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Procrastination: What it is and Strategies to Overcome It

overcoming procrastination

Have you ever had a big project due that you thought you had weeks to prepare for, only for it to be due tomorrow? Or have you put off sending that scary email until it was too late to respond? 

We procrastinate in all kinds of different ways. Nearly everyone has procrastinated at some point in their lives, and will likely do so again. There is nothing inherently unusual about procrastination, and it does not always signify a deeper problem. Sometimes it could be as simple as you not wanting to do a task. 

Although procrastination is common, it doesn’t make it easy to deal with. Around 20% of people are “chronic procrastinators'', who procrastinate more frequently than the other 80% of people. Whether you find yourself in the 20% or 80% group, procrastination is something you probably deal with. How can you stop procrastination? Let’s find out.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the delay of tasks despite the risk of negative consequences. So, putting off playing video games is not procrastinating, but putting off writing your paper or sending a difficult text is. One has the risk of negative consequences and one does not. 

Procrastination is not laziness. While laziness is an unwillingness to exert the necessary energy; procrastination is a delay of the task. There is such a thing as “active procrastination”, like when you clean your entire house instead of sending that one email. The energy is not the problem, starting the task is.

What is Chronic Procrastination?

Chronic Procrastination affects around 20% of people and is a consistent procrastination across all fields of your life. They don’t just procrastinate in school, but also in work, texting their friends back, going to the doctor, cleaning their house, and more. Active procrastination is also very common in this subtype. So while they may usually hate cleaning their home, they will if they are procrastinating starting their taxes. 

Chronic procrastination does not always signify a larger mental health problem, but it has been linked to a greater risk for anxiety and depression, and people with ADHD often struggle with procrastination. If your procrastination issues are influencing your ability to live fully, reach out to a mental health professional.

What causes procrastination?

Procrastination often arises out of an uncomfortable emotion, thought, or task. If you are afraid of failing your paper, you may avoid starting it all together because you don’t want to confront that uncomfortable emotion. 

Other causes of procrastination include: 

  • You’re a student: Procrastination spikes in students, with around 80-95% of college students procrastinating on a regular basis. 
  • You overestimate how much time you have left: Have you ever put off your taxes until the final week, because April felt so far away? 
  • You’re waiting for inspiration to strike: Especially when engaging in creative pursuits, it is tempting to wait until we are fully motivated, but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes we need to start creating and the ideas will come naturally. 
  • You experience the present bias: The present bias explains that we are more motivated by immediate gratification than long-term rewards. It explains why we scroll social media (immediate gratification) rather than work on that job application (long-term rewards). 
  • You feel insecure about your ability to complete the task: When we take on a task above our capabilities, we can procrastinate to protect ourselves from feeling insecure. 
  • You’re afraid of failure: Procrastinating out of fear of failure is a very common method, but it’s a logical fallacy: you will fail if you don’t fish. 
  • You want it to be perfect: If you are someone who gets swept in the details or has perfectionist tendencies, you may struggle with procrastinating. You want something to be perfect, even if you know it won’t be. 
  • You don’t know exactly how to finish it: It’s easier to wait until we have the whole project planned out from start to finish, but sometimes lingering in the planning stage is a form of procrastination. 

These are just a few of the more common reasons why people procrastinate, and it is not conclusive.

6 types of procrastinators

Psychologist Linda Sapadin outlined the 6 types of procrastinators with Jack Maguire in their book It’s About Time!: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them. The types have gained popularity in the mental health world. 

Read the descriptions below to find out which type you are. Knowing how you procrastinate will help you find anti-procrastination strategies suited to meet your needs. 

  1. The Perfectionist: Unwilling to start anything that can’t be perfect. 
  2. The Dreamer: Unwilling to figure out the details to their lofty ideas and concepts. 
  3. The Worrier: Fear of the unknown and of figuring out what comes next or what happens if something goes wrong. 
  4. The Crisis-Maker: Believes they work best under pressure and will put tasks off until the last second. 
  5. The Defier: A rebel who doesn’t like other people telling them what and when to do something. 
  6. The Overdoer: Someone who says yes to everyone and ends up burning themselves out, without any energy left to complete their own tasks. 

What type of procrastinator are you? What does that tell you about why you procrastinate? Once you understand the mechanisms behind your procrastination, you can learn coping skills to combat it. For example, the Perfectionist can work on not getting swept up in the details, and the Dreamer can begin laying plans for their concepts.


Mental Health and Procrastination

Although procrastination usually doesn’t signify a greater mental health issue, it sometimes can, Especially if other symptoms are present with it. Three mental health disorders that can cause procrastination or ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

ADHD and Procrastination

ADHD is a developmental disorder that affects the executive functions: adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization, among others. You can see how ADHD can cause procrastination. People with ADHD have what’s called “time blindness' ', which is difficulty comprehending how long something will take. So they may give themselves 2 hours to write an essay from start to finish, even though it will actually take them 5. Also, people with ADHD are easily distracted by external events and internal thoughts, making it difficult for them to sit down and complete a task in one go.

Anxiety and Procrastination

Have you ever been so stressed about something that you kept avoiding it? Anxiety and procrastination go both ways: anxiety can cause procrastination, and procrastination can cause anxiety. When you have anxiety, you might procrastinate as a way to protect yourself against feeling the anxiety.

Depression and Procrastination

Depression can often look like procrastination, but the two are very different. Procrastination is delaying tasks, but depression is a lack of energy or motivation to do them. Note that this is different from laziness; when you’re lazy, you have the necessary energy but are unwilling to put forth the effort. With depression, you don't have energy at all. Depression can cause low moods, lack of motivation, fatigue, and brain fog, all of which contribute to behavior that looks a lot like procrastination. 

If you think you may have anxiety, depression, or ADHD, talk to a mental health professional for a diagnosis. Using procrastination tips when you are struggling with a mental health disorder won’t be helpful, because you’ll be treating the symptom and not the cause. The best way to treat these disorders is with targeted, personalized treatment with the help of a mental health therapist.

How to stop procrastinating

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to procrastination. Try things and find a combination of tools that work for you. Remember that how you fight procrastination may change as you age and your job, friends, hobbies, house, and brain changes. It’s okay if you slip back into procrastination; take a step back and evaluate your needs and try a new approach.

Meet Your Needs

The first thing anyone should do when addressing procrastination is meet their physical needs. Sometimes we think we’re procrastinating when we’re really just exhausted or hungry. So if you find you’ve been procrastinating a lot, stop and check you’re meeting these needs:

  • Eat healthy food
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Sleep well and plenty
  • Spend time outside 
  • Exercise slightly to moderately 
  • Spend time with friends 
  • Engage in activities that bring you joy

If you are regularly engaging in those activities and are still struggling with procrastination, and you aren’t struggling with a mental health disorder, then it’s time to move on to some practical solutions. 

Address the Underlying Cause

The best way to stop procrastinating is by addressing the underlying cause. We discussed the six types of procrastinators earlier, now let's dive into how each of them can beat their procrastination tendencies. 

  1. The Perfectionist: Finish the project first, and make adjustments later. The Perfectionist is likely to procrastinate because they want everything to be perfect. The solution is to simply start. Tell yourself that you can fix the problems after you finish the first draft of your project.
  2. The Dreamer: Break it down into steps. The Dreamer may be overwhelmed by the amount of details that go into their lofty idea and concept. They prefer to think in the big picture, and the minutiae can overwhelm them, quickly leading to procrastination. Having a list they can follow can keep them from falling into overwhelm. 
  3. The Worrior: Have an accountability partner. Things are less scary when we have someone else by our side. If you hit a bump in the road, talk it out with your partner, and then get back to work. Don’t let setbacks keep you from finishing. 
  4. The Crisis-Maker: Set an earlier deadline for yourself. If your project is due on Friday, put in a notification for its due date on Wednesday. Tell yourself that it has to be done by then. This will give you enough time to fix anything after you finish it. 
  5. The Defier: Make your own schedule. Deadlines are a part of life, but no one is telling you how to finish the project. Make a schedule that fits your lifestyle outlining when you’ll work on the project, when you’ll take breaks, and when you’ll turn it in (just make sure it’s before the deadline!). 
  6. The Overdoer: Partition off your day, and give yourself the first part of it. Get your tasks done first, and then spend an allocated amount of time completing the tasks you said you would complete for other people.

By addressing the root cause of our procrastination, we don’t force our minds to do something they don’t want to do. We can meet ourselves where we’re at and problem solve to work more comfortably. 

Coping Mechanisms

If you are still struggling with procrastination, try a few of these anti-procrastination techniques to jumpstart your productivity and stave off procrastination. 

  1. Limit phone time. A common way to procrastinate is to scroll through social media, aimlessly wander the internet, or shop online. So, limiting phone time will take away your means of procrastination. Also, studies have linked mobile phone addiction to increased levels of procrastination, so limiting screen time will likely cut back on your desire to procrastinate at all. 
  2. Take breaks: Some people recommend the Pomodoro Method of 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break, but this is too short or too long for some people. Others may benefit from 2 hours of work and 30 minute break, or 15 minutes work, five-minute break. Make sure you’re doing something on your breaks that you’re excited about, but that you can transition away from when it’s time to work again. 
  3. Find a routine and stick to it: If you do your best work in the morning, then do your hardest task from 9–11, take a break, and then spend your afternoon completing lower-energy activities. The key is to find what works for you and stick with it. 
  4. Reduce decision-fatigue: Decision-fatigue is when we exhaust ourselves making decisions to the point of being unable to make any more decisions. For example, you wake up and decide what to wear, what to eat, if you go to the gym in the morning, what podcast to listen to on your way to work, what project to start with, the color scheme of a powerpoint or opening paragraph to an essay, what you have for lunch. . . by the time you’re halfway through your project you’ve made so many decisions you couldn’t possibly make anymore! Take out as many mundane decisions as you can by laying out your clothes for tomorrow, prepping your meals, and following a to-do list. 
  5. Try the “Nothing Alternative”: Author Raymond Chandler used to struggle with getting his word count down every day, so he gave himself a stretch of hours in the morning where he had two options: write, or do nothing. Sometimes, he would just sit out and stare out the window for hours before boredom finally convinced him to write. So often, we procrastinate because we’re bored, but what if the only alternative to boredom was work? 
  6. Set yourself up for success: If you know you’ll scroll your phone if it’s nearby, keep it in the other room. If talking to your coworkers is a problem, implement a “door closed, no visitors'' policy. You can block certain websites from your browser, and ensure you have all your snacks and water at your desk so you don’t get distracted on your trip to the kitchen. 

Procrastination is something we all deal with, and even with these strategies, you will likely deal with them again. Remember that procrastination does not mean you are lazy, a bad worker, or a bad person. It means you have a need that isn’t being met. Find a way to meet that need, and if you can’t, find a way to work around it. 

If you struggle with procrastination, mental health therapy can help. Whether your procrastination stems from a mental health disorder, unmet needs, or bad habits, a mental health therapist can help. Reach out to our team of expert counselors to learn more.

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Frequently Asked Questions

 Procrastination refers to the habit of delaying or avoiding tasks or responsibilities that require attention or completion. It often involves putting off important or necessary actions in favor of more immediate or enjoyable activities. Procrastination can lead to increased stress, decreased productivity, and negative impact on overall well-being. While it is something that many people struggle with, it is possible to overcome procrastination and develop healthier habits that promote productivity and success.

 Procrastination can have various underlying causes, and it can be helpful to understand some common factors. Fear of failure, perfectionism, difficulty managing time or prioritizing tasks, lack of motivation, and feeling overwhelmed are among the reasons individuals may procrastinate. Additionally, certain psychological factors, such as low self-esteem or a tendency to seek short-term rewards, can contribute to the habit of procrastination. Reflecting on your own personal patterns and working with a therapist or coach can help identify the specific reasons why you may be prone to procrastination.

 Overcoming procrastination is a gradual and personal process, but there are practical strategies you can implement to help break the habit:

  • Set Clear Goals: Clearly define your goals and break them down into smaller, manageable tasks. This can make the tasks feel less overwhelming and increase your motivation to start.

  • Prioritize and Make a Schedule: Determine the most important tasks and prioritize them. Create a schedule or to-do list to allocate specific time slots for each task, providing structure and accountability.

  • Break Tasks into Smaller Steps: If a task feels particularly challenging or overwhelming, break it down into smaller, more achievable steps. This can help you make progress and build momentum.

  • Manage Distractions: Identify and minimize distractions that tend to sidetrack you. Consider turning off notifications, blocking certain websites or apps, or creating a designated work environment that promotes focus.

  • Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself and recognize that everyone faces moments of procrastination. Avoid self-judgment or negative self-talk. Instead, practice self-compassion and celebrate small victories along the way.

  • Seek Support: Consider working with a therapist or coach who can help you explore the underlying causes of your procrastination and provide guidance on developing effective strategies and coping mechanisms.

  • At Lifebulb, we understand that overcoming procrastination can be challenging, but it is possible with the right support and strategies. Our dedicated therapists are here to guide you in developing a personalized plan that addresses your specific needs and goals. Remember, you have the power to take control of your procrastination habits and create a more fulfilling and productive life.

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