18 Symptoms And Causes Of Chronic Procrastination
By Alisen Boada
Updated November 08, 2019
Reviewer Dawn Brown
Everyone puts off work once in a while, but chronic procrastination is when you struggle to finish any task in all parts of your life. Work, school, relationships, and even our health can suffer when we continually delay doing things until it's too late. But much like how treating depression is not as simple as telling someone to just "cheer up," dealing with chronic procrastination takes more than trying to force yourself to work harder. Figuring out what's truly at the root of your chronic procrastination can help you learn new habits that work best for your particular needs.
Unlike casual procrastinators who only avoid tasks in certain situations, the 1 in 5 people who deal with chronic procrastination find it hard to complete tasks in general. The common misconception that procrastination is caused by laziness gets in the way of fixing the problem. Procrastinating isn't just a case of choosing to binge watch Netflix instead of getting to work. It can also involve reorganizing the closet you've been meaning to get to instead of writing the essay due tomorrow. That's because procrastination has little to do with productivity versus laziness. It's more related to how you regulate your emotions.
Emotional regulation, which we'll discuss in more detail later, is how we manage powerful emotions without letting them control our behavior. Many researchers believe that procrastination is a coping strategy for avoiding difficult feelings like guilt, anxiety, and self-doubt. By distracting ourselves with something more enjoyable, we escape the unpleasantness of the task we don't want to deal with. This means to-do lists and time management tools can only do so much. You also need to face how you handle negative feelings. This first step is to consider what procrastination may be helping you avoid.
Why Do We Procrastinate (Even Though We Know Better)?
When you struggle to do things, distractions bring a relief that conditions your brain to want even more distractions, despite the trouble it gets you into. The satisfaction of avoiding difficult emotions creates a cycle that promotes continued procrastination.
The longer you put something off to avoid stress, the less time you have to deal with the task you were avoiding. This makes the task seem even more stressful and leads you to want to avoid it even more. The negative feelings you have toward the task, whether it's boredom, resentment, or fear, only grow stronger.
This also means that being harsh on yourself for procrastinating makes it even harder to change the habit. Feeling bad about procrastinating can become part of the loop that leads to more procrastination. Instead, studies show that forgiving yourself for past mistakes can give you a boost toward breaking the pattern you may be caught in. Self-forgiveness lets us own up to things we've done wrong without feeling trapped by the shame that tricks us into thinking we can't change. Taking responsibility while knowing you are able to do better gives you the chance to try new ways of doing things.
Which False Beliefs Are Behind Your Procrastination?
There are many roads that lead to procrastination. Everyone has their own fears and unhelpful thought patterns that make completing certain tasks a challenge. The following are a few examples of false beliefs about ourselves that can make us vulnerable to procrastination.
Low Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy
If you struggle with low self-esteem, the possibility of failing at a task can seem like a threat. Instead of putting our sense of self-worth in danger, we delay doing things to protect ourselves. When we feel we are not good enough, procrastinating can also be a way of self-handicapping, or creating a situation where we can't possibly succeed. This way we can blame a bad performance on the fact we didn't have enough time, instead of our actual ability to accomplish the task or not. The possibility of negative feedback seems less painful if we can tell ourselves it's not a true reflection of what we can do.
Similarly, if you doubt your ability to complete a particular task, you're less likely to want to do it. Believing you can't handle a task, also known as low self-efficacy, lowers the level of effort and persistence you put toward the task. In particular, if you believe you are bad a self-regulating, which are the skills we use to plan how to accomplish our goals, you are more likely to fall prey to procrastination. If you don't think you're good at figuring out how to manage your time, you feel less like trying.
Past Self vs. Future Self
Why do we keep procrastinating even though we know it will only cause us trouble in the future? We tell ourselves, "I'll feel more like doing this tomorrow," as though our future self is a stranger who is more capable than our current self. This is because studies have shown that we think about our future self as a different person than who we are in the present. This lets us trade feeling better now in exchange for feeling more stressed later because we believe it's somebody else's problem.
How we think about the consequences of procrastination can also set us up for delaying more in the future. If we tell ourselves, "well, it could've been worse" to avoid feeling bad about procrastinating, we also don't feel the need to learn from our mistakes. In order to feel better about ourselves in the present, we miss the opportunity to figure out what to do better in the future. But taking responsibility for what went wrong (such as realizing we could have started a task sooner) can give us the motivation to try something else. This doesn't mean you need to beat yourself up for procrastinating. Instead, as we discuss more in the next section, forgive yourself while owning up to what's not working to help face the negative emotions you have around the task.
How to Finally Stop Procrastinating
Once you've explored the emotional roots that might be keeping you tied to chronic procrastination, you can start learning new skills to help change your approach to getting things done.
Studies have shown that learning emotional regulation skills may be the secret to beating procrastination. These skills help us recognize what we are feeling and work through difficult emotions in different ways. According to a 2016 study, two emotional regulation skills in particular help with procrastination: learning to tolerate negative emotions and learning how to modify them. Using only online emotional regulation training, the participants in the study successfully reduced how much they procrastinated.
To get started, try the following steps:
- Just jump in: Remember that procrastination tricks us into thinking our future self can handle a task better than our present self. But in reality, we'll never actually feel like we are in the right mood to start. It's actually best to just jump into action. You'll be surprised how much easier something becomes once you get the ball rolling.
- What's next: If you feel limited by beliefs that you can't do certain tasks, try turning it into steps you know you can accomplish. Don't focus on writing the entire report, just think about the very next thing you would need to do (like opening your laptop). Ask yourself: what comes next? A little progress goes a long way.
- Change your mindset: Once we get used to procrastinating, our brain has learned that distractions are rewarding. To stop the cycle, we need to change our outlook on getting things done. Try making distractions harder to get to (for example, temporarily deleting fun apps off your phone) and reframing the task as something beneficial. Think of challenges as a way to improve your life and not as a measure of your worth. Find personal meaning in the task.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, learning self-forgiveness and other skills related to self-compassion makes it easier to grow from past mistakes. This is a form of mindfulness that allows us to notice our emotions without judgment, so we can take care of them instead of pushing the problem away. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts:
- Kindness: Be understanding toward yourself when you experience negative feelings about a task instead of ignoring the pain or punishing yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend who needs help.
- Connectedness: Recognize you are not alone with this problem. Everyone struggles with difficult emotions at some point in their lives and has made mistakes in dealing with them.
- Mindfulness: Be open to the difficult emotions you are experiencing in the moment without making them seem bigger than they actually are. Acknowledge you are in distress without being swept away by negative reactions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
We can also learn to build self-awareness of our thoughts and feelings through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These techniques are designed to change unhelpful thought patterns that influence how we behave. This makes CBT an effective treatment for procrastination because it lets us work through our false beliefs and teaches new ways to react to negative emotions.
One way CBT shows us the thoughts behind our procrastination is through the "ABC" model:
- Activating Event: What is the situation you are avoiding? (For example, an important exam)
- Beliefs: List the beliefs that are stopping you from completing the task. What are the negative thoughts that pop up? (For example, "I'm no good at this, I'll definitely fail.")
- Consequences: Consider what your beliefs about the event make you feel. (For example, anxious or inadequate).
Use this information to consider if these thoughts are realistic and other ways of looking at the situation. Is there any evidence you will fail at completing the task? Do your beliefs exaggerate how bad things will be? What can you do to change the situation?
CBT is something you can explore on your own through books and online resources. But if you're not sure where to start or want a bit of guidance, a CBT-trained therapist is a great resource to support changing your procrastination habits.
Beat Procrastination with BetterHelp
It can be a challenge to see the lifelong patterns and beliefs that influence our behavior without us realizing it. Talking with a licensed counselor can give you a fresh perspective on whether unhelpful thoughts are getting in the way of your full potential. A therapist can point you to the best skills and resources to help you learn how to manage difficult emotions and improve your outlook. BetterHelp also gives you the option to connect with experts remotely, making it easier to access support when it works best for you.
While procrastination is not a mental health disorder, it can be a symptom of other challenges, like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or ADHD. The professionals available on BetterHelp are familiar with treating underlying causes of procrastination that can be difficult to handle on your own. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Karen has helped me challenge some long-held beliefs - stories I had been telling myself about my life's experiences. Stories that had kept me stuck for decades. With her help, I've cleared the path and began to move forward with greater compassion for myself. I'm grateful to her for allowing me to see my lifelong experiences in a much more useful way and cannot recommend her highly enough!"
"I have a lot of high stressors happening in my life right now, it has been extremely beneficial to have someone from the outside looking in to help me see what I do not and be able to have someone helping guide me through it. I appreciate being able to have a constant conversation and send a message when it is most convenient. I have a busy life right now and knowing I have someone to talk too (if I need too) every day has made me feel less alone and capable of achieving my goals"
Learning which emotions and false beliefs are at the bottom of your procrastination habit is the foundation for getting things done. With the support of self-awareness and self-forgiveness, jump right into challenging the thoughts that are holding you back from achieving your goals. Take the first step.