Why You Put Things Off Until the Last Minute

Most of us procrastinate and assume it’s normal behavior. But sometimes, “putting it off” can point to a larger issue.

June 24, 2022

It’s the end of your workday and you’re staring at the to-do list you made earlier. You have one project at the bottom of the list that you’ve been putting off. It’s already late—you still haven’t gotten to it.

You tell yourself you’ll tackle the item tomorrow. You become increasingly frustrated with yourself for not getting it done.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone.

Almost everyone procrastinates at one point or another. For many, the issue doesn’t interfere with their quality of life. But if you find yourself continually procrastinating, and then regretting it, you could be caught in a negative cycle.

It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you delay tasks, either at home or in the workplace. But do you deserve self-criticism—or is your procrastination pointing to something more serious?

It’s important to know that procrastination is not your fault. There are reasons we engage in this behavior, and there are ways we can address it.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • Why we delay important tasks by procrastinating
  • How procrastination is linked to mental health
  • How to overcome procrastination

What Is Procrastination?

Experts define procrastination as a self-defeating behavior pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs. Many of us know it as putting off things that we need to get done, no matter the level of difficulty behind the task.

We all procrastinate from time to time. However, when we develop a habit of putting off necessary actions, even when we face negative consequences, procrastination can affect our well-being.

According to a 2014 study on procrastination and coping, 20-25% of adults worldwide are chronic procrastinators. The issue can be linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and poor study habits.

Procrastination is connected to negative functioning and risks to mental health. People who procrastinate tend to have high levels of anxiety as well as poor impulse control.

Procrastination is even linked to physical illness. People who procrastinate experience more stress and tend to delay treatments—which can create a cycle of poor health due to just putting things off.

Perfectionism in Kids & Teens

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Elizabeth McIngvale, PhD, LCSW, explains the varying signs and symptoms of perfectionism and answers audience questions about how we can teach our loved ones—and maybe even ourselves—to foster a growth mindset.

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So Why Do We Procrastinate?

Even though procrastination results in more stress in the long term, people may delay action with the idea that they will feel better in the short term.

Studies consistently show that our stress levels are higher as a result of procrastination, though. There are a number of reasons why you may procrastinate.

Feeling Bored

It makes sense that if you perceive an activity as boring or unpleasant, you’re far more likely to put it off until later.

Lack of Belief in Your Abilities

Another reason you may procrastinate? You lack faith in your abilities. Believing that you can carry out tasks is essential to functioning. If your sense of self-efficacy is low, you’re less likely to begin a task or to see it through.

Fear and Anxiety

You may procrastinate out of fear. For example, you might delay essential medical tests because you’re afraid of a diagnosis. The more anxiety we experience about a task, the more likely we’ll put it off until later.

Not only does your stress level increase when you do this, but there’s a risk to physical health with an undetected, untreated illness.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism can play a role in procrastination. People may delay tasks they believe they won’t perform well or that they’ll fail altogether. They may try to put off a task until they suddenly feel more inspired or have a better idea, even though inspiration is more likely to strike once a person starts a task.

Distraction

Distractions in our environment can prevent us from focusing on the task at hand. Many of us can relate to the lure of social media over a dreaded activity, such as paying bills.

Researchers believe procrastination has increased in recent years. Technology has been a factor. However, procrastination has been reported as a human behavior throughout history.

Procrastination in Kids and Teens

Children may procrastinate for the same reasons as adults: They may fear making mistakes. They may wish to put an unpleasant task out of their minds—only to struggle more later.

It’s important to keep in mind that children who procrastinate may be unsure of what is expected of them. For example, a child who delays turning in a homework assignment may be unclear about the directions. If you notice your child procrastinating, be sure to be patient and clear in your expectations.

On the other hand, children who chronically procrastinate may do so because they’ve gotten away with the behavior in the past. It’s important for parents and other caregivers to follow through with requests to help children develop healthy habits.

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Is It Possible To Outgrow Procrastination?

Studies show young people are more likely to procrastinate than older age groups. In fact, many people seem to outgrow procrastination as they mature.

A 2016 study that analyzed procrastination in several different age groups found that procrastination was highest in 14-to-29-year-olds, the youngest age group studied.

The same study reports that people procrastinate less as they age. Researchers believe the decline is linked to personality development, changes in time perception, and increased coping skills.

In particular, people tend to develop more conscientiousness with age. Individuals with this personality trait tend to be careful and thorough.

Conscientiousness is linked to several positive aspects of life, from fulfillment with work to healthy relationships. The more conscientious a person is, the less likely they are to procrastinate.

Another reason older people may procrastinate less? They have more awareness that time is limited. Young people tend to have abstract thoughts about time.

As people become more aware of their own mortality, they realize they cannot indefinitely delay what needs to be done.

Procrastination in Students

While procrastination affects about a quarter of the general population, it impacts half of all students.

A 1997 study on student health found that students who procrastinated reported lower stress and less illness than peers early in the semester. As long as the deadline remained remote, the procrastinating students were better off.

However, later in the semester, students who procrastinated experienced more stress and illness. They were sicker than their peers overall. The procrastinating students also received lower grades on all assignments.

According to the study, delaying a task does not simply delay the unpleasantness associated with it. Even though procrastinators experience less stress to begin with, they were more stressed as the deadline neared and accumulated more stress overall.

The 2014 study on students’ mental health and coping found that students who put off starting and completing everyday tasks were less likely to express their needs. The students in this study also experienced increased stress.

Is Procrastination Linked to Mental Health Conditions?

It’s important to know: procrastination is not a sign of laziness. Although procrastination is not considered a mental health condition in and of itself, it is connected to mental health challenges.

Several studies have linked procrastination to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. According to the American Psychological Association, procrastination can also play a role in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and several other conditions.

With procrastination and mental health concerns, it can be hard to know which comes first. Symptoms of mental illness, such as racing thoughts and fatigue, can make it hard to take on tasks. On the other hand, putting things off can create stress that leads to mental health concerns.

Procrastination and Self-Regulation

When people choose short-term rewards over long-term benefits, they may struggle with self-regulation.

Self-regulation involves behaviors like our ability to plan ahead or to pause before we react. It plays a role in substance use disorders and other conditions that involve impulse control.

Procrastination and Mood

In an article that reviews 20 years of studies on procrastination, the Association for Psychological Science points out that procrastination involves an inability to regulate mood and emotions.

When we stay on task, even while the task inspires dread, we’re managing challenging emotions. Many mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety can make it harder to regulate mood.

Chronic procrastinators are less likely to express their needs and concerns. Procrastination is associated with fewer mental health-seeking behaviors, including delays in seeking professional help.

All of this leads to greater distress, which is why it’s important to identify and address procrastination.

When Procrastination Points to Anxiety

Avoiding tasks out of fear of an unpleasant outcome is a sign of anxiety. For example, when people fear a result, they may delay learning the results of a test, or avoid taking the test altogether.

People with anxiety may also struggle with perfectionism. When this is the case, they may feel stuck with a project if they feel they aren’t doing it as well as possible. They may delay completing an assignment if the best ideas aren’t coming to them, or if they believe they’ll make less than a top grade.

People with anxiety can have a tendency to feel overwhelmed, which can make it hard to begin a task at all. When we perceive an overload of information, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Procrastination’s Role in Depression

People with depression tend to dwell on negative thoughts and experience self-doubt. They’re more likely to struggle with low self-esteem and believe they cannot carry out the task at hand.

Lower energy levels and difficulty motivating oneself are two common symptoms of depression as well. If someone can’t muster the energy to complete a task, they may find it easier to put it off until they feel better. With depression, though, it can be difficult to gauge if—or when—someone feels motivated enough to complete what they need to.

They may also ruminate on past procrastination and lack self-compassion, which can further the cycle of putting things off. Indecisiveness, another symptom of depression, also contributes to procrastination.

Procrastination and ADHD

People with ADHD can have difficulty regulating attention, staying organized, and can be easily distracted. They can also struggle with aspects of executive functioning, including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. All of these factors can interfere with starting and completing tasks.

Hyperfixation is another symptom of ADHD that can contribute to procrastination. When people become extremely focused on tasks they enjoy, they are more likely to avoid less compelling responsibilities. They become so absorbed in the engrossing activity that they lose track of time or lose awareness of their environment.

Overcoming Anxiety

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Anxiety disorders are common, treatable, and can be managed. Learn more about the skills needed to control anxiety and live a healthy, happy life.

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How Do I Know if Procrastination Is Impacting My Life?

If any of the above seems familiar, it’s very possible that you’ve resorted to procrastinating—and it’s possible that the behavior has started to inch its way into impacting other parts of your life. Below, we’ve outlined some of the most common ways to tell if putting off tasks have started to affect you beyond a missed deadline.

You Are Anxious—Even About Tasks You Successfully Completed Before

Procrastination can cause anxiety if you think the task in question is not worth your time. You may find yourself struggling to accept a project and complain that it is boring, has no meaning, and won’t make any difference.

If the undertaking doesn’t generate a clear reward, like income, it can be even harder to finish. In such situations, you may not even recognize you’re struggling. Your mind may not register that you are fearful or anxious.

You Start Worrying About Not Meeting the Required Results

One of the most common symptoms of procrastination is fear of a negative or unknown outcome. If you’re fueled by anxiety, you may feel that you are inadequate, incapable, or a failure.

You may put off tasks because you are afraid of not achieving “perfect” results. You may also fear being criticized. Avoidance of these feelings may contribute to pushing back deadlines, stockpiling tasks, and getting comfortable with not taking action.

You Resent Tasks You Had Been Comfortable Doing

Procrastination can make you resent engaging in activities or projects you once enjoyed. This general resentment may transfer to other daily activities, such as waking up on time, going to the gym, or doing dishes.

When it comes to task-related resentment, people often feel like the system doesn’t work for them. Some people grow to resent complying with rules or find them too strict when they didn’t feel this way before.

You Start Blaming Others for Your Procrastination

The mental health effects of procrastination manifest in different ways. They may include boredom, helplessness, or anger.

You may find it hard to admit you’re experiencing anxiety or have any responsibility for your poor performance. While other people or circumstances may sometimes contribute to your difficulties in completing a project, focusing blame externally can exacerbate the problem.

You Try To Be Perfect

It’s commonly said that perfectionism is fear in disguise. People who like things done “correctly” may struggle with accepting errors and mistakes in their lives. They’ll berate themselves for not achieving a desired outcome. They often hold others to the same unrealistic standards.

Perfectionists prefer working on projects alone rather than delegating tasks to others. They fear collaborators may not deliver what’s needed.

If you’re showing signs of perfectionism when you’ve never experienced this trait before, procrastination may be a factor.

Other Signs

Procrastination’s long-term effects include sleep deprivation, irregular eating patterns, and unhealthy regimens.

Many people do not realize that their procrastination may have psychological underpinnings. If unaddressed, the situation may deteriorate, resulting in consequences such as relationship difficulties or getting fired from a job.

Defying Impostor Syndrome

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Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin explains ways to keep our inner critic from holding us back from personal and professional growth and provides methods to overcome impostor syndrome and work through negative thought patterns.

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Tips for Overcoming Procrastination

Procrastination is a behavior that can be managed and overcome—with the right knowledge, tools, and support.

Here are a few tips to help you cope.

1. Whatever It Is, Just Start

The surest way to beat procrastination is to start doing what you have been dreading. Stop analyzing the project, and just begin to work on it.

While this may be easier said than done, it is possible to focus your mind to start tackling the task.

For example, you can decide to work for a brief period of time, even just 15 minutes. Once the time is up, you can reevaluate if you want to continue. You can even set a timer to hold yourself to this initial goal.

Once you begin a task, the next steps often flow naturally. Taking the initiative on that first action can be a springboard for momentum. You may end up realizing the task was easier than you expected.

2. Break the Task Down Into Small, Manageable Chunks

Sometimes we procrastinate when we feel overwhelmed. If you’ve been procrastinating a specific project because it feels like “too much,” make a plan.

Start by breaking the activity into smaller, more digestible parts. This makes the overall effort more manageable. Your mind registers that the tasks are small enough to be handled.

You can also create steps that allow you to complete the tasks on time. This step-by-step approach enables you to kickstart the work and achieve more than you might expect.

For the next step, start working on the framework you created. As you do this, you’ll notice you are moving forward without procrastinating.

Your stress may also slowly be replaced with a feeling of satisfaction that comes with letting go of fear and moving forward.

3. Become More Organized

People sometimes procrastinate because they overestimate how much they can achieve in a certain timeframe. They may also feel overwhelmed by tasks that keep pouring in from every direction.

Organizational strategies can be helpful in such cases.

For example, time management can limit procrastination behaviors. Listing your tasks, prioritizing them, and scheduling deadlines can be a start.

It can also be helpful to designate workspaces in your home that put you in the mindset for performing specific tasks. You’ll likely associate the area with the project, making it more likely to get to the task at hand.

You can limit distractions by closing applications on your computer. Placing your phone in another room can also help you focus.

4. Increase Your Motivation

We often let our emotions and negative thoughts get in the way of accomplishing what we need to do. We tend to avoid tasks that we’ve identified as lacking value.

Instead of resenting a task, introduce positive thoughts. Even rewarding yourself in small ways can help you get a handle on procrastination.

For example, you can increase your motivation to attend an exercise class by treating yourself to coffee with friends afterwards.

You can even reward yourself with a positive attitude by finding meaning in activities you tend to avoid. You may resent the term paper you’re writing, but you can focus on the college degree you’ll ultimately earn.

5. Understand That You Are Not Lazy

Procrastination is not laziness: it’s a behavior caused by the stress in our lives or unfounded negative beliefs we have about ourselves.

If you tend to procrastinate, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead, ask yourself if your behavior may be linked to fear, anxiety, or another underlying issue.

When To Seek Professional Help for Procrastination

The strategies outlined above can be useful for combating procrastination. If putting things off continues to interfere with your relationships, work, or well-being, though, it’s important to seek professional help. A licensed mental health provider can help you gain insight into behaviors that drive procrastination.

Therapy can help you reframe negative thoughts, find meaning in your activities, and embrace positivity. In therapy, you can learn time management skills, find ways to limit distractions, and develop productive habits.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) may be particularly helpful for procrastination. CBT explores the connections between thoughts and feelings. By changing the thoughts you have about an activity, you can change your attitude about it.

Consider how CBT can be applied to perfectionism and self-doubt. A therapist can help you become more aware of irrational beliefs that prevent you from completing activities. For example, they can help you explore why you think a homework assignment is only worth completing if you earn a perfect score.

If you or a loved one needs help managing mental health symptoms, McLean is here to help. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to learn more about treatment options.

Don’t Delay—Start Today

Most of us can relate to the boredom, frustration, and stress procrastination can cause. It’s important to realize that putting off projects is not a moral failing. Instead, it’s a very human tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings.

If we find ourselves frequently procrastinating, we’re likely caught up in an unhelpful cycle. We delay an activity to avoid stress, only to experience more stress when we confront the issue at the last-minute.

If we step back and consider the reasons we procrastinate, we can break this cycle. We can change our behaviors, try different approaches, and find the strength to get it all done.

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