Why we put off important tasks, and how to break the cycle.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Anna Bonet
Are you someone who always puts off tasks and struggles to tick a single thing off your to-do list? If this sounds like you, it’s likely you’re a procrastinator. We all have busy lives so occasionally dawdling over important tasks is not a big issue, but if you find yourself deliberately seeking out distractions so you never seem to get anything important done, procrastination could be impacting your relationships, your career goals and even your health.
So, how can you tell if your procrastination problem is serious, and what can you do to address this mental road block? Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist at Healthspan and author of The Shrinkology Solution, looks at the common signs of procrastination and how to prevent it from sabotaging your life goals:
What is procrastination?
According to the Collins English Dictionary, someone who procrastinates keeps leaving things they should do until later, often because they do not want to do them. Perhaps you have an important task to do, but keep finding menial jobs to do instead. Or you have something pressing on your to-do list but you end up scrolling through social media instead.
Sound familiar? Before you write yourself off as a failure, just because you procrastinate, this doesn’t mean you’re not a capable person.
‘Let’s start off with what procrastination is not – it’s not laziness, apathy or a sign of incompetence,’ says Dr Arroll. ‘People who experience procrastination are often more conscientiousness than those who seem to just be able to “get on with it”.’
People who experience procrastination are often more conscientiousness than those who seem to just be able to get on with it.
‘Indeed, procrastination can be a sign of maladaptive perfectionism where the fear of getting something wrong, or even not doing it as well as we’d like, can paralyse action,’ she adds.
Habitual procrastination could be something deeper at play. ‘This may have developed from harsh or unhelpful criticism during childhood and adolescence, but there is likely a genetic component related to the personality trait of conscientiousness that also plays a role,’ explains Dr Arroll.
Procrastination signs and symptoms
As explained, the main symptom associated with procrastination is the act of putting things off. But, as Dr Arroll adds, there’s more to procrastination than simply delaying your to-do list.
‘The key pattern with procrastination is not simply leaving tasks until the last minute, rather a great deal of time and mental energy is spent thinking about the job at hand and growing increasingly anxious about it until finally a burst of action takes place,’ she says.
Procrastination can be harmful to health as it can lead to poor time management, stress and burnout.
‘This is why procrastination can be harmful to health as it consumes resources, leading to poor time management, stress and for some even burnout syndrome,’ says Dr Arroll.
‘If you’re feeling overwhelmed by tasks or are experiencing symptoms of anxiety such as heart palpitations, dizziness or a feeling of dread when confronted with a task, it is worth digging a little deeper to get to the route of the problem.’
How to stop procrastinating
The best way to overcome procrastination is to examine the root of the problem. Ask yourself: is it because the task at hand is daunting, is it because you’re worried you won’t get it perfect, or do you just not feel good enough?
- If it’s because it’s daunting
‘For some people the issue may simply be that the task at hand feels unsurmountable,’ says Dr Arroll. ‘In this instance breaking it down into bite-size chunks and rewarding each mini-achievement is useful.’
- If it’s because you’re a perfectionist
‘For people with maladaptive perfectionist traits which lead to procrastination, the way to overcome procrastination involves some work around banishing the inner critic,’ says Dr Arroll. Set your targets deliberately low, and focus on what you have already achieved rather than striving towards something unattainable.
- If it’s because you don’t feel good enough
‘Thoughts such as “it will never be good enough“, and “I shouldn’t even be doing this job, they’ll realise I’m not up to scratch when I submit this report” need to be challenged with evidence, logic and a big helping of compassion,’ explains Dr Arroll.
Suffice to say, if you are a procrastinator, chances are you care deeply about what you’re doing, rather than not enough.
Mental health support
If you feel anxious or depressed and need additional support, try one of the following resources: