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  • Bridget Friedman, LICSW

PROCRASTINATION: Why Do I Keep Doing This To Myself?

Procrastination is a stubborn and perplexing problem. At first glance, it makes no sense why so many of us fall into the procrastination rut. It appears to be completely irrational. We know that putting off important projects or tasks is likely to lead to painful consequences down the road. We know that procrastination often leads to problems in our relationships, in our academic endeavors, in our work, in our financial stability, and even in our physical health. So why do so many of us regularly procrastinate? Is it simply laziness or lack of drive? Do we lack self-discipline? Or is it possible that something else is contributing to the problem?


First, let me define what I mean by procrastination. Procrastination, in its simplest form, is putting off a task that you intended to do. It occurs when we delay working on an important task without having a good reason for the delay. We postpone something we need to do in favor of doing something that is less important but more enticing.


We now know that a tendency to procrastinate is often NOT simply a matter of poor self-discipline. Procrastination can be a symptom of many common mental health conditions including the following:


ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder): People with ADHD often have difficulty maintaining focus. They are easily distracted and often find their attention pulled away from the task they set out to do. Many people with ADHD also have difficulty estimating how long a planned task will take and significantly underestimate the time required to complete a task. They may also have more difficulty with impulse control or delaying gratification, resulting in a higher chance of abandoning the important task for something that feels more gratifying in the moment.


ANXIETY: Procrastination can be a huge problem for people with anxiety. An anxious person may not feel confident that they have the necessary skills to complete the task. They may feel overwhelmed with worry, causing them to avoid the emotional discomfort by putting off the task in favor of doing something that doesn’t create the same level of anxiety.


PERFECTIONISM: Perfectionism is a specific type of anxiety. People with perfectionistic tendencies believe that everything must be perfect all the time. They often set unrealistically high standards that are impossible to achieve. This contributes to procrastination because every project takes an inordinately long time to complete or never actually gets finished.


DEPRESSION: Common symptoms of depression include lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment in activities, and fatigue. Clearly, these symptoms can directly contribute to procrastination.


WHAT HAS BEEN SHOWN TO HELP REDUCE PROCRASTINATION?


1) If you suspect that one of the mental health conditions outlined above may be contributing to problems with procrastination, consider seeking mental health care. All of these conditions can be treated with therapy and / or medication. Identifying the root cause (or causes) of the problem will help lead the way to appropriate interventions.


2) Make a plan. I cannot overstate the importance of planning. Decide exactly what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, and where you will do it. Break down larger projects into smaller, more manageable task. If you need materials for the project, make sure that you have them on hand before you start the task.


3) Be strategic about when you plan to work on the task. For some people, this means scheduling the most challenging task first thing in the morning. For other people, it may mean identifying the time of the day when they usually have the most energy and focus. Choose to schedule challenging tasks into these time slots.


4) Be mindful of your language (self-talk). The way that we phrase things can play a role in how motivated we feel to follow through. If we say, “I HAVE to write that report”, it feels like a punishment being meted out to us. However, by choosing more empowering language such as “I am deciding to write the report” or “I’m choosing to write the report” we may feel more ownership and motivation.


5) Create an environment that will increase the chance for success. Minimize distractions that are likely to pull you away. Stow your cellphone away or put it in “focus” mode. Work in an uncluttered space. Shut the door and put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door if necessary.


6) Ask yourself how “Future Me” will look back on your decision today. Will “Future Me” be pleased and proud of what you completed or more stressed and anxious than “Present Me”? Fully envisioning how you will feel in the future if you procrastinate can provide the extra motivation needed to put the time in today.


7) Get an accountability partner. Some people find it helpful to regularly check in with a family member, co-worker, or friend who can help hold them accountable for completing their task.


8) Plan a reward! Celebrate successful completion of the task or project with a special splurge…something as small as relaxing to your favorite sitcom or as big as a vacation (or anywhere in between!).


There are many books available on procrastination if you are interested in exploring this problem (and solutions) in more detail. One I particularly like is The Psychology of Procrastination: Understanding your Habits, Find Motivation, and Get Things Done by Hayden Finch, PhD.


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