From time to time, everybody leaves a task lingering on their to-do list for a few hours — or days, or weeks — too long. Procrastination is a normal, near-universal phenomenon — which makes it all the more important to understand why it strikes and what to do about it.
“Procrastination is not just avoiding or delaying a task,” says David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “It also has to include an aspect that’s counterproductive, irrational or unnecessary.”
Those triggers typically fall into one of four camps: expectancy, value, time or impulsivity, says Alexander Rozental, a procrastination researcher and a clinical psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. In other words, “People procrastinate because of a lack of value [associated with the task]; because they expect that they’re not going to achieve the value they’re trying to achieve; because the value is too far from you in terms of time; or because you’re very impulsive as a person,” Rozental says.
Strategies for overcoming procrastination will vary depending on why it happens in the first place. “The first step is stepping back and figuring out what’s going on. Identify your own habits,” Ballard says. “Is there one kind of thing you always put off to last? What is it that you tend to put off, and what are your thought patterns around that?”
Once you have a clearer picture of your own work or study habits, Ballard says you stand a better chance of fixing them. Here, some common reasons you may be procrastinating, as well as strategies for combatting them.
If timing is the issue
Many people are inherently more productive at certain times of day. Ballard recommends working around these natural productivity ebbs and flows when you schedule your days. “If you know you work better in the mornings on certain kinds of tasks, schedule it for then,” he says. “Don’t try to do it at a time when you’re tired and it’s harder for you to do.”
If you get overwhelmed by big tasks
Many people procrastinate because they’re anxious about the outcome of a project, don’t think they can complete it well or fear failure, Rozental says. If that’s the case, it may help to break it into smaller sub-tasks.
“If you don’t believe in yourself enough to actually conduct a particular task, you can try to do it in smaller and more manageable parts to increase your self-efficacy,” Rozental recommends.
If you struggle with delayed gratification
Some people have a hard time thinking of a project as important or rewarding unless they’re squeezing it in just before a deadline. In this case, too, breaking a long-term assignment into multiple smaller ones may help, Ballard says. “Find ways to reward yourself along the way,” he recommends. You can even schedule your most frequent diversions — think checking social media or completing non-urgent chores and errands — for the gaps between these smaller chunks to get a quick hit of an enjoyable activity, Ballard adds. “You get those activities done, you get a break and you can shift your mindset for a few minutes,” he says.
It may also help to pause long enough to really think about why you’re doing a certain task, Rozental says. “Clarify why this task or commitment is important to you,” he says. “Ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
If you’re easily distracted
First, Ballard recommends optimizing your environment. “Put your cell phone away, turn off notifications on your computer and don’t have 10 tabs open at the same time,” he says.
Ballard also suggests minimizing distraction’s cousin: multi-tasking. Many of us fall into the trap of “juggling two or three tasks at the same time, so you finish one, but you’re still in the middle of the other,” Ballard says. That “never-ending stream of tasks” may make it feel like you’re never actually completing anything, which deprives you of the satisfaction of being done. “Take the time to wrap one thing up, put it away, take a breath, walk around for a minute and stretch before you step into the next thing so can move on having refreshed yourself,” Ballard says.
If you’re struggling with something larger
Sometimes, what looks like procrastination may actually be a symptom of something more serious, such as depression, anxiety or attention problems, Ballard says. If your behavior is causing you distress or significantly affecting your performance at work, school or home, don’t be afraid to consult a professional. “Get some additional support and help from a professional who can help you manage those so it’s not getting in the way of your job performance or functioning,” he says.
If you’re simply hitting a wall
Even the most efficient workers have days when it’s harder to finish tasks. With any luck, these lulls will strike when you don’t have a deadline looming and you can “cut your losses and take a break” to focus on taking care of yourself with sleep, exercise, proper nutrition and enjoyable, non-work-related activities, Ballard says.
You can emulate that same strategy, albeit to a lesser extent, even if you’re facing down a task that absolutely has to happen today. “Maybe take five minutes to get outside, take a walk, get some sunlight,” Ballard says. “What we don’t often feel at the time is that those breaks will actually increase your productivity and make up for the lost time. If you’re doing small breaks like that, you’ll actually get things done more efficiently afterward.”