- Financial procrastination involves problematic delays and impulse controls with regard to personal finance.
- Factors underlying procrastination are extensive, and some can be addressed through treatment.
- Strategies including visual imagery, simplification, automation, and acceptance can help.
When we feel overwhelmed, we often don't how to get started on something. Do you sometimes try to do everything all at once, and find out that nothing is getting completed? Well, then you're probably just like most people, because we all do it to some degree. If you found yourself putting off some important tasks in your personal finances, such as paying your income taxes or starting to save, then this post is for you. We will discuss the condition, and then some practical tips.
Procrastination is the practice of avoiding, delaying, or postponing actions even if that could have negative or undesirable consequences. Procrastinators, those who habitually delay or postpone, are much more likely to feel significant stress and anxiety about how to take the first steps to address these issues. Paradoxically, stress and anxiety also lead to delays, so it’s cyclical and reinforcing.
If you suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or a similar mental health disorder, you likely procrastinate. If you find yourself in an unstable situation, are bored, stressed, in a toxic relationship or volatile career, or experience high uncertainty, odds are likely that you too will procrastinate—especially around your finances. Procrastination sabotages your choices and your financial outcomes. It is estimated that nearly half the world suffers from symptoms of procrastination.
Factors Behind Procrastination
There are a number of reasons why some of us procrastinate while others jump on their tasks. Procrastination is only partially a problem with your time management skills. Mainly, it is a behavioral reaction, caused by some type of negative emotions attached to the activity at hand. We have to work on the psychological or behavioral triggers that will encourage action, instead. Even though procrastination results in more stress in the long term, people may delay action with the idea that they will feel better in the short term. Studies consistently demonstrate that our stress levels are higher as a result of procrastination, not lower as most procrastinators think.
While there is no official diagnosis code for procrastination, the code “other specific personality disorders” is sometimes used to identify individuals with operational inefficiency and procrastination. A recent study used the DSM-5 personality traits to show that disinhibition, or inability to withhold undesirable behaviors, was positively correlated with procrastination and decision, implementation, and other delays.1 Given the prevalence rate, I won’t be surprised if someday we treat procrastination as a condition on its own.
Although there are clinical interventions to address some of the issues surrounding procrastination, like cognitive behavioral therapy or medications to address anxiety, there are some things people can do to overcome it, especially when it comes to financial procrastination.2 Try to get to the root of why you are having fears of addressing your finances. Is it that you can’t seem to overcome your predisposed patterns or genetic “money scripts”? 3 Trying to address these fears on a practical level are necessary first steps.
What works for one person may not work for another, so there is no universal solution. However, in my research and practice, I have found that a combination of these 10 strategies can help individuals overcome financial procrastination.
- Try creative visual imagery. Imagine the overall sense of joy and relief that will ultimately come from completing a major task and getting the job done. How does that make you feel? Now imagine what would be the worst-case consequences if you never get this done. Make some notes on how you feel, and try to remember those visuals to help give you energy and momentum.
- Focus on mental health. If there are any underlying mental health conditions, seek out treatments such as CBT, counseling, or medication. Sometimes treating underlying mental or physical health conditions will resolve issues with delays and impulses.
- Mindset shift. Focus on your mindset. The real shift is when you can enjoy, and be internally motivated, to get something done. If you can change your mindset from "I have to do something" to "I really enjoy and want to do something," you will quickly make progress, and studies show that you are up to 10 times more likely to finish it.
- Simplify and break down tasks. Don't worry about planning every single task. Maybe start small. Focus on the first task in front of you—that's the most important one. Break down all choices and activities into smaller, more manageable parts.
- Set some deadlines. Some procrastinators work better on a deadline (e.g., tomorrow, I will open a bank account; by Friday, I will have set aside $1,000 into my retirement account). Deadlines are important for goal attainment and help to signify progress.
- Accept where you are at today. It might be difficult to get all tasks done immediately but commit yourself to making progress every day and accept where you are at. Discouragement does not help. So each day, start new with the task at hand.
- Celebrate small wins. When you have achieved something, whether it's today's goal or your most important priorities, celebrate that win. Take a moment to recognize what you've achieved, and just enjoy that.
- Seek inhibition and willpower. Willpower is so important for avoiding procrastination, especially when it comes to spending and impulses. Willpower is linked with intrinsic motivation and is defined as the control exerted to do something or restrain impulses. Practice small willpower exercises to show you can do it on larger scales.
- Automate and forget. It’s easy to procrastinate, but the right savings or debt strategy can help you take control of your financial future. If you want to boost your savings levels but you find yourself putting it off, automate it. Make sure you make use of direct deposit, automatic transfers to investments or loans, and regular retirement contributions.
- Use a financial journal. One of the best tools for overcoming procrastination is to use a journal to document the money decisions and actions you have taken. Recording your emotions or feelings at that time creates positive connections between your brain and your choices.
The sooner you get started on addressing financial procrastination, the faster your personal finances will improve. Sure, obstacles will emerge, but you can overcome these through the simple strategies listed. Keep a positive mindset, break tasks down into manageable activities, set some goals, and commit, and soon you will find yourself on the road to financial stability and overcoming delay.
Cruz RNC, Miranda JO (2023). Examining procrastination using the DSM-5 personality trait model: Disinhibition as a core personality trait. Current Psychology, June 3, available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-023-04815-7
Langabeer J. (2022). Fast Track Financial Planning for Procrastinators. Texas: Yellowstone Publishing.
Begina MA, Hickingbottom JL, Luttrull EG, McCoy M, Klontz BT (2018). Identify and Understand Clients’ Money Scripts: A Framework for Using the KMSI-R. Journal of Financial Planning, March 2018, p. 46-55.