Whether it’s with the mundane day-to-day tasks like doing the dishes and putting away laundry or the more important things (like that work project that’s due next week), many of us procrastinate on things because the task is frustrating, difficult, or feels like a chore. While some procrastination may be harmless in the grand scheme of things (the trash can wait to be thrown out tomorrow, NBD), too much procrastination can potentially cause problems in different areas of life.
“When we procrastinate, we are trying to avoid feeling bad, but avoidance of uncomfortable feelings is impossible,” says Sasha Heinz, Ph.D., MAPP, a developmental psychologist and mindset coach. “Becoming a grown-up is about our ability to meet the demands of reality. The more we avoid reality, the more challenging our life becomes.”
For instance, Dr. Heinz says the consequences of chronic procrastination at work can include missing opportunities for promotion or losing a job. It can cause serious damage to relationships, too. “Difficult conversations are avoided and increase tension and unspoken anger that could have been resolved,” she says. The same goes for your health. Procrastinating on resolving minor issues may mean they develop into more serious health issues down the road.
In essence, procrastination becomes a problem when there’s an inability to tolerate difficult emotions. “If we are unable to tolerate the difficult emotions that come with growth, challenge, and responsibility—frustration, dread, disappointment, sadness, vulnerability, or helplessness—we, both consciously and unconsciously, make our lives smaller and smaller,” Dr. Heinz says. “If we want to create a life with more opportunity and freedom, we must become an emotional adult and take full responsibility for ourselves and our life. And emotional adulthood means we are able to accept and tolerate the full spectrum of human emotion, even when it is extremely uncomfortable.”
Curious to know where you land on the spectrum of occasional procrastinator or chronic procrastinator? There’s a quiz for that. This 5-minute Psychology Today procrastination test gives you a score based on how much you tend to procrastinate. The higher the score, the more likely your procrastination habits are to interfere with your life. Whatever your score, though, there’s always room for improvement. Read on for three tips on how to overcome procrastination.
3 ways to overcome procrastination, according to a psychologist
Identify your dread
“Procrastination is all about perceived emotional discomfort,” Dr. Heinz says. In other words, it’s a way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. To combat procrastination, she recommends stopping and asking yourself why you don’t want to do the task. How do you think working on the task will make you feel? What’s the feeling you’re avoiding? Maybe you think the task will be difficult, or you’re putting pressure on yourself for it to be perfect.
Once you pinpoint the dread, Dr. Heinz suggests envisioning the consequences of not getting it done and how much more stressful or daunting the task will feel when you’re in a time crunch. This helps put things in perspective and makes you realize that doing it sooner rather than later is actually the better option than the temporary relief you get from putting it off.
Make the task tiny
“Often we procrastinate on something that feels huge, even if we’re telling ourselves it isn’t,” Dr. Heinz says. (Cue flashbacks to writing high school papers.) One of her tricks to help get you going is to break up the big tasks into many tiny steps, so it feels more approachable and less daunting.
For example, instead of adding the aforementioned school paper to your to-do list as a single task, which can feel overwhelming and causes you to procrastinate, break it down step by step (i.e., do research, create an outline, write a draft, edit, etc.). Once you complete each tiny step, Dr. Heinz says celebrating will help keep the momentum going.
Invite someone to join you
Just as having a workout buddy can help keep you accountable to stay on track with your fitness goals, adding another person to the mix can also help you beat procrastination. Here’s why. “Other people help us regulate our nervous system faster than we can ourselves,” Dr. Heinz says. “Their calm energy will help you manage your stress, and it also gives you the added benefit of giving you a very specific time frame, so it feels much less intimidating.”
Let’s say you’re procrastinating on decluttering your home. Ask a friend or hire a professional to come to help you. Or, if the project is computer-based, Dr. Heinz recommends hopping on a Zoom with a friend, turning off the audio and camera while you work, and then checking in with each other every 30 minutes to an hour. Your productivity will soar.