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by Andrea M. Darcy
Who at some point hasn’t put off doing something they didn’t want to do? Then joked, “I’m just procrastinating”?
And yet for chronic procrastinators it goes much deeper then having a one-off lazy day. Procrastination becomes a behavioural approach that can affect all areas of life, even health. (That said, there can be positives… read on!).
Are you a chronic procrastinator?
Here are the signs that can indicate you are suffering from chronic procrastination.
1. It’s incessant.
Procrastinating a few times a month might be a case of hating your job, or being in a bad mood. Chronic procrastination, on the other hand, means you put off important tasks several times a week if not several times daily, and have been doing so for ages… if not always.
2. You can’t stop procrastinating, despite best effort.
Your friends give you all their best advice for getting organised. But it just doesn’t work, you still procrastinate. It’s a pattern you can’t escape.
4. It affects your daily coping.
Life is a balancing act of barely keeping it together and just making deadlines, even if others see you as ‘successful’. So you are often tired and forgetful.
And your social life bears the brunt, too. You might constantly cancel things at the last minute as you are behind yet again on a deadline, or annoy your partner with your last-minute habits.
5. Deep down you might feel like a failure.
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Chronic procrastination can leave us feeling ashamed. And it can be true that others find our habit frustrating, or look down on us for it.
5. You are ‘busy’ all the time.
Chronic procrastinators are rarely lazy like assumed. A good procrastinator is often so busy with ‘tasks’ they don’t have time to do what needs to be done. They are hanging the laundry, sorting out their inbox, doing research on that vacuum they want to buy… as their dissertation sits untouched.
Is procrastination a mental illness?
No. But it can certainly up your risk of having mental health issues. It’s a self-esteem killer. Which can also mean you suffer from bouts of depression, if not ongoing ‘walking depression‘.
Or the stress it brings might mean you suffer things like anxiety, sleep problems, or addictions.
Why is chronic procrastination such a big deal?
Chronic procrastination can have practical consequences. You might underperform at work, despite being really smart. And it can definitely affect your money situation, particularly if you are always putting off things like doing your taxes or making a budget.
Then there is the physical toll it can take. Procrastinators can lead their lives constantly on edge, which as well as that aforementioned poor sleep can lead to things like high blood pressure, and other stress-related conditions.
A 2023 study looking at the effects of procrastination on a student population in Sweden worked to understand if procrastination affected health or vice versa, if students procrastinated because they didn’t feel well. While more research needs to be done, it did seem that in many cases procrastination was present before ill health set in.
Why do I procrastinate, anyway?
Here are some of the main reasons you might procrastinate.
1. You have ADHD.
Do you procrastinate not by choice, but because you can’t seem to not get distracted? And do you suffer from other things like daydreaming, impulsivity, talking out of turn, and restlessness? Have you had all these issues since childhood if you are honest with yourself? Chronic procrastination is highly connected to attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Yes, adult ADHD means you are generally distracted, but when you do decide to focus, it’s often intense, and at the detriment to all else. This is an ADHD symptom known as ‘hyper focus’. And unfortunately you’ll often choose the wrong thing to focus on, meaning you procrastinate on what matters.
So on a day you are working from home, and you have a big work presentation to do, you decide to suddenly clear out all your kitchen cupboards to perfection. And suddenly, it’s night time and you haven’t started the presentation.
2. Or you have complex PTSD from childhood trauma.
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Does the description of ADHD sound familiar? And did you suffer through a childhood trauma like neglect or something like child sexual abuse? Complex PTSD, which comes from ongoing difficult experiences, can leave us with the same signs like distraction, impulsivity, and restlessness. And mean we struggle to focus and get things done.
3. Your low self-worth means you delay things.
Self-worth and procrastination can be a chicken or egg situation. We feel bad about ourselves because we always do things at the last minute. But then if we feel we aren’t any good at things, it can be one of the reasons we put things off, as we don’t want to yet again face feeling pathetic.
4. You have a negative ‘thought loop’ running.
And that feeling you are ‘no good’ can actually push you to put things off… to ‘prove’ that it’s true. Yes, seriously.
A core belief is a strong assumption, usually developed in childhood, that is deeply-rooted in your unconscious. It acts as a sort of ‘programming’ that affects all the decisions you make in life, even if it’s negative. Your brain works to ‘prove’ its beliefs as ‘true’.
5. You have an anxiety disorder.
Again, it’s hard to say what comes first here. But if you suffer from anxiety, whether or not it was created by your procrastination habit itself? It’s going to mean you are not good at deadlines. Your mind becomes so ‘hijacked’ by your fearful and illogical thoughts, you often really can’t get it together to make deadlines easily.
6. You are suffering from perfectionism.
Perfectionism can mean you don’t start something as you are worried you won’t ‘get it right’. Or you do it over and over and over again… until suddenly you have an hour left before you have to hand in the assignment and are in a full on state of panic.
7. Your high IQ has left you an adrenaline junkie.
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It turns out that those with a high IQ are more likely to procrastinate than others. As they know they can get away with it.
Or, as a research study on conscientiousness in university students puts it, they have “a behavioural tendency to pace their work or other tasks at less than their maximum potential ability.”
It can also be that your brain seeks challenge. Procrastinating can give it a sort of energetic rush that feels good, in a world where a lot of things often seem too easy and boring.
The positive side of putting things off
‘”You call it procrastinating, I call it thinking.” Writer and director Aaron Sorkin.
So if you are in that high IQ category? Putting things off can be a positive. This is explained well by psychologist and author Adam Grant in his Ted talk ‘The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers‘. He believes that for some of us, the non-conformist high intelligence sorts he calls ‘the Originals’, procrastinating can lead to greater creativity and innovative ideas.
But it’s a sort of ‘sweet spot’ of moderate over severe procrastination. Whereas a severe procrastinator who isn’t an Original is just avoiding thinking about their deadline or project at all? Originals allow distraction, but their project is always in the back of their mind.
Is procrastination a learned habit?
Aside from those of us who are high IQ innovators using procrastination to excel? Or who were born with an ADHD brain? It can definitely be a habit more related to ‘nurture’ than ‘nature’.
If we are we are raised by parents who spoiled us, or micro managed our lives, we could be more likely to grow up with no idea of how to prioritise our time and get things done.
The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for things like planning, controlling impulses, and paying attention, can end up with low activation if you are never taught to meet deadlines and see rewards as something you must earn. Low activation then results in an inability to filter out distracting stimuli, leading to chronic procrastination.
On the other hand, if your parents were too controlling and authoritarian? You might end up an adult who always procrastinates as you are unconsciously ‘rebelling’ against all the rigour of your childhood.
How to deal with procrastination
To overcome chronic procrastination you need techniques that reprogram your brain and give you a new perspective on yourself.
It will require some trail and error and persistent effort. Try these tools below and see if they work for you.
1. Prioritise yourself.
Counselling or coaching can help you to get over feelings of guilt around putting yourself first. Get a head start by writing a list of why you are worthy of a calm, organised life, and deserve to overcome procrastination.
2. Engage others to help.
Procrastination thrives in privacy. Letting others know we have something to accomplish can change that as it leads to accountability.
And if you aren’t starting something because the overwhelm is real? You actually don’t have the skills required to complete the task? Then learning to delegate can be a game changer. You don’t have to, for example, live in a house with exposed plaster walls as you have to ‘learn to wallpaper’. Stop trying to do everything and just hire someone.
3. Remove emotions.
If you wait for the ‘right mood’ to hit, or to ‘feel good’ about the project, or are sure you’ll ‘feel more like doing it tomorrow’? You’ll never get started.
Flip this belief system around by telling yourself that the worst you feel, the more perfect the time it is to start. It’s actually true, because we only tend to feel better once we get going with things.
4. Do things you are bad at.
If your chronic procrastination is heavily linked to perfectionism, then try your hand at something you don’t care about being good at. Go to an art class if you’ve never drawn, do a dance class if you are all left feet. You might be surprised at how liberating it can be to drop your standards, and how this energy of just ‘having a go’ can mean you stop stalling on getting things done.
5. Think small.
Procrastinators are often ‘big thinkers’ who see things in broad strokes. But big things are overwhelming, so no wonder you procrastinate.
Think rocks instead. The mountain breaks down into boulders breaks down into rocks. Dissect every task into its smallest component, making yourself do this process on paper at first until your brain learns to do it naturally. Then start with the smallest step and work your way in.
6. Learn to differentiate between urgent and important tasks.
Many procrastinators don’t naturally have this habit and have to train themselves. The most common technique is called the Four Quadrants by Stephen R. Covey, where you divide tasks into:
- not urgent and not important
- urgent and not important
- not urgent and important
- urgent and important.
7. Turn off technology.
Turning off your phone and internet for 45-minute long timed intervals, followed by a 15-minute timed ‘on’ slot, can do wonders for your ability to focus and get things done. Or go further and quit social media. Cal Newport, the man behind the famous book and concept ‘Deep Work’, is a fan of avoiding it.
8. Get a handle on time.
Speaking of timed intervals.
People who suffer from chronic procrastination often have an unrealistic sense of time. The answer is to spend a few days timing everything.mFrom your breakfast to your phone calls to your news reading to your time spent trying to work, get an exact idea of how long things are taking.
You’ll be amazed to see where your time actually goes, and what you can get done or not get done within certain time frames. Take it a step further by then making a rough schedule for every day and using your timer to make sure you are on track.
9. Schedule in downtime.
Creating slots in your day that are there to expressly do nothing at all — an hour where you are ‘supposed to’ watch cat videos, chat with friends, and potter around the house? Means your usual delay tactics are no longer delays but consciously accepted choices. This leaves your mind less able to sabotage when you do sit down to work and makes it easier to overcome procrastination.
10. Name your losses.
Sometimes what we need is a good reality check. Write a big list of all the things that procrastination costs you.
11. Get honest about your passion.
You are no longer a student forced to take classes you don’t like.
If you delay all work tasks because you actually hate your job? Accept that as an adult you have the power to change your job, or whatever else it is you secretly don’t enjoy.
12. Learn to like yourself.
Procrastination is often a form of self-abuse. We sabotage our life because we don’t think we deserve good things. Start a list that you constantly add to about why you are a good person, adding to it with everything you do that you are proud of.
What is the therapy treatment for chronic procrastination?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps you overcome procrastination by helping you stop the negative thought cycles that lead to putting things off. And it gives you useful tools you can use for a lifetime. In fact recent research found that a round of CBT therapy still proved helpful with procrastination a year after the fact.
If your procrastinating isn’t connected to difficult past experiences, life coaching might do the trick. It helps you prioritise and overcome your blocks to getting things done.
Otherwise you might want to try mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or find a practitioner who integrates mindfulness into your work together. Mindfulness helps you still the chatter in your head and focus.
Exhausted by your habit of procrastination and want to change? We connect you with a team of top talk therapists in central London, including ADHD coaches if you think that’s what you need. Or use our sister booking site to find UK-wide registered therapists who can help.
Andrea M. Darcy is an established mental health and wellbeing writer who also works as a mentor. Diagnosed with both a high IQ as well as ADHD thirty years ago, she has always been a master at procrastination, and procrastinated at writing this piece! Find her @am_darcy