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  • Writer's pictureDana Watts

In A Minute...The Hazards of Procrastination


If you have children, I am quite sure that you are familiar with these three little words: “in a minute.” It is the go-to phrase for kids to buy themselves a little more time to play their video game or be with friends. It is not a phrase you like to hear because you know all too well what it means: they are procrastinating. That minute they are talking about is likely not to arrive. But, you also know that kids are not the only ones to fall back on those three little words. Even as adults, we want to buy extra time, to put things off, to procrastinate. Though we know that procrastinating will cause bigger problem down the road, we just can’t help ourselves -- we put off dealing with little problems for convenience or because we “don’t feel like it right now.”


What exactly is procrastination ?


Procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off something that needs doing sooner rather than later, and it comes in two forms: situational and chronic.



We are all situational procrastinators at one time or another. Think of a time when you had to address a problem with a friend but kept putting it off, coming up with endless reasons why it was not a good time to have that conversation. You are reluctant to do something that you feel will be unpleasant or hard -- that’s procrastination. I tend to procrastinate making phone calls that I know will involve being transferred repeatedly from one department to another, each time having to answer the same questions and explain for the nth time the reason for my call. I picture myself feeling annoyed and frustrated, and then I think about other things that are urgently requiring my attention, the silverware drawer that I’ve been meaning to organize, a recipe I need to find online, the books that I have to rearrange. That’s what situational procrastination is about, and most of us fall in that category.


But for 20% of people, procrastination is a chronic problem and is associated with a range of psychological and behavioral problems: anxiety, perfectionism, and fear of failure; depression, low self-esteem, and negative thoughts about themselves and their life; distractibility and attention problems; difficulty with impulse control; doubt about their ability to make decisions; feeling overwhelmed by complex tasks and not knowing where to start. In fact, procrastination is often the reason why people seek therapy. They feel a deep sense of shame and failure about their behavior and feel angry and frustrated with themselves for not being able to change.

But why don’t people just stop procrastinating if they don’t like it?


There is a brain-based reason for why procrastination is so difficult to change: the act of avoiding something unpleasant is immediately rewarding. A challenging task, especially when accompanied by negative thinking, such as “this is going to be so hard,” “I am so bad at this,” “I don’t know where to start,” “I am going to fail,” and so on, activates the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls the stress response and triggers the release of stress hormones (click here to read about the impact that negative thoughts have on functioning). On the other hand, when you decide to put the project off, you experience a sense of relief, which activates the reward centers of the brain. You put off starting a project that you perceive as stressful and overwhelming and decide instead to watch your favorite Netflix show, and that avoidance is a powerful reinforcer. You feel instantly better because you decided that tomorrow will be a better day to start that project. In fact, however, tomorrow will be harder, requiring much more determination to get up and get the project started. Avoidance is immediately gratifying, while the reward of a finished project is distant and uncertain. From that perspective, avoidance wins every time. It just feels so much better.


Often, to make matters worse, this problem of putting things off is typically traceable to earlier life, all the way back to childhood, so this experience of stress and avoidance is repeated thousands of times throughout life, establishing powerful brain circuits that drive the procrastination habit.


Research has shown that procrastination has real life consequences. For example, in one study with college students, procrastinators experienced less stress in the short-term because they avoided dealing with unpleasant tasks, such as studying for exams, and chose instead to do something fun, like hanging out with friends. By the end of the semester, however, procrastinating led to lower grades and achievement, higher levels of frustration and dissatisfaction with life, increased depression and anxiety, and decreased self-esteem and confidence.


So What’s to be done?


5 tips to battle procrastination - and WIN!


1. Learn to challenge your negative thoughts!


The internet is full of tips for dealing with procrastination. Unfortunately, they typically don’t work because the root of the problem is not addressed. Remember that negative beliefs about yourself trigger your brain’s stress response when faced with a task that you perceive as difficult. Because of long-standing habits of behavior and thought, negative responses will be activated before you even get a chance to try out a new technique. Old patterns of behavior are very powerful and cannot be easily changed without first changing the thoughts that start the ball rolling. If you look at a project and your first response is “I’m never going to be able to do this,” the old brain circuits are already fully activated, hijacking your brain so that any new thing you might want to start will feel weak and timid by comparison. Once you learn to uncover and rewrite the old beliefs, then you are ready to try some new behaviors.



2. Do Something!


A big problem for chronic procrastinators is task initiation, getting the thing started. Feeling overwhelmed and anxious, not knowing where to begin, having the expectation that the whole thing needs to be perfect from the start, they all become road blocks that feel insurmountable. Remember that the first task is to challenge distorted beliefs - “I will fail if it’s not perfect,” for example. Doing something, anything that engages you with the project, disrupts the inertia, and you are on your way. One step, that’s all it takes to break inertia.



3. Give yourself a time frame or a specific goal!


If you think about your project, can you picture yourself doing it for 30 minutes? If your reaction is a sense of panic and an impulse to run for the hills, then it’s too long. Can you do it for 10 minutes? Throughout this, check in with your thoughts and talk yourself through it: “I can do this. 10 minutes is no big deal. I will just write 5 facts I know about my project.” And do it! Without judgement! Just do it! As I tell my clients, Nike paid big money for their “Just Do It!” slogan. You can use it for free! Then learn to increase the time, even if by 2 minute increments.


4. Disconnect from your electronic devices!


Electronic devices, by their very nature, tap into our reward centers. You have heard people talk about their phone or social media addiction. Perhaps you are in that camp as well. You can see how easy access to your favorite device will undermine your determination and make it that much harder to defeat your procrastination habit. A 5-minute check on your favorite social media site becomes 45 because you get little squirts of dopamine rewards with every swipe, and that keep you hooked. For me it’s Instagram. I can lose 30 minutes in a flash just looking at dog training videos or recipes for vegan foods or humorous clips or astonishing things that people can do. It is really, really hard to disconnect - I can vouch for that!


Turning off a device will not suffice, however. Put it somewhere where it would require effort to get it, say in the trunk of your car, in a drawer in the basement. Sure, you can still get up and go see if you have any messages, but it’s less likely to happen if it’s not sitting right there under your nose.


5. Don’t punish yourself if at first you don’t succeed.

Have an attitude of kindness. Remember that you are working against powerful forces - old habits that have been encoded in your brain circuits for years, even decades. Heaping abuse on yourself will not make you try the next time. Procrastination at its foundation is about avoidance of something that feels unpleasant, overwhelming, scary, challenging. Chronic procrastinators think of themselves in negative terms: lazy, unmotivated, apathetic, undisciplined. How likely do you think it is that you will be motivated to do something new and challenging if you just got done beating yourself up?


Remember that procrastination is wired into old brain circuits, so it can be hard to change this by oneself. Consider seeking the help of a mental health professional trained in cognitive behavior therapy who can help you recognize and change the old patterns of thinking so that you can achieve your goals in life.




“The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.” *

Go on, take the first step!



Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


440-895-1100



*Chinese proverb


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4 Comments


Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack
Jun 05, 2023

What a coincidence that the only blog post of yours I had yet to read, was the one on procrastination. I kept saying I meant to get to it, and I never did until today.

As usual, your articles are filled with fascinating information as well as deeper insights into making us the best version of ourselves. I love how you emphasize not beating yourself up. Progress not perfection!

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Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
Jun 05, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for your wonderful feedback. I am happy that you enjoy my posts. Beating yourself up never leads to anything good or sustainable.

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sarahstaneff
May 16, 2023

Dana,

I just read your post. Love the 1st picture and how you tie procrastination to the brain.😍

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Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
May 16, 2023
Replying to

Thank you! I am so happy that you read my post and that you liked it. I always appreciate your feedback.

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