It is estimated that one-fifth of adults and half of all students procrastinate.1 Negative impacts of procrastination include diminished performance, poorer mental and physical health, and increased stress, worry, and guilt. Longitudinal studies of procrastination have indicated that it “appears to be a self-defeating behavior pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs.”2
So why do we do it?
While more research remains to be done, researchers tend to agree that the reason any particular individual procrastinates can vary idiosyncratically, and that the “cure” is to respond to whatever reasons might be specific for the individual.
Here are 9 common reasons that you might procrastinate, along with suggestions to help you start taking action on each of these.
What to try: Talk to yourself with kindness. Accept that you’re human, and be an optimistic coach rather than a negative critic.
What to try: Talk to yourself about the negative consequences these role models faced when they procrastinated. Then find new role models to mimic, specifically those who take action and experience positive results because of it.
What to try: If you need a skill upgrade, get one. Ask for help if it is available. If not, use a new cognitive coping self-statement such as, “I can learn as I go,” or, “Extra time on this task will increase the odds of me being effective.” Dr. Bill Knaus also suggests that you adopt a "no-failure" mindset to reduce your self-doubt He suggests that you “experiment and see what happens,” rather than stopping yourself with unproven predictions.
What to try: Challenge yourself to open your mind and prove your bias wrong. Use the task as an opportunity to combat your bias.
What to try: Make a habit of starting earlier than you think you’ll need to and work on completing your task early. This might compensate for any deficiencies in time estimation. Then, give yourself a reward for completing the task early or on time!
What to try: Remind yourself about the gains of the future, and de-emphasize the frustration of the present.
What to try: Work on diminishing the importance of doing things perfectly and emphasize the importance of completing tasks in a timely fashion. Keep a list of examples of times when perfectionism has been unhelpful to you, and of times when task completion has been more helpful to you.
What to try: Get proper treatment, including individual therapy with a licensed therapist. In addition to ruling out physical causes for your mood or anxiety, proper treatment will usually include helping you to set achievable goals given your condition, and teaching you to break your tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.
What to try: Challenge your beliefs about tolerating discomfort and revise what you say to encourage yourself to engage in a task, even if only for a little while. Focus on the longer-term rewards that you’ll experience while persevering with the task. Stick with it and start seeing discomfort as a prerequisite for growth, rather than as the enemy. Utilize the "Premack Principle," rewarding yourself for doing the uncomfortable (such as balancing your checkbook) with something that you like doing often (such as checking Facebook).
Pam Garcy, PhD is the author of How To Make Time When You Don’t Have Any: A New Approach to Reclaiming Your Schedule.
1. Rozental, Alexander; Carlbring, Per (2014). Understanding and Treating Procrastination: A Review of a Common Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychology 5.13, 1488-1502.
2. Tice, Dianne M ; Baumeister, Roy F (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science 8.6, 454-458.
3. Sirois, Fuschia M (2014). Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion. Self and Identity 13.2, 128.
4. Bandura, A. (1988). Self-efficacy conception of anxiety. Anxiety Research, 1(2): 77-98.
5. Sirois, Fuschia M et al (2014). Out of Sight, Out of Time? A Meta-analytic Investigation of Procrastination and Time Perspective. European Journal of Personality, 28.5, 511.
6. Ozer, B; O'Callaghan, J; Bokszczanin, A; Ederer, E; Essau, C (2014). Dynamic interplay of depression, perfectionism and self-regulation on procrastination. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling: 309.
7. Ederer, Elfriede; Essau, Cecilia (2014). Dynamic interplay of depression, perfectionism and self-regulation on procrastination. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling
8. McCown, B; Khambatta, I; Blake, R; Keiser, R (2012). Published online: 12 April 2012. Content Analyses of the Beliefs of Academic Procrastinators, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC