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When Procrastination Is a Problem, and How to Fix It

By Paula Spencer Scott
WebMD Feature

Procrastination is a long word for this quick idea: later.  It's telling yourself you'll do things "tomorrow" or "when I feel more like it."

When is putting things off a problem?

Everyone delays or puts things off sometimes, and that's fine, says Timothy Pychyl, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. You might postpone a meeting because of a schedule conflict, or to give yourself time to prepare. Procrastinating becomes a problem only when it hinders your relationships or getting your work done.

For about one in five adults, procrastination is a real, long-lasting problem.

Why we delay

The things people put off tend to be boring, hard, time-consuming, or maybe they lack meaning to us. Or we worry that the results won't be perfect. When you avoid doing what seems less than pleasant, you get a little mood boost. But this bump doesn't last. The avoided thing still hangs over you, causing guilt and stress.

The real reasons we procrastinate lie deep within human behavior. We tend to view things in the future as less real or concrete. The later risks of not doing something (or the rewards of getting it done) seem less real, too.

Putting things off is a habit. We're wired to do what's easy -- in this case, delaying doing something we don’t find pleasant. And habits are hard to break.

How to get a move on

  • Be concrete. Don't say, "I'll start the report in the morning." Say, "I'll outline just the three main points of the report while I drink my morning coffee, before I look at mail."
  • Be realistic about your time. We tend to be optimists about the future and think we'll get more done than we do. Try jotting down all the things you have to do into your datebook. Include tasks like shopping for food, doing laundry, working out. That way when you make a plan to do something, you can get a true sense of what time you'll have.
  • "Pre-empt that which tempts," Pychyl says. Shut off all the things that are a click away from distracting you. Social media and texting require little effort, give you a lot of mood reward, and suck time. Make them a reward after you finish.
  • Know and accept that when the time comes to do the task, you won't want to -- and get past that. Just starting, even in the smallest way, creates progress. Then a sense of progress fuels well-being. "It's an upward spiral," Pychyl says.
  • Start with the hardest tasks. Willpower is a muscle. You'll better resist things that distract when you first get started.
  • "Time travel" in your mind's eye to when the task at hand is done. Think about how good you'll feel.
  • Pace yourself. Set aside time to make a little progress every day. College students who had to complete small amounts of work before they could go to the next level did better on tests than those who were given all the study material at once, a 2011 University of Kansas study found.
  • Be kind to yourself.  Praise yourself for taking the first steps. Assure yourself that a "good enough" effort is great, and better than putting things off.
Reviewed on February 18, 2014

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