Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Overcome Procrastination (Starting Now)

Manage your emotions, not your time.

Source: Stockfour/Shutterstock

Procrastination is the absence of progress.

We all make resolutions, but only 8 percent succeed. The rest will get caught in the gap between intention and action — they fail to launch.

Procrastination is not a productivity problem. That's why people fail — they miss that the real battleground is our mind, not our calendar.

Improving your time-management skills won't help you overcome procrastination. As Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, explains, “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

It's time to fight an emotional battle, not the productivity one.

Failure to Launch Our Projects

We all procrastinate — we voluntary delay doing activities despite the consequences. But not everyone suffers from it. Approximately 80 percent of students and 25 percent of adults admit to being chronic procrastinators, according to research — and it’s getting worse.

Procrastination is a self-inflicted wound — we feel good now at the expense of long-term goals. It has nothing to do with being lazy or having a personality problem — we just can’t win the emotional battle in our mind.

During times of stress, procrastination kicks in as an effortless coping mechanism. However, it’s anything but harmless.

As Tim Pychyl, the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, explains: “We have a brain that is selected for preferring immediate reward. Procrastination is the present-self saying I would rather feel good now. So we delay engagement even though it’s going to bite us on the butt.”

According to research by DePaul University, we procrastinate when our brains become overwhelmed with conflicting emotions.

  • Fear of failure: We worry the outcome won’t be perfect.
  • Impulsiveness: We get distracted by sexier activities that pop up while we are about to launch.
  • Denial: We don’t like doing certain things, so we erase them from our mind.
  • Rebelliousness: When we feel forced to do something, we just fight back and resist.

Several studies have shown that negative emotions promote procrastination. People avoid doing things more when they are sad or upset — the pleasantness of any distraction helps regulate our feelings.

We fail to manage our emotions, not our time.

Luke Chesser /Unsplash
Source: Luke Chesser /Unsplash

The Vicious Cycle

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” —Pablo Picasso

The more you fail to launch, the more difficult it becomes to start something new. It becomes a vicious cycle.

One of the first studies about the harmful nature of procrastination tracked academic performance, stress, and overall health among college students throughout a semester. Originally, the procrastinators showed a lower level of stress. At the end of the research, not only did they become more stressed, but they also earned lower grades. True procrastinators didn’t just finish their work later — the quality of it suffered.

“Thus, despite its apologists and its short-term benefits, procrastination cannot be regarded as either adaptive or innocuous,” concluded the study authors.

Failing to cope with our emotions causes us more harm — the stress of starting something is nothing compared to the aftermath of avoiding a task.

A study by Harvard University showed that when people are daydreaming about something pleasant, it only makes them as happy as when they are on task. The rest of the time, mind-wandering makes people less happy than when they are on the job.

The emotional battle affects our relationship with doing. We don’t just procrastinate what we like, but even the things we love. The vicious cycle makes us hate doing anything.

We must reframe our emotional connection with work. That requires shifting our inner-dialogue from “have to” to “want to.”

The Emotional Battle

“The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort than lacking ability.” —Joseph Ferrari

We all experience negative and positive emotions each day. Guilt, self-blame, frustration, sadness, or self-pity can make us feel overwhelmed. "Emotion regulation" is a term coined to describe our ability to cope with our emotional experience.

Research makes it clear that procrastination is a problem with emotional regulation — instead of dealing with our feelings, we avoid doing a task because of our feelings. This turns into a self-defeating strategy. We just add more stress as we watch our to-do list piling up.

“Emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination, because to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task,” says Pychyl.

Avoidance acts as a short-term mood fix. We escape facing our fears, anxiety, or frustrations, but then feel worse with ourselves. Deep inside, we know procrastination is not an accident, but a personal choice.

So, how can you overcome this emotional tension?

Start by treating yourself kindly — playing the blame game doesn’t help.

To win the mental battle, you must apply emotion-focused strategies. Self-appreciation builds a stronger foundation to overcome our flaws. Being too harsh on yourself can get you stuck in continuous rumination. Students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on the first exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one. Those who couldn’t forget themselves failed to study again.

Self-forgiveness is a powerful antidote.

Are You Running Against the Wind?

Start by facing the enemy rather than by being harsh on yourself — stress fuels procrastination. Ask yourself: “Why am I avoiding doing something? Why do I hate this task?”

Fighting your emotions is like running against the wind.

Being aware of what you are thinking — "meta-awareness" — will help you develop a reflective approach to procrastination. Instead of avoiding or amplifying your emotions, try to understand them.

Systematic training of emotional regulation (ER) — to tolerate and modify aversive emotions — helps reduce procrastination. Developing key ER skills includes:

  • Becoming aware of your emotions
  • Identifying and taming your emotions
  • Understanding what triggers those feelings
  • Acknowledging negative emotions and turning them into positive ones
  • Supporting yourself

Increase your self-awareness. Practice mindfulness throughout the day, journaling, daily gratitude, breathing exercises, or meditation. Pause and reflect. Which emotions are getting in your way?

What’s holding you back? Are you afraid of failing? Or under external pressure?

Be patient. We spent years perfecting our procrastinating act — now we must undo it.

Your Turn Now

“You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” —Les Brown

Procrastination is an emotion-management problem — reframe how you engage with your feelings. Learning to regulate your emotions can help procrastinators overcome avoidance.

Fuschia Sirois from Bishop’s University believes the best way to rebuild that relationship is to find something worthwhile in the activity or task. “You’ve got to dig a little deeper and find some personal meaning in that task,” the psychologist recommends. “That’s what our data is suggesting.”

Self-awareness is key, but too much introspection can get you stuck. Jump into action — taking the first step is crucial.

The best way to overcome procrastination is to launch now.

Open that book. Write that first word. Dial that number. Ask the first question. Start practicing.

Cross the line. Chop up tasks into smaller ones. Create internal deadlines. Own your priorities. Start with what you hate. Or what you love. Mix up things. Build momentum.

Facing your emotions is key to jump into action — it's time to win the battle in your mind.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Dragon Images/Shutterstock

More from Gustavo Razzetti
More from Psychology Today