We’ve all been there – you’ve got a deadline looming or a big task that needs to be completed, but for some reason you’re unable to find the motivation to do it and end up leaving work to the last minute.
You’re a procrastinator. Yes, us too! It can be tempting to put off tasks that we really don’t want to do, even though we know they’ll need to be done eventually.
You might feel that you need the rush of a looming deadline to get things done, relying on that rush of last-minute adrenaline (and coffee!) to complete the work.
You’re not alone – around 20% of the population are true procrastinators. These so-called true procrastinators struggle to make decisions and put things off until tomorrow, often until it’s too late to change anything.
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The good news? If you tend to procrastinate, you’re more likely to be a creative individual.
According to a study by Jihae Shin at the University of Wisconsin, those who put off a task often came up with more imaginative work.
The bad news? Procrastination can lead to stress and anxiety – and leave you feeling generally on edge.
A 2007 study of university students found that procrastinators tended to delay tasks they didn’t like and were also afraid of failure.
The students who described themselves as procrastinators were more likely to feel anxious and experience physical symptoms of anxiety.
Take our procrastination test and read on to learn more about why we procrastinate – plus read our tips for stopping procrastination.
Why do we procrastinate?
What is the main cause of procrastination? There are lots of reasons why we procrastinate and it doesn’t mean that you’re lazy.
One of the main causes of procrastination is underestimating how long it will take us to complete a task. We think we have enough time to do it, so we put it off until it’s too late, which can leave us feeling stressed out and anxious.
If you’re working on a creative project, it can be easy to delay starting work because you’re not feeling inspired at that particular moment.
Sometimes we avoid tasks we don’t like – or find boring – even when we know we really shouldn’t put them off.
A lack of structure can make it easy to avoid doing a difficult tasks too – if your tasks are disorganised it’s easy to be distracted by social media or online news.
If you tend to focus on the tasks which need to be done right now, rather than future tasks, then you’ll often end up deferring work so that it never gets done.
Anxiety sufferers also tend to procrastinate and put off starting work due to a fear of failure and procrastination can also be a sign of low self-esteem.
Are people who procrastinate just lazy?
Laziness and procrastination may seem similar at a glance, but look a little closer and you’ll realise they’re different. A lazy person cannot be bothered to do work and has no intention to do so, while the procrastinator fully intends to do the work but can’t be bothered to do so. The difference is the procrastinator fully believes they will do it tomorrow.
And then tomorrow comes, and the work gets put off until another tomorrow, until the person is stuck in a loop of endless tomorrows, and the work never gets done. But the procrastinator believes it eventually will. In their mind they’ll just do it tomorrow.
The Columbia School of General Studies found that the basis of procrastination is postponing action and this is where the negative connotations come from. Not all action is progress. You might have lots to do, but decide to spontaneously tidy your desk or do some life admin instead – you’re busy, but not doing the task that you’re meant to be doing.
However, putting off an activity in favour of something else sometimes means when you finally get down to the work you are in a more focused mindset. It’s all about priorities.
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Frank Partnoy, a Professor from San Diego University, notes that delaying an action for another which you think is more valuable is an example of active procrastination, such as putting off a work project to clean your house or take your kids on a day out. This is different to passive procrastination where you lie on the sofa and watch TV instead of doing some work.
For Partnoy procrastination is a good thing, and was favoured by Romans and the Greeks. It was only considered a negative thing when the Puritans came along with their strong work ethic. Partnoy notes that procrastination is a natural state of being for humans and we shouldn’t be trying to stop it, instead we should be trying to procrastinate well.
John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination, says all the greatest people in history were procrastinators: “From Socrates to Thomas Jefferson, from Jane Austen to Mark Twain … most great men and women have been procrastinators.”
Procrastination has never been easier thanks to the internet, you could have your laptop open, fully intending to do work, and then find yourself distracted by the sheer volume of information out there. You could be reading a very interesting article about bees, but if you’re meant to be making a presentation for work it’s not very useful.
Why perfectionists procrastinate
Procrastination is linked more to perfectionism than laziness. Perfectionists want their work to be amazing, fantastic, inspiring, and so starting the task is immediately more intimidating than it would be to a non-perfectionist.
A perfectionist will have a vision in their mind about how they want a project to turn out, so the pressure that they put on themselves is immense.
They tend to hang their self-worth on the expectations of those around them, so the fear of letting these people down and ruining a perfect reputation leads to procrastination.
Perfectionists are known to avoid risk, which limits creativity, making it even harder to get the work they procrastinated on up to their high standards.
The link between procrastination and mental health
Procrastination can affect your work reputation, academic achievement, and even relationships. It can also be a side effect of some mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
An anxious person may put off doing work as they are worried about approaching a difficult task and many people with anxiety disorders have some form of perfectionism. The more things we put off doing can make us more anxious and lead to feeling overwhelmed.
This feeling only increases the procrastination, which offers short-term relief and long-term problems. Some people, however, find that anxiety forces them to work harder because they’re afraid that they won’t everything done in time.
Someone with depression may feel too hopeless and not have enough energy to start a task. People with anxiety and depression are more prone to low self-esteem and may doubt their ability to complete a task, leading them to procrastinate.
Procrastination is also a symptom of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). People with ADHD may be more impulsive and easily distracted from tasks, meaning things get started but not finished.
How do I stop procrastinating and get things done?
Procrastination is a complex issue, but one of the most common issues is aversion – you just really want to avoid a particular task because it’s boring or difficult.
One way to get around this is to ‘swallow the frog’. This is not as revolting as it sounds we promise!
Swallowing the frog means getting the most unappealing task out of the way first, even though you really want to avoid it.
As Mark Twain once said: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
No one wants to swallow the frog, but you’ll feel much better if you stop dithering get it out of the way as soon as possible, rather than dreading it and putting it off.
Mark Twain also said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
9 ways to be more productive and stop leaving work until the last minute
Break the task down into chunks
If you break down the intimidating task into small pieces, it’ll seem less terrifying. Think about how to split it into smaller parts and when you’ll need to do each part by.
Start with the easiest ones and you’ll feel as though you’ve made progress.
Identify your distractions
What takes your time and attention away from what needs to be done? If it’s Facebook or games on your phone, try keeping your phone out of sight or even deleting the apps.
Alternatively, there are plenty of apps that block social media temporarily.
Allow yourself to have regular breaks
If you have trouble concentrating, it might help to look at why you’re struggling.
Our brains aren’t wired to allow us to focus on a task for an extended period of time, so taking regular breaks can improve your concentration.
Try the Pomodoro technique to help you to focus – set a timer for 25 minutes and when it goes off, allow yourself to have a short break.
Enlist the help of friends, colleagues and family to help you keep on track – ask them to nag you about the task until you do it!
Promise yourself a reward for completing each stage – even if it’s something small, like making a coffee or having a small treat.
Set deadline reminders
Put little reminders on your calendar so that you stay on schedule.
Write a list of things that you need to do
Number them in order of priority, then tackle the biggest ones first. After that, blitz through a few of the smaller ones so that you feel you’ve had a productive day.
If something is important, try to do it right away
Getting it out of the way will make you feel less stressed.
Download a productivity app
There are lots of different causes of procrastination, but if your main issue is organisation then downloading a productivity app could provide a solution.
Check out our selection of productivity apps to help you get things done.
Take our procrastination quiz
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