prof. Sirois. This is partly due to the stress procrastinating can lead to in the long term and partly by delaying doctor visits, tests, and workouts.

The short-term relief of putting off unpleasant tasks quickly wears off, and in the end, feelings of guilt, shame, and self-directed anger arise. None of these emotions motivate people to take action, says Dr. Sirois. “Studies found that they just give an extra level of negative emotions to the task, increasing the chances of procrastinating again.”

That’s why getting angry at a procrastinating person has little effect. If your friend is always late, telling them how much you’re mad about it won’t make them come on time in the future. They know they messed up by procrastinating. But they don’t know how to prevent it.

How to avoid procrastination

Now that you understand a little about the psychology of procrastination, what triggers it, and its consequences, you can learn how to break the habit.

Here’s a guide on how to prevent procrastination based on the findings of prominent researchers:

  1. Start by forgiving yourself. You developed the coping mechanism of procrastination for a reason. So ask yourself calmly and lovingly:
    • Why do I keep procrastinating?
    • How am I feeling right now?
    • What’s really stressing me out?
    • What emotion am I avoiding and why?

Instead of being hard on yourself for it, think, “Wow, I’ve procrastinated for two hours already. Something must be seriously stressing me out. What is it?”

  1. Find meaning in the task you’re avoiding.
    • What meaning does it have to you or others? 
    • Why is it important? What will you or others gain from it? 

Answering these questions will give your task a purpose.

  1. Ask yourself, “What would the future me want me to do right now?” It’s surprisingly helpful.
  2. Do the task you’re avoiding for just five minutes. You can even set a timer. Just five minutes. You may be surprised to find that you continue beyond that time. Sometimes, it’s just getting started that’s difficult.

And here are some tricks on how to overcome procrastination:

  • Get past the resistance by planning your next action. Not the whole task or project — just a single action. It’s not “Next, I’ll wash all the windows in my house,” but “Next, I’ll fill up a bucket with water.”
  • Look for ways to counter the negative emotions you feel regarding the task, and try to think of something positive about it.
  • Throw your expectations out the window! If you think a task will be taxing, dull, or time-consuming, you’ll never start. It won’t feel as bad as you imagined, trust me.
  • Don’t overthink it. Overthinking lets you imagine you’re working on the task, which can intensify the negative emotions you’re trying to avoid.
  • Try to take your mental health on a leash. Try Breeze tests to get a full picture of your well-being; maybe your procrastination is the result of some mental difficulties.

Starting a task is the most dreaded part for a procrastinating person, but it’s also the most important one. So start with the smallest action, and you’ll see yourself going all the way.

Conclusion

It feels good to procrastinate in the moment. However, short-term stress relief isn’t worth the pain of pulling an all-nighter and rushing at the last minute. It only reinforces the habit of procrastinating and undermines your confidence.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not a bad person. You’re not lazy. You’re not undisciplined. You have a bad habit, and you can change it.

Also, neuroscience and Psychology researcher María Baldellou López add ”It’s essential to understand that procrastination isn’t a character flaw or a sign of laziness. Rather than blaming yourself with questions like “Why do I procrastinate so much?”

Compassion toward yourself frees you from the guilt of procrastination and gives you the motivation to improve. You can also learn to be more self-aware and productive by getting tips on procrastination from the world’s leading experts on the topic.

Maria Baldellou Lopez, MSs., BMBS photo

Reviewed by Maria Baldellou Lopez, MSs., BMBS

Maria is a dedicated Neuroscience and Psychology researcher, holding a BSc in Neuroscience and Psychology and an MSc in Psychiatri...