6 science-backed reasons you keep procrastinating — and what you can do to beat it once and for all

Getty ImagesIt’s not about laziness.
  • The root causes of procrastination aren’t always obvious.
  • We dug into the scientific literature and found several suggested reasons.
  • For example, maybe you have an “all-or-nothing” mindset, or you don’t practice self-compassion.

Procrastination is rarely about laziness – that would be too easy to fix.

Instead, it tends to result from deeper psychological issues – think a fraught relationship with your parents or a skewed perception of time.

We dug into the growing body of research on procrastination and highlighted some of the least obvious explanations for why you push things off … and off and off.

So don’t, well, delay. Read on and see which of those theories most resonate with you.

1. You have a hard time managing your emotions

Despite common misconceptions, procrastination isn’t a time-management issue – it’s an emotional one, Carleton University procrastination expert Timothy Pychyl told The New York Times’ Charlotte Lieberman.

One paper Pychyl co-authored, cited in The Times, suggests that putting things off is about fixing your mood in the short term instead of dealing with longer-term priorities.

2. Your dad was really strict when you were a kid

Research led by Pychyl found that women who grew up with authoritarian fathers (those who place a high value on obedience and aren’t particularly warm) are more likely to procrastinate as adults.

Writing in Psychology Today, Pychyl says that’s possibly because procrastination is a passive aggressive way to rebel against external agents of control – something they weren’t able to do when they were young.

3. You need to adjust your perception of time

One study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who think a deadline falls in a time like the present will be less likely to procrastinate than people who think a deadline falls in a time unlike the present.

In other words, if it’s March 2019 and you find out a project is due in January 2020, you’ll be more likely to procrastinate than if it’s March 2019 and you find out the project is due in December 2019. That’s because we categorise time in terms of years, and a same-year deadline seems sooner than a next-year deadline, even if they’re both six months away.

The next time you find out an assignment is due the following week, try reframing the deadline as “like the present.” In the study, participants achieved this by looking at a calendar in which the current date and the due date were the same colour.

4. You have an “all-or-nothing” mindset

Losing 20 pounds might seem like a tremendous undertaking, so it’s tempting to put it off endlessly.

People with this mentality “think of the 20 pounds rather than the day-to-day struggle of chipping off the weight and gradually reaching a goal,” psychotherapist Judith Belmont told Today Health.

One way to combat this type of thinking is to break things up into smaller tasks. As Belmont suggests, think about cutting out a few hundred calories every day(or whatever your doctor suggests) to make the goal seem more manageable.

5. You don’t practice self-compassion

Procrastinators tend to be more stressed than other people – even before they start procrastinating.

According to a study published in the journal Self and Identity, that’s possibly because they have self-defeating thoughts like, “I’m simply too stupid to benefit from more studying, so I’ll just hang out on Facebook.”

On the other hand, people who are kind to themselves during difficult times are better at self-regulating, which involves the capacity to control your impulses.

6. You don’t feel that connected to your future self

Other research by Pychyl, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, found that undergrads who felt less similar to their future self – whether 10 years or two months down the road – were more likely to procrastinate on their school work. And an earlier review of studies from the European Journal of Personality suggests that procrastinators are less likely to think about and plan for the future.

How to beat procrastination once and for all

As psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer told The Times, one way to beat procrastination is to come up with a “Bigger Better Offer,” or a way to relieve whatever you’re feeling right now without making life harder for your future self.

Another option, which Pychyl shared with The Times, is to consider what step you’d take next if you weren’t procrastinating: “What’s the next action I’d take on this if I were going to do it, even though I’m not?”

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