We’ve all been there. You wait a little longer than you should to start a project or prepare that third-quarter report. But all that matters is that you get the job done…right?
Many people think procrastination is harmless, but the reality is that, whether you procrastinate in your professional or personal life, it can hold you back from success in significant ways. Whether you rush to finish a project or experience the overwhelming stress of a looming deadline, procrastination can majorly thwart productivity.
The good news: By understanding the causes of procrastination, you can stop the habit in its tracks. Once we find the underlying causes of why we procrastinate, we can seek tools to prevent it from happening.
If your procrastination habits are keeping you from success, you’re going to want to keep reading.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
It’s essential that we understand why we procrastinate in order to correct the habit in our lives. Here are a few theories on the behavior:
According to a New York Times’ article, Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, notes that procrastination can be traced back to an “inability to manage negative moods around a task.” In other words, if a task makes you feel negative emotions—anxiety, stress, uncertainty—you may avoid the task for as long as possible to avoid the emotions you experience around completing it. Avoiding negativity may momentarily put your mind at ease, however, this feeling can be short-lived. Short-term comfort won’t eliminate the task, and in fact, can cause you more stress and anxiety as your deadline looms nearer and nearer. Without understanding the psychology behind procrastination, you might experience more negative emotions by refusing to manage the anxiety, stress, or uncertainty you feel toward starting the task.
Some tasks can be completed in a short time frame, and if you have procrastinated, you may feel relieved once they are done. Other tasks require longer and more persistent attention and effort; these tasks can be trickier because the reward of completion lies further in the future. In a Psychology Today article, the author points toward studies that show how both humans and animals find behaviors more rewarding when they complete them closer to a deadline. This creates a conundrum; while procrastinating can spur us toward productivity and inspiration, pushing off a task until you’re closer to a deadline can also generate more anxiety and frustration.
In an article from Brown University, researchers discuss a similar theory, noting that the more immediate an incentive or deterrent for a task is, the more “real” those incentives and deterrents feel. For example, if you have a work deadline three months out, you don’t really feel like your boss would fire you if you didn’t complete the work, nor do you feel your boss might give you a raise if you complete the work with spectacular results. The closer the deadline becomes, the more those two things feel like reality, inspiring you to take action.
Procrastinators: Is It Worth Trying to Stop?
If procrastination is a seemingly hardwired part of our human psyche, why bother attempting to change this behavior? Well, as you may have learned through personal experience, procrastination can cause not only major issues at work (i.e., you may produce lower-quality work), it may also wreak havoc on your health.
The Association for Psychological Science reports that chronic procrastinators are more vulnerable to severe health conditions and issues, such as:
- Gastrointestinal problems
In other words, putting off important tasks can increase your stress levels, which in turn, can negatively impact the body and increase your susceptibility to illness.
4 Tips to Stop Procrastinating
So, how do you stop procrastination? Both Psyche and Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning offer suggestions that can be summed up with four key steps:
- Identify the underlying source of procrastination and address it.
What exactly is making you procrastinate? If you’re procrastinating because of a negative emotion, as the theorists above suggest, try to identify which negative emotion you’re experiencing. Are you experiencing self-doubt in your abilities? A lack of confidence you can finish the task before you (and do it well)? Anxiety over your team members’ or boss’ feedback?
Whatever the emotion is: find it, name it, and then deal with it.
Not sure how to manage your emotions? Psyche recommends keeping a daily procrastination and emotion journal to help you identify certain emotions you may be avoiding.
- Learn to better manage and regulate your underlying emotions.
Emotional regulation is an important skill for any leader to learn. Once you identify the negative emotions contributing to your procrastination habit, you can manage them. You’ll see the benefits of emotional regulation, not only with concern to your procrastination, but in other areas of your life, such as your management of work, your team, and your behavior in your personal relationships.
- Adjust your outlook surrounding the task.
Learning to regulate your emotions might be as easy as changing your outlook surrounding the tasks at hand. If you’re feeling intimidated by what needs to be done, try reframing your perspective. Instead of looking at a project as something that’s overwhelmingly giant, try to see it as something that you can do in smaller, more manageable tasks.
- Be realistic about achieving your goals and what that requires.
Sometimes, altering your outlook surrounding a task also requires you to get a firm grip on reality, defining what your task actually is. Maybe getting a grip on reality will require you to change some bad habits or understand that your goal isn’t realistic at this moment.
Don’t make things harder for yourself (and thereby increase your chance of procrastination) by setting your standards too high all at once. That’s not to say your standards shouldn’t be high, but don’t expect to train for one day and be able to run a marathon the next.
The Bottom Line
While we’ve all been guilty of procrastination at some point, habitual procrastination can have real repercussions on your success. By identifying the underlying causes of why you procrastinate however, you can begin to eliminate the habit from your life and replace it with greater productivity and peace of mind.
If you’re a serial procrastinator, you may want to explore your options when it comes to changing your behavior. Arootah coaches specialize in these behavior changes, helping clients overcome procrastination to see greater success in both their personal and professional lives. We tailor our coaching programs to your experiences to help you identify the emotions and misbeliefs holding you back from achieving your goals. We then help you set new, realistic goals and provide you with the tools you need to approach them with confidence (and without procrastination!).