Why You’re Procrastinating and Five Ways to Overcome It

Why You’re Procrastinating
Table of Contents

Most people have had at least one experience of waiting until the last minute to start a project or assignment. However, for 20% of people, procrastination is their modus operandi [1]. While it can feel good in the moment, procrastinating can create a cycle of frustration and stress.

Chronic or episodic procrastination can occur for several reasons. Studies have shown a strong relationship between neurodiversity, executive function, and procrastination [2]. Certain personality types are also more likely to procrastinate than others [3]. We also procrastinate when we feel stressed, overwhelmed, or uninspired.

Whether you are a habitual or situational procrastinator, understanding the motives behind your behavior can help you move from inaction to productivity.

Procrastination is a (terrible) stress reliever

When we procrastinate, we focus on anything but the task at hand. For example, we might check phone notifications, write endless to-do lists, or engage in directionless research rather than doing actions that move us toward our goals [4].

On the surface, procrastination can resemble laziness. Check any search engine; you will find endless articles advising readers on how to stop laziness and procrastination. However, laziness and procrastination are not interchangeable terms. In fact, researchers believe that procrastination is a type of maladaptive stress response.

Laziness, on the other hand, is an innate disdain for activity requiring immense effort. However, This quality can actually lead to innovation, as people seek ways to achieve the same results without expending as much energy [5]. Unlike laziness, procrastination can strike even if someone has a strong desire to work [6].

Procrastination should also not be confused with deliberate inaction, like taking a break or purposely putting low-priority tasks on hold. People often feel refreshed and focused after deliberate inaction. However, delayed action from procrastination doesn’t lead to innovation, rejuvenation, or efficiency gains. Instead, it leads to stress and poorer outcomes.

So, why do some of us procrastinate as a stress reliever, even though it eventually increases our stress? To answer this, we need to explore a phenomenon known as the procrastination cycle.

How the procrastination cycle works

Procrastination follows a cognitive pattern similar to habits. Like the habit loop, the procrastination cycle has a:

  • cue,
  • craving,
  • response, and
  • a reward.

However, each step involves a bit more cognitive processing and less automation.

The procrastination cycle begins when we first contemplate the task. At this point, we may evaluate the task through false or exaggerated assumptions. For example, we may make interpretations like:

  • There is plenty of time to do this
  • I might fail
  • I’m unsure sure how to complete this task
  • I’m too tired to complete this task

These thoughts create feelings of discomfort towards the task. To avoid these distressing feelings, we make excuses to justify not completing the task.

  • I can start this later; it’s not urgent
  • There are other, more important tasks
  • I need more inspiration
  • I need more information

Because of these excuses, we engage in procrastination activities that distract us and hinder task completion. Procrastination activities fall into several categories:

Pleasure/Sensation Seeking“Busy” workDistractionsSocial/Personal
• Watching a movie or series
• Reading a book
• Making lists
• Cleaning or sorting
• Making food
• Taking a smoke break
• Doing chores
• Talking to friends and family

Procrastination activities temporarily relieve emotional discomfort. However, this reward is short-lived as the task must now be completed in a shorter time frame. This pressure increases stress, making procrastination activities seem even more attractive.

At the end of the procrastination cycle, we experience the consequences of not prioritizing our tasks. We may miss the deadline, get a fine, or hand in subpar work. Many people recognize the error of procrastinating and often swear never to do it again. Unfortunately, this is not enough to prevent the cycle from reoccurring.

For chronic procrastinators, any task could trigger this cycle. This can make keeping up with the responsibilities of everyday life complicated. The video below by Insider Science explores long-term problems of chronic procrastination and possible solutions:

The neurobiology of the procrastination cycle

Procrastination results from interactions between brain regions that regulate our emotions and motivated behaviors. Whenever we complete an action, it is because our brain has completed a lighting-fast cost-benefit analysis and determined that the activity is worth doing.

To come to this conclusion, the limbic system processes countless bits of data from our environment, emotions, and past experiences [7]. Ordinarily, this information is also passed on to the prefrontal cortex, a part of our brains associated with long-term thinking, which then leads to motivated action [8].

However, research has shown that stress can disrupt the cooperative relationship between the two systems [9]. When we are distressed, the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, plays a more prominent role in decision-making.

As a result, actions that generate immediate rewards become much more appealing, and we are more likely to give in to distractions. There is also some evidence that procrastination may arise when the prefrontal cortex determines that completing the task later will require less effort but reap a similar reward [10].

5 ways to break the procrastination cycle

Procrastination is a poor coping strategy. If we disrupt the cycle and adopt healthier behavior patterns, we can avoid the negative consequences of procrastination.

Let your rational mind drive your behavior

As mentioned earlier, several brain regions can contribute to procrastination. While the exact role of each system is still unclear, research suggests that procrastination is partially related to an over-functioning amygdala [11]. When this happens, we often feel physiological and emotional effects like:

  • a racing pulse,
  • goosebumps, and
  • irrational thinking or decision-making.

If a task provokes these uncomfortable sensations, it’s no surprise we try to avoid it. However, our reaction often has nothing to do with how difficult the task actually is. Instead, it’s a response based on how we interpret it.

By adjusting our thoughts and beliefs about the task, we can calm our minds and interpret our situation more rationally. A useful exercise is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) strategy of challenging assumptions. To do this, ask yourself the questions below.

Procrastination assumption: If I try to do this task now, I will fail.

QuestionPossible answerWhy this works
Do I have any evidence that proves this thought is true or false?I have never completed a task like this before, so I don’t really know how I would perform. However, I have used the skills needed for this task successfully before, so I have some evidence that I might not fail.If we make decisions emotionally, we may overemphasize the difficulty of a task or underestimate our abilities.

Finding concrete evidence that proves or disproves our assumption helps engage our more rational mind.
Is my assumption the only possible outcome?No, I could also achieve an average or even an outstanding result. I could also find help, which could improve my outcome.Fortune telling is a common form of cognitive dissonance, where we foresee the worst ending possible. If we question that assumption, we can consider other, more likely outcomes.
Can I look at this task from another perspective?Instead of worrying about failure, I can think about what I could learn from trying.When we make emotionally-based decisions, we often ignore information that could prove our assumptions wrong. Looking at the task from a new perspective can give you a better understanding of the risks and rewards of completing the task.

Counter Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law, an idea from the business world, states that work expands to fill the available time. For example, reserving 12 hours to complete a task that usually takes only 8 hours is likelier to cause procrastination.

While there is no scientific evidence for Parkinson’s law, some data indicates that deadlines can boost our productivity and efficiency. For example, we are much more likely to reach goals that are time bound rather than open-ended [12].

We can apply these principles to beat procrastination. However, simply giving yourself a false deadline won’t help much. Most people actually enhance Parkinson’s Law by giving themselves excessive time to complete a task [13]. Also, since the deadline is self-imposed and has no real urgency, people often ignore it. However, applying externally imposed deadlines seems to be effective. For example, you can:

  • Organize a meeting with a trusted friend/colleague to review your completed task at set intervals. You can call it a progress check-in meeting.
  • Gamify your task by giving yourself a time limit to complete a certain amount of work. For example, writing 500 words within 30 minutes. Next, try to beat your record.
  • Use an anti-procrastination tool to add urgency. One word processor app permanently deletes all text if you stop typing for more than a few seconds! It’s a little intense, but for many, it does the trick!

Initiate the relaxation response

Stress has a direct relationship with procrastination. People with high-stress levels are more prone to procrastination, while chronic procrastination can trigger high levels of stress [14]. So Severe procrastinators can feel like they are in a never-ending cycle of anxiety, frustration, and disappointment.

For this reason, stress management can address some of the underlying causes of procrastination. One important aspect of stress management is reducing the fight-or-flight response by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response [15].

The relaxation response can reverse some of the physiological changes caused by the fight-or-flight response. For example, it slows heart rate, increases concentration, and lifts a sense of well-being.

Deep breathing is one of the easiest ways to elicit the relaxation response. The brain can misinterpret the shallow rapid breaths that we often take as a signal for danger. We can counter this with several slow, deep belly breaths. This video from Psych Hub provides an example of a belly breathing exercise: Mental Health Moment: Belly Breathing for Anxiety.

Calming exercises like yoga and meditation can also help induce the relaxation response. In fact, a regular mindfulness meditation practice is linked with lower rates of procrastination [16].

Increase distress tolerance

Stress and anxiety are not the only causes of procrastination. A task that activates feelings, like boredom, the fear of missing out, or disinterest can make us more likely to avoid it. However, uncomfortable feelings and sensations are a part of life. We can reduce our reliance on procrastination by building our tolerance for discomfort.

Changing how we perceive or think about our situation can help us lower our emotional reactivity. For example, if we must do a task that feels unpleasant but has beneficial long-term results, we can shift our focus to those benefits rather than the immediate tediousness of the task.

We can also add elements to our environment that make the task more enjoyable. For example, we can listen to our favorite music or podcast while we complete a boring but necessary task like laundry.

Some people may need extra support to address their distress intolerance. Talk therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and integrative approaches like mindfulness-based therapy are helpful for strengthening emotional regulation.

Start with a small step

Sometimes we procrastinate because the first step is too hard. We may not know where to start or perhaps we worry about having all the information and resources to do the task correctly.

We can overcome this by splitting the task into smaller components. Here’s an example. Imagine your goal for the day is to clear out your garage, which is filled to the brim with old clothes, garden tools, and random items. Since there is so much to do, it can seem overwhelming to take the project on at once.

Try transforming the hefty task of cleaning your garage into several smaller steps:

  • Make separate piles for clothes, tools, and other items
  • Sort each pile and determine what to keep, throw away, recycle, or donate
  • Sweep and dust the garage
  • Buy large containers or boxes
  • Put the items you want to keep in their proper place or store them in the containers

Rather than interpreting cleaning the garage as one massive task, you now have a list of smaller, more achievable objectives.

Further, you will feel a sense of accomplishment at frequent points throughout the day as you mark each task as complete. These small victories add to your motivation to continue and thus also make procrastination less likely. This is known as The Winner Effect.

In Summary

If you are a chronic procrastinator, berating yourself won’t stop the procrastination cycle. Instead, do your best to recognize and address the underlying causes of your behavior. The best strategies for overcoming procrastination include:

  • Challenging your negative assumptions about the task
  • Adding urgency by setting deadlines (and establishing external check-ins with a trusted person)
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Increasing your distress tolerance
  • Breaking tasks into smaller components

If you are in school or trying to learn a new skill, studying will be a fixture in your life for the foreseeable future. If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself to hit the books, then read our tips on how to stop procrastinating and start studying.

Sources

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[2] Keath Low. (2023, March 23). The Relationship Between ADHD and Chronic Procrastination. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/adhd-and-chronic-procrastination-20379

[3] Appleby, D. C. (2017, January 1). The first step to overcoming procrastination: Know thyself. Psychology Student Network. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2017/01/overcoming-procrastination

[4] Sirois, F. and Pychyl, T. (2013), Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7: 115-127. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12011

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[8] Center on the Developing Child Harvard University. (n.d.). The Brain Circuits Underlying Motivation: An Interactive Graphic. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/the-brain-circuits-underlying-motivation-an-interactive-graphic/

[9] Amy F.T. Arnsten, Murray A. Raskind, Fletcher B. Taylor, Daniel F. Connor, The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, Neurobiology of Stress, Volume 1, 2015, Pages 89-99, ISSN 2352-2895, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ynstr.2014.10.002.

[10] Le Bouc, R., Pessiglione, M. A neuro-computational account of procrastination behavior. Nat Commun 13, 5639 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-33119-w

[11] Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D. (2018b, August 26). The Neural Signature of Procrastination | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/dont-delay/201808/the-neural-signature-procrastination

[12] Allison Aubrey. (2023, January 2). Time is fleeting. Here’s how to stay on track with New Year’s goals. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2023/01/02/1144894026/time-is-fleeting-heres-how-to-stay-on-track-with-new-years-goals

[13] Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00441

[14] Knaus, B. (2015, October 31). On Stress, Anxiety, and Procrastination. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-and-sensibility/201510/stress-anxiety-and-procrastination

[15] Scott, E. (2019). How To Trigger Your Relaxation Response. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-relaxation-response-3145145

[16] Gautam, A., Polizzi, C. P., & Mattson, R. E. (2019). Mindfulness, procrastination, and anxiety: Assessing their interrelationships. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/cns0000209

Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.