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Why We Procrastinate, and 8 Ways to Stop

By Angela Haupt | September 3, 2021 | The Washington Post

If you're reading this article instead of tackling one of the many projects you meant to do during the pandemic, or before starting the report due tomorrow at work, or as an alternative to changing your car's year-old oil, feel no shame: This is a safe space, procrastinators, and you're among friends.

Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of "Still Procrastinating?: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done," has found that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. "That's higher than depression, higher than phobia, higher than panic attacks and alcoholism. And yet all of those are considered legitimate," he said. "We try to trivialize this tendency, but it's not a funny topic."

Ferrari was speaking while on a road trip with his wife, who chimed in to say that she's a procrastinator. Her tendencies helped spur her husband's research interests. He doesn't procrastinate - he has a 107-page résumé, he said, because he gets things done - but he's built a career around understanding those who do.

Among his findings: Chronic procrastination doesn't discriminate based on gender, race or age; we're all susceptible. As he put it, "Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator." And contrary to popular belief, procrastinating has little to do with laziness. It's far more complicated, he added, than simply being a matter of time management.

Why do we procrastinate?

To understand what causes procrastination (outside of conditions such as ADHD, where executive functioning issues might interfere with completing tasks), it's important to be clear about what it is - and isn't. Procrastination is different from delaying a task because you need to talk to someone who isn't available, or not getting around to reading a literary classic such as "Moby Dick." Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, defines procrastination this way: "The voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you'll be worse off for doing so."

On its surface, procrastination is an irrational behavior, Sirois said: "Why would somebody put something off to the last minute, and then they're stressed out of their mind, and they end up doing a poor job or less than optimal job on it? And then they feel bad about it afterward, and it may even have implications for other people."

The reason, she said, has to do with emotional self-regulation - and, in particular, an inability to manage negative moods around a certain task. We don't typically procrastinate on fun things, she said. We procrastinate on tasks we find "difficult, unpleasant, aversive or just plain boring or stressful." If a task feels especially overwhelming, or provokes significant anxiety, it's often easiest to avoid it.

Another reason people procrastinate, Sirois said, is because of low self-esteem. One might think: "I'm never going to do this right" or "What will my boss think if I screw up?"

Ferrari theorizes that there are three types of procrastinators: thrill-seekers, who crave the rush of putting off tasks until the last minute and believe they work best under pressure; avoiders, who procrastinate to avoid being judged for how they perform on a project; and indecisives, who have difficulty making important or stressful decisions, often because they're ruminating over several choices.

What are the dangers of procrastination?

Whatever type of procrastinator you are, pushing off tasks over and over again is a risk factor for poor mental and physical health, experts say. Chronic procrastinators have higher levels of stress and a greater number of acute health problems than other people, Sirois has found.

The mental health implications include experiencing general psychological distress and low life satisfaction (particularly in regard to work and income), as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Those who procrastinate are also more likely to experience headaches, insomnia and digestive issues, and they're more susceptible to the flu and colds. The association with health problems is best explained by stress, but another factor is that procrastinators often delay preventive treatment, such as regular checkups.

Research suggests that procrastination is associated with sleep problems such as shorter sleep duration and an increased risk of insomnia symptoms and daytime sleepiness. Lots of people engage in "revenge bedtime procrastination," which describes a tendency to push off sleep to make time for personal activities.

Procrastinating is also linked to heart problems. Sirois led a 2015 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine that found that people with heart disease were more likely than healthy people to self-identify as procrastinators. According to the study, procrastinators with hypertension and heart disease were less likely to take action to cope with their illness, such as changing their diet or exercising.

How to overcome procrastination

By overcoming your tendency to stall, then, you can improve your mental and physical well-being. Here are experts' suggestions:

Practice self-compassion. Procrastinators are often hard on themselves. They might feel guilt about letting others down or be appalled by their own slowness. Sirois's research indicates a connection between procrastinating and low levels of self-compassion. To counter that, treat yourself with kindness and understanding. "Just sort of recognizing that, yeah, maybe I screwed up and maybe I could have gotten started earlier, but I don't need to beat myself up," she said. Tell yourself: "I'm not the first person to procrastinate, and I won't be the last." Sirois notes that self-compassion doesn't make people lazy. On the contrary, "research has shown that it actually increases people's motivation to improve themselves," she said.

    Ferrari offers a similar suggestion to avoiders, who procrastinate for fear of being judged: Focus on doing your best, instead of getting caught in the trap of worrying about what others think.

    Attach meaning to the task. One of the best ways to stop procrastinating, Sirois said, is to find meaning in the task in question. Write down why it's important to you: It could be because getting it done on time is helpful to other people, or because it will help you avoid negative repercussions such as a late fee or bad grade. Think about how completing it will be valuable to your personal growth or happiness. Doing so will help you feel more connected to the task and less likely to procrastinate, Sirois said.

    Start small. Ferrari likes to reference the expression, "Cannot see the forest for the trees." The problem of procrastinators is the opposite: All they can see is forest. And they become so overwhelmed by the size of the forest - or project - that they're paralyzed into inactivity.

    "I tell them to cut down one tree at a time," he said. "You can't do one tree? Give me three branches." Once you've gotten started, and made even a small bit of progress on your task, there's a good chance you'll keep going, he said. This can be particularly helpful to indecisive procrastinators, or "procs," as Ferrari calls them. These people, who are often perfectionists, do best when they split up a task into manageable parts, rather than feeling pressure to perform perfectly on a big, daunting project.

    Another tip, he said, is to set deadlines for yourself for all those small steps. If you're someone who thrives under pressure, doing so can help replicate the adrenaline rush you get when you wait until the last minute.

    Carefully choose which task you do first. Some people want to get the most unpleasant tasks out of the way, while others "psych themselves up by doing smaller things," said Gretchen Rubin, an author whose books include "Better Than Before," which dispenses advice on curbing procrastination. "As they accrue small, easy accomplishments, they feel ready to do that big one." It's a matter of personal preference and knowing yourself. But she added that, when people build up to the most daunting task of the day, they might use other work as a stall tactic.

    Situate yourself in a spot that's interruption-free. This is particularly important for demanding tasks, Rubin said. We get interrupted constantly: by our phones, our families, howling dogs, the TV. But once you're interrupted, she said, it's much harder to resume the task you finally started.

    Be aware of the "procrasticlearing" trap. Often, procrastinators are struck with the urge to tidy their space before they start working on a task - as in, "Oh, I can't possibly focus until I clean up my office," Rubin said. It's one thing to spend 15 minutes straightening up the immediate area where you're working. "But if I'm like, I need to go through all those shelves back there and alphabetize my books and dust them and maybe paint the bookshelves," she said, you might be "procrasticlearing." One way to know for sure is if, the moment the task you were cleaning ahead of is completed, all desire to tidy and organize vanishes. Being mindful of this tendency can help prevent it from inhaling half your day.

    Reward yourself. Lots of teachers and parents use the Premack principle, which essentially stipulates that "something somebody wants to do becomes the reward for something they don't want to do," Ferrari said. So if you have 12 dirty dishes crowding your sink and your favorite TV show comes on in 30 minutes, make a deal with yourself: You can only watch if you do the dishes first. The idea can be applied to almost anything that you're pushing off, he said.

    Speaking of rewards: Ferrari also believes a change in societal attitude could help. Our society doesn't reward the early bird, he notes. People who pay bills or taxes late are punished with fines, for example, but there's no reward for those who submit them early. Consistently rewarding earliness, he said, could help curb procrastination.

    Enlist external help. Decades ago, professors would put a note about their projects on their office doors, and students could come by and hold them accountable, Ferrari said. It was called "public posting." There's an easy way to continue the tradition: social media. Post about your goals on Facebook or Twitter, and ask your network to hold you accountable. If you want to go to a big concert, for example, "Tell your friends, 'I will not buy a ticket to Lizzo unless I do A, B and C, and you've got to hold me accountable,' " Ferrari suggested. "'Don't let me slide by on this.' "

    This content is licensed with permission. Read more in health and wellness at www.washingtonpost.com.

    Angela Haupt
    The Washington Post

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