The first step in changing any behavior is to become aware of the behavior itself. Before we can stop and eventually reverse procrastination, we must be able to recognize it as soon as it starts.
Procrastination can be sneaky—we might not notice when we procrastinate certain tasks, or we might procrastinate in ways that don’t look like procrastination. That’s why a thorough understanding of what procrastination is, what it looks like, and how it presents in life is so crucial. This knowledge helps us detect it early. And just like in medicine, early detection is the best prevention.
What Is Procrastination?
The word “procrastinate” comes from a combination of the Latin words pro, meaning “in favor of,” and crastinus, meaning “of tomorrow.” Broadly, procrastination means putting off a task or decision, even though you know you’ll be worse off for delaying it.
More specifically, it means putting off a task that you intend to do. At any given moment, you could be doing thousands of things; it’s only procrastination when you’re not tackling specific tasks or decisions that you’ve planned on accomplishing.
So, not painting the house only counts as procrastination if you’ve been meaning to paint it; if you don’t live in a house or your house doesn’t need painting, then it’s not procrastination.
In general, decisions and tasks that we consider valuable are less likely to be procrastinated than tasks we see as less valuable.
For example, if you value personal style, you likely don’t procrastinate shopping for new clothes; but if you find thriftiness to be more valuable, you might put off clothes shopping and rock your old JNCO jeans until they’re threadbare.
There’s nothing inherently right or wrong about either approach. Our values help shape our decisions about the types of activities we postpone.
Procrastination can show up in nearly every area of your life. Though the most obvious form of procrastination might be putting off starting or finishing school and work assignments, procrastination extends beyond missing deadlines. We also put off making phone calls, completing paperwork, doing research or studying, and asking for help.
Outside of work and school, we procrastinate on our daily chores, household maintenance, spring cleaning, buying groceries, or running errands. We also procrastinate financially, delaying things like paying bills, setting a budget, refinancing loans, paying off debts, and filing taxes.
And we procrastinate socially, postponing making plans with our friends, calling our grandmas, and replying to RSVPs. We even procrastinate personally, never getting around to making therapy appointments, going to church, reading books, or developing hobbies. Health might be the sneakiest area of all: We put off making appointments for checkups, starting a healthier diet or exercise regimen, or quitting smoking or drinking. Anywhere there’s an activity, task, behavior, or decision, there’s room for procrastination.
Doing Something Against Your Better Judgment
Procrastination isn’t just about delaying a task or decision—it’s about delaying it without a good reason. Sometimes, we simply forget about something we should do.
Other times, we’ll put something off without considering how delaying it will affect us in the future. But often, we put things off despite knowing that it will cost us later—creating extra stress, lowering the quality of our work, or compromising our peace of mind.
It’s like when you have a free Saturday with literally nothing to do, and you spend it on a Game of Thrones binge instead of cleaning the house for your friend’s upcoming visit. We’ve all done it. It’s irrational, but much of human psychology is.
Procrastinators often know what they want to do or ought to be doing, have the ability to do it, and on some level, are trying to do it. But against their better judgement, they just don’t do it. Between their initial intention to complete a task and actually setting out to do that task, they instead choose another course of action.
This is why when you go to bed at night, getting up early to work out seems like a great idea, but between bedtime and waking up, your brain decides not working out is an even better idea.
Types of Procrastination
Not all procrastination is the same. We can sort the ways we procrastinate into two types: passive and active procrastination.
Passive procrastination is probably what you picture when you hear the word “procrastinate.” This is when you mean to get started on something but just keep putting it off. If you find yourself repeatedly and honestly thinking, “I’ll do it right after I finish this other thing,” then you might be engaging in passive procrastination.
Passive procrastinators frequently avoid deadlines and decisions. Even after they’ve made decisions, they keep on avoiding and postponing taking action. They usually don’t mean to procrastinate, but time has a way of getting away from them.
The passive procrastinator plans to get that maybe-it’s-a-freckle-maybe-it’s-melanoma situation checked out but never gets around to making a doctor’s appointment, or they keep meaning to call mom for her birthday which was three months ago.
Frequently, this type of procrastination is followed by guilt after it becomes clear that deadlines have passed or opportunities are gone. It’s associated with a host of negative outcomes, ranging from lower psychological well-being to reduced personal growth and compromised relationships.
Active procrastination is much more deliberate. This is when you intentionally make a decision to procrastinate, often because you believe you “work better under pressure.”
Active procrastinators make intentional, focused decisions to postpone activities and decisions, believing that the time pressure will enhance their abilities. This is you every time you try to convince yourself that you write your best papers when you’re up against a deadline and then wait to get started until the 11th hour when you’re hyped up on caffeine, sleep deprivation, and panic.
Amazingly, sometimes these folks are right! They can rally their energy, creativity, and motivation to produce some stellar work at the last minute.
But they also recognize that there have certainly been times when they came up short and fell victim to their own procrastination. Research tells us this type of procrastination usually isn’t as detrimental as passive procrastination, but that’s not to say that it’s benign.
Sorting people into groups of passive procrastinators and active procrastinators can disguise the fact that, in reality, everyone procrastinates at least a little. Most of us don’t file our taxes on January 1st, schedule our dog’s next grooming appointment while we’re still at the salon, or scrub a mark off the wall the first time we see it.
Since we have a finite amount of time and energy each day, everyone is forced to postpone some tasks.
But, as procrastination researcher Dr. Joseph Ferrari says, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” The difference between procrastinating and being a procrastinator is how habitual procrastination is and how detrimental it becomes to your life.
Ultimately, procrastination exists on a spectrum from “isolated, random instances” to “chronic and affecting just about everything in your life.” We’re all somewhere on that spectrum.
From Procrastinate to Procrastibake
The tricky thing about recognizing procrastination is that when we’re procrastinating, we’re still doing other things. It’s not like we decide to put something off and then just sit around and do nothing. We’re masters at replacing one task with another task that’s also important but maybe not quite as crucial. By doing this, we convince ourselves that maybe we aren’t actually procrastinating—we’re just busy!
Perhaps you’ve heard of procrastibaking, the practice of baking something unnecessary in order to put off doing something important?
You can apply this to a wide array of activities—procrastiplating (that’s when you procrastinate by cooking), procrastiskating (procrastination by skating), procrastibaiting (procrastination by fishing), procrastigaiting (procrastination by running), procrastidating (procrastination by dating), or even procrastimating (you can guess that one!). We can procrastinate with essentially any task because the essence of procrastination is postponing one task and replacing it with something that’s less important or more tempting.
By staying in motion, we convince ourselves that we’re working toward a goal and that our procrastination really isn’t all that bad. We can review how we spent the day, check things off a list, and feel accomplished.
But when we challenge this idea, we see that we’ve procrastinated by prioritizing less important or urgent tasks or by fixating on unimportant details.
So maybe you did get started on that massive work project, but instead of making a plan and then moving forward with it, you fixated on the plan and wrote a list, copied the list, color-coded the list, added items you’ve already completed to the list, splurged on ornamental paper to make the list extra special, rewrote the list in calligraphy, and posted an Instagram story showing off your fancy list.
So, yes, you’re working on that project—but you’re doing more procrastinating than working.
When Does Procrastination Become a Problem?
We often use enjoyable activities to procrastinate, so procrastinating can feel really fun sometimes. But in reality, procrastination can have some pretty devastating consequences.
Talia, a brilliant and hard-working pre-med student, needed to take the MCAT, the medical school admissions test, so that she could apply to medical school in the fall. But she was afraid—her performance on that one test could determine her entire future. So instead of preparing for the MCAT, she procrastinated by studying for her classes and being active in school organizations.
On the surface, this didn’t look like procrastination at all. But she delayed registering to take the MCAT, which allowed her to delay studying for this essential exam.
Ultimately, she postponed the decision for so long that there were no more seats to take the exam in the summer, which forced her to delay her entrance to medical school for an entire year. She felt ashamed as her peers began medical school the following year, while she was working at a bookstore and living with her parents.
Procrastination becomes problematic when it causes self-criticism and emotional distress—in Talia’s case, it led to shame and thinking of herself as “stupid” for putting herself in that position. It’s also problematic when it causes real-life detrimental outcomes, like Talia’s missed opportunity to attend medical school with her peers.
But procrastination doesn’t have to ruin someone’s life to be an issue; it’s also problematic when it’s habitual and leads to frequent smaller punishments, lost opportunities, or other issues that accumulate over time.
Even though 100 percent of us procrastinate with some things sometimes, 20 percent of us are chronically affected by procrastination (Harriott and Ferrari, 1996). The problem is even worse in college settings, where between 70 percent and 95 percent of university students consider themselves to be procrastinators and more than half report that it’s a major problem (Steel, 2007).
Not only are there many people who procrastinate, but it also takes up much of their time: Students admit to spending more than a third of their day procrastinating (Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau, and Blunt, 2000).
And more than 95 percent of procrastinators recognize that it’s a harmful habit and want to overcome it (Briodi, 1980; O’Brien, 2002).
Research tells us that students don’t procrastinate because they don’t know how to study or get organized or because they’re confused about how to manage their time. The same is true for adults in the working world, as well.
People procrastinate due to a very complex interaction of psychological factors. These factors include the way our brains process information in our environment, past experiences we’ve had with procrastination and failure, the actions we take when procrastination is an option, and the thoughts and feelings we experience when we try to engage in difficult tasks.
Plus, a tendency to procrastinate is inherited to some degree. All of this tells us that procrastination isn’t an issue of laziness or effort; it’s a psychological issue, which means we can use psychology to overcome it.
Is Procrastination A Problem For Me?
If everyone procrastinates to some extent, how do you know if it’s a real problem for you? Here are some questions, adapted from a number of well-known assessment questionnaires, to ask yourself.
1). Do you put off things you need to do, even when they’re important?
2). Has putting things off until the last minute cost you money in the past (late payment fees, etc.)?
3). Do you tend to only make decisions when you’re really forced to?
4). Do your friends and family get mad at you for not following through with what you say you’re going to do?
5). Do you usually finish important jobs at the last minute?
6). Do you put things off for so long that you cause yourself unnecessary stress?
7). Do you put off quick, simple tasks for an unnecessarily long amount of time?
8). Do you experience problems because you run out of time to get things done?
9). When you’ve got a deadline approaching, do you waste time doing other things?
10). Would your life be better if you started some activities or tasks sooner?
If you answered “Yes” to more than four of these questions, you might have a problematic level of procrastination. But determining whether procrastination is a problem isn’t as simple as analyzing how often you procrastinate or even identifying the types of activities or decisions you procrastinate.
It’s also about determining how much damage it’s causing to your life. If you answered “Yes” to more than one of the even-numbered questions, you’re recognizing that procrastination isn’t just a habitual or frequent occurrence in your life—it’s detrimental and is costing you money, relationships, opportunities, and your emotional well-being.
Psychology Can Help
People have been writing about problematic procrastination for more than 2,500 years, but until recently, we haven’t really had much guidance regarding why it occurs or how to overcome it.
Psychology is a relatively new field, and experimental research on procrastination only began in the 1980s; almost two-thirds of the research on procrastination has been conducted in the past decade.
In that decade, psychologists have looked at how procrastination relates to personality traits and mental health conditions, developed questionnaires and instruments to measure it, investigated the associated brain areas, examined how other animals procrastinate, and asked questions like “Why in the world do people procrastinate going to sleep?”
For hundreds of years, humans mistakenly believed procrastination was a moral failing. Science has now proven that it’s a complex and treatable psychological condition.
Just about every person who walks into my clinic is struggling with procrastination in one form or another. Most of these clients postponed making their initial therapy appointment for months or years, and many of them continue to procrastinate in therapy— they delay telling me about important issues, and they definitely postpone doing their therapy homework.
Procrastination is a symptom of just about every mental health condition. It’s a symptom of depression, where folks delay getting out of bed or visiting friends, as well as a symptom of anxiety, where people delay making decisions until they can be guaranteed they’re making the right decision. And in ADHD, procrastination is just rampant.
We have to understand the root causes of procrastination before starting to formulate a plan to overcome it.
Let’s begin by digging deeper into the causes and effects of procrastination.