Understanding Procrastination And Moving Past It

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Everyone puts off work or an important task occasionally, but chronic procrastination may go beyond poor time management skills or self-control. Dealing with chronic procrastination takes more than trying to force yourself to work harder or start a seemingly insurmountable task. Speaking with a therapist may be a good place to start.

Unlike casual procrastinators who only avoid tasks in certain situations, the 1 in 5 people who engage in chronic procrastination often find it hard to complete tasks in general. Contrary to many people's assumptions, procrastination meaning has little to do with productivity versus laziness. Certain demotivating factors related to your mental and emotional state may be at play.

Chronic procrastination can be detrimental to your mental health

Why do we procrastinate?

Why do people procrastinate in the first place? The reasons can be as unique as the individuals themselves, but there are several general explanations that may apply to your situation:

  • Distractions provide a respite: When accomplishing something feels like a struggle, distracting yourself by doing something else can bring temporary relief. This feeling of relief can condition your brain to want even more distractions, despite the negative consequences, setting you up for habitual procrastination.
  • Fear of failure: If you aren’t convinced that you can accomplish a task, the possibility of failure can seem like a threat. Instead of putting yourself in danger of the repercussions of failure, you might delay doing things to defend yourself. When you feel you are not skilled or intelligent enough to accomplish a task, procrastinating may give you an excuse to claim you didn’t have enough time or resources to accomplish the task.
  • Self-doubt: Similarly, if you doubt your ability to complete a particular task, you may be less likely to want to do it. Believing you can’t handle a task can lower the level of effort and persistence you put toward it. In particular, if you believe you are bad at self-control (which we use to plan how to accomplish our goals), you may be more likely to procrastinate. If you don’t think you’re good at figuring out how to manage your time, you may feel less like trying.
  • Stress: When you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, you may be more likely to throw out your to-do list completely—or at least remove the tasks you dread the most. However, the longer you put something off to avoid stress, the less time you probably have to address the task you were avoiding. This can contribute to existing stress levels and lead you to want to avoid the task even more.
  • We think our future self is more capable: Many people procrastinate because they tell themselves that they’ll gain motivation or be better prepared in the future. Research has shown that we think about our future selves as different people from who we are in the present, which may be a key psychological mechanism at play when people procrastinate.
  • We underestimate the consequences: How we view the consequences of procrastination can also set us up for delaying more in the future. If we view the consequences of past procrastination as if they “could’ve been worse,” we may not feel the need to learn from our mistakes. However, 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. 
  • We distort the size of the task: When our perception of a task is disproportionate to its size, procrastination can set us up for failure. We may think the task is larger than it is, which can lead to procrastination, or we can think it’s smaller than it is and put it off because we think it’ll be fast and easy. Whether we mean to distort the size of the task to justify procrastinating or are doing it on a subconscious level, the consequences are the same.
  • “Delay discounting”: Some people may procrastinate because they experience delay discounting, which involves placing less value on rewards that are delayed in time. For example, if you need to clean your house but you don’t really see any immediate reward in doing so, you might put off doing it. However, if you need to clean your house because guests will be arriving in an hour, the reward of a clean house may seem very immediate and timely, so you may be more inclined to get to work.

How to finally stop procrastinating

Now that you’ve explored the emotional roots that might be keeping you tied to chronic procrastination, you can begin learning new skills and anti-procrastination techniques to help change your approach to getting things done.

To get started, try the following steps:

  • Divide the task into steps: If you feel limited by beliefs that you can’t do a certain task, try dividing it into small and actionable pieces. Prioritize one task at a time. For example, you can try to prioritize tasks based on their deadline or importance, whichever you feel is most significant. Set intermediate deadlines for yourself to keep a reasonable pace. Don’t focus on writing the entire report or completing entire important tasks, which can be overwhelming and lead to procrastination. Just think about the very next thing you would need to do (like opening your laptop). Ask yourself: what comes next? A little progress can go a long way to help with procrastination.
  • Just jump in: After you’ve broken the task down, get started on the first phase. Remember that procrastination tricks us into thinking our future self can handle a task better than our present self. But today’s overwhelming tasks will probably still be overwhelming tomorrow. If you rely primarily on the unrealistic notion that you’ll get started when you’ve transformed into a different person, you’ll likely be stuck. It’s usually best to just jump into action instead of procrastinating or delaying. 
  • Change your mindset: Once we get used to procrastinating, our brain has learned that distractions are rewarding. To stop the cycle of procrastination, we need to change our outlook on getting things done. When faced with a certain task, try making distractions harder to get to (for example, temporarily uninstalling 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. Try to find personal meaning in the task instead of approaching it with a perfectionist mindset. This can be a more attractive course to take as you take on your tasks.  
  • Practice self-compassion: Learning self-forgiveness and other skills related to self-compassion make it easier to grow from past mistakes. Show yourself understanding and treat yourself as you would a friend who needs help when feeling stressed about unpleasant tasks. Remind yourself that everyone struggles with difficult emotions and procrastination at some point in their lives and has made mistakes in dealing with them. 

Also, take a minute to recognize the difficult emotions you experience while you’re procrastinating. Acknowledge that you are in distress or are experiencing various demotivating factors without being swept away by negative reactions.

Use the ABC model

Built from the method of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), the ABC model consists of three phases. When analyzing each phase, some find it helpful to record their answers in a journal along with any notes:

  1. Activating event: Identify the situation you are avoiding. (For example, an important exam)
  2. Beliefs: List the beliefs that are stopping you from completing the task. What are the negative thoughts that emerge? (For example, “I’m no good at this; I’ll definitely fail.”)
  3. Consequences: Consider what your beliefs about the event make you feel. (For example, anxious or inadequate).
Chronic procrastination can be detrimental to your mental health

Chronic procrastination can have far-reaching consequences beyond those of shirking our responsibilities. We may face feelings of anxiety about the consequences of our repeated procrastination. When combined with the unhealthy views we may have about ourselves that can cause procrastination, these feelings can significantly affect our mental health.

Get help with procrastination

If you’d like to explore procrastination more, consider talking to a licensed counselor. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy, which studies have shown to be just as effective as traditional in-office therapy. If you’re ready to begin, platforms like BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed online therapist with experience helping people overcome the limiting beliefs that cause procrastination. With online therapy, you can speak to a counselor on your schedule from the comfort of home via phone, text, video chat, and in-app messaging.  

Reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar challenges

“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 to (if I need to) every day has made me feel less alone and capable of achieving my goals.”


If you’re experiencing difficulty overcoming procrastination, you don’t have to face it alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed online therapist with experience helping people explore the roots of their procrastination. Take the first step toward moving past procrastination and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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