The Psychology of Procrastination

We’re all familiar with the scenario: a deadline for a big project is looming, but rather than tackling the job head-on we procrastinate. We’ll do anything, from watching television to cleaning, to avoid starting the “big project.”  This avoidance causes other emotions such as guilt and anxiety. Procrastination is a common problem, and experts believe that there’s more to it than just laziness or a poor work ethic.

It is widely believed among psychologists that procrastination can be a symptom of depression—people who become depressed often lose their sense of motivation. Furthermore, procrastination is also a common trait in found in maladaptive perfectionists, or people who have high levels of anxiety and an unhealthy fear of failure. Certain types of maladaptive perfectionists set such stringent personal goals, or believe that others hold them to unrealistic standards, that they experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and consequently procrastinate.

According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University and co-author of the book “Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research and Treatment” (Springer, 1995), there are three types of procrastinators:


  • Arousal types: those who thrive off of the excitement and rush they experience with waiting until the last minute
  • Avoiders: people who fear failure or fear success, are deeply concerned about the opinions of others and measure their self-worth by their achievements
  • Decisional Procrastinators: those who are unable to make a decision, thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility for the way things turn out.

Procrastination can not only have emotional effects, but can also effect us physically.  Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and co-editor of the book “Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings” (A.P.A., 2004), has done extensive research on procrastination. In one study, he focused on students who procrastinated right before an assignment was due. The students reported feeling anxious and guilty because they hadn’t started their work, and rationalized it by telling themselves that they worked better under pressure or that the project wasn’t that important. But once they got started they began to have a more positive outlook and no longer worried about lost time. Interestingly, Pychyl has also found that students who procrastinate are more likely to experience insomnia, have stomach problems and develop colds.

So how do we stop procrastinating once and for all? It’s helpful to set manageable goals, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the big picture. For example, if you’re feeling anxious because your entire house needs to be organized, dedicate an evening to tidying one room; then write out a realistic cleaning schedule and a few days later, tackle the next room and so on. If you have a report due for work, devote an hour in the morning to writing the first section; the task will seem less daunting later in the day if some of it has already been completed. Getting started is always the biggest hurdle, but taking small steps to move forward with our plans will lead to more a more peaceful, balanced existence. If procrastination is impacting your life and relationships in adverse ways, cognitive behavioral therapy can also help.

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