Are you a procrastinator? I know I am. A recovering one, but still a procrastinator. And we are not alone. In fact, everybody procrastinates. And scientists estimate that as many as 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. Meaning, that their procrastination has nothing to do with productivity. Researchers compare telling someone like that to “simply stop procrastinating” to telling a clinically depressed person to just “cheer up“.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are so-called provision links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I can earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
What is procrastination?
So no matter which category you fall into, you probably want to know what you can do to overcome procrastination. To do that, we first must understand what procrastination is and where it comes from.
What does procrastinate mean?
The word procrastination comes from the Latin word “procrastinat”, meaning “deferred till the morning”. If you look into a dictionary, you’ll find that today`s definition of “procrastination” is a little broader than that. Oxford Dictionaries defines the meaning of procrastination to be “Delay or postpone action; put off doing something.”
No more mention of the morning in there. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve managed to put things off for MONTHS. Putting off till the morning seems a rather tame behavior compared to that.
What are some examples of procrastination?
Do you remember school times when you had known for weeks when a certain homework project would be due? But only a few days or even hours before, you would start? That is a perfect example of procrastination.
Yes, you could have done it right away. As soon as you had learned about the task. But you postponed the work until it simply wasn’t possible anymore to put it off.
Other typical examples of procrastination include:
- waiting to file your taxes until the last possible date
- putting off packing your luggage until the last minute before a flight
- postponing to do the dishes until you have no clean ones left
- waiting to get Christmas gifts until the 24th of December
Why does procrastination happen?
Seeing all these examples, it becomes obvious that procrastination is a major stress factor. Doing everything last minute under extreme time pressure doesn’t sound like a desirable way to go about things.
But still, almost everyone does it. It makes you wonder. Why do people procrastinate?
What are the main causes of procrastination?
There are many possible reasons for someone procrastinating. But some causes pop up again and again in both scientific and popular literature.
Distractions, distractions, distractions
It’s not going to come as a surprise to you, but our lifestyle with all the notifications, buzzing and other distractions is a major reason for us procrastinating.
So many things are competing for our attention. It can be extremely hard for our brain to recognize which stimulus it should go for. So it just goes for the most rewarding one. Unfortunately, more often than not, the most instantly rewarding stimulus is often your phone. Or that cookie plate over there.
Ideally, you make it easier on yourself by avoiding distractions whenever possible.
This can be as easy as leaving your phone in another room when you want to get things done. Or using an app like RescueTime* to block certain websites for you until you accomplished your task.
A fear of failure
Many highly talented people are procrastinators. For them, procrastination is often caused by a fear of failure. When you always achieve good results, you start expecting good results from yourself. And you think people expect them from you, too.
So every time you want to do something new or daring, these expectations put quite some pressure on you. By putting the task off, you also avoid the pressure. Or so you think.
Because in the end, you will probably still have to do the task. Just with the additional stress factor that is time pressure.
This cause of procrastination is very closely related to the fear of failure. Perfectionists want to do everything perfectly. Unlike the pragmatic do-ers, they will not start a task until they are sure they can do it perfectly.
And guess when they are sure about that? That’s right – later! Perfection is not going to happen.
Fear of the result
Yep, fear again. This reason for procrastination is fear of the result of your action.
Sometimes we think we want to do something. But deep down, there is a huge fear of whatever the result of this action might be.
And this doesn’t only apply to the fear of hearing something bad from your doctor when you finally went for that checkup. It can even apply to seemingly positive things, like success.
Whichever thing you are afraid of, it can keep you from being productive and can make you procrastinate like crazy.
Needing a feeling of accomplishment right away
Have you heard of delayed gratification? It is a psychological concept describing the ability to resist a small reward right now in exchange for a bigger reward later.
For procrastinators, delaying gratification is very hard. Instead of working on tasks that will make a real difference to their goals long-term, they work on smaller tasks first.
This way they can have a quick feeling of accomplishment. But in exchange for that feeling, they put off the bigger, probably more important tasks.
You aren’t really motivated
Another reason why you keep putting off doing that thing might be just this simple: you might not be really motivated to do it. Maybe you don’t think the effort is worth the expected result. Or you don’t think you can do it. Maybe you are feeling generally low and can’t muster up any enthusiasm for anything.
Wherever your lack of motivation is coming from, it could be the source of your procrastination problem.
You don’t actually know how to tackle the project
Maybe you don’t know how to actually start the project? Maybe you have big plans and goals, but no idea how to get there? Then this could be the reason for you not actually starting.
Watch your thoughts when you imagine starting your project. Do they quickly go from “…then I do this…” to “…but then I don’t know what to do or how to do it…”?
Then this could be a possible cause of your procrastination.
You only see the effort, not the reward
Especially when you work on projects that require many steps before you’ll reap the rewards, it can be overwhelming to look at your task list. It can look like there is nothing but effort ahead and it’s easy to forget about the potential reward.
When you can’t seem to get yourself to work and keep wondering “Why do I procrastinate?” it might be time to look at your feelings towards the task. Are you seeing no end to the hustle? Do you feel like it’s too hard right now and you can’t seem to really grasp the goal of it?
Does stress cause procrastination?
We already know that procrastination causes a lot of stress. But the same is true for the other way around.
When you are stressed, worn out and mentally busy with all kinds of topics, you are way more likely to procrastinate on getting anything done.
In fact, procrastination can actually be a direct response to stress. Check out this video of Mel Robbins on that topic:
Is procrastination a mental illness?
Procrastination is an avoidance-based behavior and as such not a very healthy coping mechanism. But procrastination isn’t itself classified as a mental illness.
In strong cases though, it can be a sign of an underlying mental health issue. In that case, the procrastination wouldn’t be a disease itself, but a symptom of one.
Is procrastination a learned behavior?
A lot of procrastinators have learned to procrastinate in response to life experiences. For those people, procrastination is, at least in parts, a learned behavior.
But some people are also genetically more inclined towards procrastination. This doesn’t mean that they will definitely be procrastinators, but that they need to manage their time-management skills more consciously than others.
Procrastination Ted talk
Procrastination is such a wildly widespread problem that, of course, there are countless Ted talks on it. The most famous one is the talk by Tim Urban, titled “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”.
I’ll put it here, in case you want to check it out. It’s hilarious and makes any procrastinator feel very understood.
How to stop procrastinating
So even after understanding what procrastination is and what causes it, we still have to answer the most important question. How Can I stop procrastinating? Forever, ideally?
How do you get rid of procrastination?
My first point might disappoint you a little. Because you very likely will not get rid of procrastination completely. There will always be the temptation to put something off until later. And that is okay.
But you can learn to not let it govern your life completely anymore.
How do I stop being a procrastinator?
So let’s look at how you can stop being a procrastinator. Mel Robbins found a way with her simple, but super powerful 5-second rule. If you plan to read any book on this topic, I wholeheartedly recommend hers*. It has helped me immensely in dealing with my procrastination and to finally make significant progress on my goals.
The rule says:
Whenever you get the urge to do something towards your goal, you have to act on it within 5 seconds!
So whenever your thoughts go “I should start working on this!” this is your cue to count down “5,4,3,2,1” and start acting on that thought immediately.
Sounds easily doable? Don’t be fooled, this takes some training before it becomes a habit!
Understand what causes procrastination in the brain
The 5-second rule can seem like silly advice when you don’t understand the scientific background. You might think “If it was as easy as just starting, I wouldn’t be a procrastinator, would I?!”
The difference is, that you usually don’t start within a few seconds of your impulse. Impulses come from our prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain responsible for emotional and quick acting. If you get into a dangerous situation and get out of it so quickly you can’t even think? – That is the prefrontal cortex at work.
If you wait longer than a few seconds after your initial impulse, other parts of your brain join in. They are responsible for analyzing and protecting you from danger. Unfortunately, anything that makes you expend energy can look like danger to your brain. (It’s a little stuck in Neanderthal times!)
This is how you get over procrastination
So to overcome procrastination, you need to get your starting point in before the procrastinating part of your brain stops you.
Mel suggests starting to count down “5,4,3,2,1” and then immediately get moving. You can count out loud or in your head, both work just fine. What matters is that this functions as a starting ritual.
The counting interrupts any possible thoughts about why you can’t or don’t want to start. And the short timespan makes sure that you actually start before your brain goes into “but wait!” – mode.
Can you really stop procrastinating with this?
Yes. You can. Look back at all the causes of procrastination. They all are related to you thinking about things. They are about you being afraid of the outcome, about you only thinking of the effort involved and so on.
As soon as you make the 5-second rule a part of your life, you will get more and more confident in your ability to start. This, in turn, makes you start more often. And as soon as you start, you have beaten procrastination!
Mel gives you more in-depth advice on how to start using the 5-second rule and which life areas you can apply it to in her book*. Again, I can only recommend getting it and working through it. It was a real life-changer for me!
6 Procrastination tips
The 5-second rule is great, but it might take you a while to get the hang of it. So in the meantime, you can use these procrastination tips to get things done!
1. Remove your distractions
This one is not only a tip for procrastinators, but for everyone who wants to be more productive. Put all those things that distract you away. Your phone, Social Media, really anything that you might use to postpone working on your task.
You know best what you use to procrastinate. Remove that option. Whatever it is.
2. Agree on doing “good enough”
Leave perfectionism behind. As we learned above, perfectionism is one of the main causes of procrastination. So when you prepare for your day, agree with yourself to do “good enough”. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. It just needs to be done.
Whenever you start to freak out, repeat this to yourself, like a mantra.
3. Break huge tasks down in smaller steps
Make sure that you cannot use overwhelm as an excuse to procrastinate. Whenever you tackle a project or a big task, break it down into manageable steps. This will make starting a lot easier.
4. Visualize the result
If you simply lack the motivation to do something, visualize being done with it.
If it’s something you do towards a goal of yours, imagine yourself reaching that goal. If it’s something that is more of a chore, imagine the feeling when you can finally check it off.
Be as detailed as you can with this exercise. It will prime your brain for doing its best to get to this state. And it will lift your spirits enough to help you actually do things!
5. Focus on the first step
Even after breaking down everything into smaller tasks, it can still be overwhelming to look at everything you will need to do. So focus on the first step. Promise yourself, that you’ll at least start. That you’ll put in a few minutes only. And then deliver on that promise.
Most people find, that with this approach, they end up doing way more than a few minutes. And if not – you still did something and didn’t procrastinate it!
6. Keep coming back
This advice is true for everything in life, but especially for recovering procrastinators. You need to try again and again. Even if you follow all the tips, even if you implement the 5-second rule like a boss, there will be times when you find yourself procrastinating again.
So just keep coming back again and again. Acknowledge that you are procrastinating and then go back to what you really want to be doing. You got this!
Got questions, comments or other input?
I’d love to hear what you think about this way of beating procrastination and your experiences with this topic. What have you tried to overcome procrastination? Let me know in the comments below and make sure to share this article with our fellow procrastinators out there!
*These links are so-called provision links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I can earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.