Be honest: Do you struggle in getting things started (or completed)? Do you tell yourself, “I’ll get to it,” yet find yourself binge-watching an entire season of Bridgeton instead?
You’re not alone.
According to Psychology Today, procrastination is a common human tendency. For the occasional offender, finding the willpower to buckle down and power through is usually enough to boost productivity and focus on accomplishing the task at hand.
But while everyone may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, leading researcher on the subject, and author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. Ferrari says we all put tasks off, but his research has found that 20 percent of U.S. men and women are chronic procrastinators.
“It really has nothing to do with time management,” he says. “As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to ‘just do it’ would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, ‘cheer up.’”
Psychologists have discovered that procrastination isn’t a time management thing but instead a coping mechanism. When we procrastinate, we’re avoiding an unpleasant task and doing something else that gives us a temporary mood boost. Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University in Ottawa, calls this avoidance behavior “giving in to feel good.”
But the shame and guilt of not doing what we should be doing can make us procrastinate even further, creating a vicious, self-defeating cycle. And what makes procrastination so harmful is that the tasks don’t go away. Eventually, you’re left with the tasks to complete, the negative emotions again, plus the added stress of a time constraint.
Like Ferrari, Pychyl agrees that procrastination isn’t a time management problem. “It’s about really dealing with our feelings. Emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination because to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task,” says Pychyl.
So what’s a chronic procrastinator to do? The next time you don’t feel like doing something, try these three tips:
Acknowledge why you’ve been avoiding it
You’re not lazy; you’re scared. When we procrastinate, we’re avoiding the unpleasant feelings that accompany the task at hand. Procrastination is rooted in fear—of failure, of success, or of not being perfect—and fear is a powerful emotion. We feel anxiety when we’re pushed to do things that make us uncomfortable, so naturally, we avoid them at all costs. But when we try to get rid of the negative feelings by, say, scrolling our social media feeds, it’s only a temporary fix. By facing your emotions, you can begin to manage them.
Forgive yourself for procrastinating
Pychyl and others found that people prone to procrastination are, overall, less compassionate toward themselves. One of the most effective things that procrastinators can do is to forgive themselves for procrastinating. In a study, students who reported forgiving themselves for procrastinating on studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less for a second exam.
Researchers say employing self-compassion works because procrastination is linked to negative feelings. When you forgive yourself, you’ll reduce the guilt you feel about procrastinating, eliminating one of the primary triggers for procrastinating.
Just get started
Pychyl says that most of us mistakenly believe that “our emotional state has to match the task at hand.” But the truth is that you’ll rarely feel like it, nor does it matter.
He recommends ignoring how you feel and focusing instead on what the next action should be. “Rather than telling yourself, ‘just do it,’ which can be overwhelming,” says Pychyl, “say, ‘just get started.’”
Pychyl suggests breaking down tasks into easily accomplished steps. Even completing a relatively small action will help you make progress and feel better about the task. This increases your self-esteem, which in turn reduces the desire to procrastinate to make yourself feel better, he says. Plus, this simple swap shifts your attention from your emotions to action so you can finally finish what you started.