Struggling with the procrastination habit? Yep, it’s a common habit and one of the hardest to shake. However, what many fail to see is the connection between procrastination and psychology. Similar to building daily habits like journaling or exercising, procrastination also develops the more we give to it.
Learn to starve procrastination with these tips.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
What Is Procrastination?
Unresolved procrastination may bleed into your day-to-day life. When that occurs, it decreases your productivity and dampens your mood.
But what IS procrastination?
This Medium article defines procrastination as “the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions.” The common elements of and reasons for procrastination are:
Are you capable of self-control? Can you depend on your self-restraint to do a task or make a decision?
What’s the initial reason you want to complete this task? Is it strong enough to push through resistance?
What internal feelings are pushing against your motivation?
What other factors are preventing you from getting this done?
Simply put, procrastination is when motivation (your drive) and self-control (your ability or skill) are significantly impacted by demotivating and hindering factors (limitations), like fear of failure, anxiety, exhaustion, etc.
While you may want to do the task or make a decision, your desire may be fighting against other resistant factors: The procrastination habit is formed when those limiting factors win repeatedly.
Let’s explore the typical causes of procrastination.
What Causes Procrastination?
The exact reason why some of us procrastinate varies from person to person. Some people have action paralysis, whereas others may postpone action but are able to push through to completion. Here are a few factors that can contribute to procrastination:
- Mental Health
- Emotional Health
Let's begin with the first common reason many people procrastinate. Perhaps, one of your familiar "friends."
Cause of Procrastination #1: Perfectionism
While everyone appreciates excellent work free of errors, perfectionism involves spending too long without significant improvement. Remember: Procrastination involves unnecessarily postponing an act or decision. AND it's exhausting!
Have you ever worked tirelessly on something in the hopes of making the project its best? And many drafts later, you’re still unhappy? Do you scrap the work and begin again? Or make endless and minor adaptions.... over and over? Hmm... you may be a perfectionist.
Perfectionism is the need to achieve perfection in whatever you do.
For example, when I was young, I took great pride in sending handwritten letters to my family who lived in distant states. Yes, it was before desktop computers; an era that many of you may not remember! Whenever I wrote a letter, even if I made one slight error at the end of the second side of 8½ x 11 stationery, I’d start over from the beginning, often multiple times! Yup, I was a perfectionist.
So, how does perfectionism cause procrastination? And how can you increase self-acceptance to balance a high standard with realistic expectations?
Perfectionists often fear appearing imperfect, i.e., a school paper with errors or an art project that isn’t “good enough,” so they put off starting at all, or if they start, they postpone completing the task. This way, they never get measured or come face-to-face with their imperfections.
Similarly, as a perfectionist, constant revisions, nitpicking, and overthinking may prevent you from acting. A simple task that can be completed in 5 minutes might take 2 hours! With this enormous battle within and the enormous time devoured, it is understandable that we’d want to procrastinate. And when there is harsh and negative self-evaluation, the experience can be traumatic.
So, it’s easier to distract ourselves with other activities that are fun or come easy to us than to face the one thing that is arduous. We avoid uncomfortable and anxious feelings by delaying action; that delay provides relief in the short term. When you put something off that you don’t want to do, the brain rewards you with dopamine, a pleasure chemical. This rewarding loop reinforces procrastination.
Doesn’t it make sense why you might keep procrastinating even when you don’t want to, now knowing the brain rewards us with chemicals!?
How do you outsmart the pleasure and reward loop?
Cause of Procrastination #2: Mental Health Challenges
Then there's mental health that may be a culprit. For instance, those struggling with anxiety may worry about completing the task or failing in their attempts. Because of their growing concerns, they often overthink the job at hand instead of taking action.
The conundrum is that it takes conscious actions to jumpstart motivation, soothe, encourage, and build confidence. So when we put things off, we not only take a ding to our self-esteem, but we also override the one thing that can help us—action.
Similarly, there is a connection between depression and procrastination. Depression may worsen the procrastination habit, as symptoms like lack of energy and changes in mood hinder how much you get done.
Related Reading: "Struggling with Anxiety? Learn How to Calm Yourself."
Cause of Procrastination #3: Emotional Health Reasons
Emotional health is how you feel, process, and express emotions when presented with everyday experiences. Some examples of where a person can be struggling with their emotional well-being:
- Anxious feelings interfering with concentration.
- Inability to self-soothe or calm themselves when upset.
- Emotional eating to avoid unpleasant feelings.
- Internal discouragement, self-loathing, or shaming.
- Loss of interest in hobbies or passions due to depression, self-criticism, or action paralysis.
One of the most critical keys to mastering procrastination is regulating your emotions and learning how to redirect an inner critic, temporary concerns, discouragement, or a fear of making mistakes.
Related reading: "Is Procrastination Stealing Your Happiness?—and What to Do About It!"
Other Causes of Procrastination
Besides perfectionism, mental and emotional health issues, here are a few other reasons people procrastinate.
- INDECISIVENESS: Struggles to make a decision; fears making the wrong decision.
- TASK AVERSION: Avoiding the task because of boredom, fear, or overwhelm.
- VAGUE GOALS: Too broad of goals that lack purpose or specifics for success.
- DELAYED REWARD: The reward is too far in the future to motivate.
Those of us who struggle with the procrastination habit can chalk it up to what we feel about the task or decision that requires our action. Like all habits, our actions help develop (or diminish) habits.
HINT, HINT: Procrastinating is not a time-management problem.
Fortunately, there are practical tips for overcoming procrastination.
How to Beat Procrastination: 3 Tips for Overcoming the Procrastination Habit!
First and foremost, learning how to redirect (or overcome), procrastination requires a deliberate approach. You must be willing to commit and put in the effort to change over time.
Along with adjusting your mindset, here are some tips on how to NOT procrastinate:
Break down tasks into mini-steps.
Practice the five-minute rule.
Set worthwhile rewards for each task.
Now, we'll go deeper into each tip so you can implement them successfully!
Procrastination is often caused by task aversion, especially when the task appears lofty, boring, unpleasant, or overwhelming.
Creating an outline of your goal could help! Breaking down tasks into mini-habits helps us to avoid an overwhelming feeling that can deter action. When you can see what comes first, second, third, and, eventually, last on your priorities, the goal is doable and "digestable." In this way, you’re not trying to push an entire orange through a funnel by force. Breaking a large task down into smaller steps promotes success. Cut the orange in half, juice it, and then drink the orange juice! Simple.
For instance, if your task is cleaning the house, your first thought might be to envision the entire house and all the many things that have been pulling on you! Woah, the task will most likely seem too big, right? By breaking down ‘cleaning the house’ by each room and setting realistic goals (maybe one room each day), you will make the task more manageable, and be more motivated.
For example, for the kitchen:
- Wash dishes in the kitchen.
- Wipe cabinets.
- Clean out the fruit bowl of overripe fruit and make a fruit salad.
In the example above, each standalone task doesn’t take very long. To add greater awareness, write the approximate time each task will take next to each item, reminding you that it is doable. Now, nothing on the list is difficult or overwhelming. And a bonus: after completing each one, you’ll get a good feeling when the brain releases serotonin for the accomplishment!
When outlining your tasks, be sure to prioritize the larger, more uncomfortable tasks FIRST when your focus and energy are strongest. Also, consider when your energy levels are high. Are you a morning person, or do you like to knock projects off in the evening after you've had a chance to relax or connect with family?
The above tip will help you prevent overwhelm and prime your motivation to get things done!
The next tip is the five-minute rule. It is a technique that encourages productivity in just five minutes. How does the five-minute rule work when you can only accomplish a small portion in five minutes?
After confirming what task, you want to prioritize, set a five-minute timer. Devote all of those minutes towards completing the task at hand. Once the timer ends, you’re free to stop. Knowing that you only have to focus and apply yourself for five minutes is approachable, and once you start, often you'll WANT to keep going. By all means, continue!
This five-minute burst primes the pump of action and kickstarts a feeling of relief on the front end.
Or another way to consider changing your postponing habit is by using the Pomodoro Technique.
Similar to the five-minute rule, the Pomodoro Technique involves setting a timer for twenty-five minutes instead. During this time, you prioritize and work on a single task or project—fine-tuning it when necessary. When that timer stops, you take a break for five minutes. For real—don’t skip this step!
Whether you are practicing the five-minute rule or Pomodoro, a ticking timer helps get the ball rolling. Either of these techniques encourages healthy ways to get started on the task at hand.
Motivation is one of the key elements lacking in procrastination. Find out what motivates and drives you to get your work done. When you know what motivates you, add these little pleasures as rewards.
A reward is anything you give yourself in exchange for getting a task done or making a decision. Some typical rewards:
- A gentle walk appreciating nature.
- Talking on the phone with a good friend.
- Treating yourself to a massage.
- Buying your favorite snack or a new novel.
- Journaling a list of your accomplishments,
For some, the result is enough to push them towards completing tasks for intrinsic value. However, additional rewards add honey to the bitter—and they can make the difference between procrastination or productivity.
Rewards can come in various forms but the most effective are redeemed in the short term. Rewards that aren’t received in a reasonable timeframe may lead to delay discounting, a phenomenon when the reward loses its perceived value after a considerable time, like six months to a year.
An example of delay discounting is rewarding your home makeover with a cruise trip a year from now. You’d have to wait an entire year to enjoy the cruise even if you wrapped up the project in six weeks. Because the reward is so far in the future, you may not feel as compelled to get it done until, well, the last possible moment. After all, the cruise is in the far distance; you’ve still got time, right?
To prevent delay discounting, reward short-term mini-steps that support the long-term goals. If there’s been a movie you’ve wanted to watch or a snack you wanted to indulge in, consider treating yourself to that reward after getting work done.
Regardless of how big or small the task may be, it’s essential to acknowledge that each task or decision requires a little effort. Our efforts are best rewarded in the short term for effectiveness.
Related Reading: “How to Stop Procrastinating in 4 Easy Steps.”
Can You Really Overcome Procrastination?
Yes, you can beat the procrastination habit!
Remember, procrastination is the habit of needlessly postponing actions or decisions. As mentioned above, this habit can be broken down and you can be successful by using self-control (restraint for the right action) and motivation (drive that fuels actions), and overcoming hindering factors (limitations).
While there are many reasons for procrastinating, like all habits, being a procrastinator can be unlearned with practice and patience. You CAN create new patterns—promise!
Here’s a recap of tips to overcome procrastination:
- Break down what needs to be completed into mini-steps and create mini-habits.
- Practice the five-minute rule or the Pomodoro Technique.
- Set worthwhile short-term rewards for each task.
These tips are best paired with an open mindset toward learning new things. Only then, can you beat the procrastination habit.Deep Dive: " Get Motivated! 7 Ways to Overcome Procrastination."