Chronic procrastination is the long-term tendency to unnecessarily postpone decisions or actions. It is associated with various causes, such as anxiety and fear of failure, and can lead to various issues, such as increased stress and worse financial outcomes.
Because chronic procrastination is a prevalent and serious problem, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about chronic procrastination, understand what causes it, and see what you can do to overcome it.
Furthermore, these issues often lead to self-perpetuating procrastination cycles, which cause people to keep procrastinating in the long term. For example, this happens when anxiety leads someone to procrastinate on a task, which causes them to do badly on it, which increases the likelihood that they’ll feel anxious about similar tasks in the future, and which therefore makes them more likely to procrastinate again.
If you need basic advice on how to stop procrastinating right now, here are some key things that you can do:
- Make your environment as well-suited to taking action as possible. For example, you can remove distractions (e.g., your phone) from your work environment, even if you’re not ready yet to get started on your work.
- Identify an immediate or near-future incentive for getting started. For example, this can be getting praise from someone whose opinion you care about.
- Identify and commit to the smallest possible step you can take toward achieving your goals. For example, this can be writing just a single imperfect sentence for your school essay.
In addition, to improve your ability to overcome chronic procrastination, especially in the long term, you can also do the following:
- Figure out what your goals are, and make sure that they’re clearly defined, possible to accomplish, and significant enough to allow you to achieve meaningful progress.
- Figure out when, how, and why you procrastinate, by examining situations where your tendency to postpone things is preventing you from achieving your goals.
- Create a plan of action based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques, while taking into account both your goals as well as the nature of your procrastination.
- Implement your plan and monitor your progress, while making sure to refine your approach by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.
Relevant anti-procrastination techniques that you can use include the following:
- Break your work into small and manageable steps.
- Set intermediate goals and deadlines for yourself.
- Eliminate distractions from your environment.
- Count to 10 before indulging the impulse to procrastinate.
- Start with a tiny step.
- Make your progress feel more rewarding.
- Make your work feel more enjoyable.
- Visualize your future self.
- Focus on your goals instead of on your tasks.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes.
- Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears.
- Develop self-compassion, by being kind to yourself, recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Develop self-efficacy, by identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals and thinking about your ability to execute those strategies successfully.
Examples of chronic procrastination
An example of chronic procrastination is someone who repeatedly postpones working on academic assignments until right before the deadline, even though they want to get started earlier and even though this delay stresses them out.
Another example of chronic procrastination is someone who always postpones important workplace tasks, even though this means that they have to rush through those tasks and therefore end up producing low-quality work.
Additional examples of chronic procrastination also appear when it comes to other areas of life. For example, a chronic procrastinator might postpone going to sleep every day by browsing social media instead, and therefore end up being constantly sleep-deprived. Similarly, a chronic procrastinator might, for many years, delay working on a project such as writing a book or starting a business, even though they really want to do it.
The prevalence of chronic procrastination
Chronic procrastination is a common problem, which occurs across diverse populations, and which approximately 20% of adults suffer from. Furthermore, it is especially common among certain populations, such as college students, where approximately 50% of people suffer from it.
The dangers of chronic procrastination
The tendency to procrastinate is associated with various issues, such as worse academic performance, worse employment and financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and a tendency to postpone getting treatment for one’s problems.
Chronic vs. acute procrastination
Chronic procrastination is the long-term tendency to engage in unnecessary delay, whereas acute procrastination involves only a short-term tendency to delay.
However, there are several important caveats about this:
- There are no universal guidelines for what constitutes chronic versus acute procrastination. Accordingly, the categorization of certain cases of procrastination as chronic or acute may be uncertain, though many cases of procrastination can clearly be categorized as either acute or chronic. For example, it’s unclear if someone who procrastinates for a few months is engaging in chronic or acute procrastination, but someone who procrastinates once for an hour is clearly engaging in acute procrastination, whereas someone who procrastinates for decades is clearly engaging in chronic procrastination.
- The severity of the procrastination may also play a role. For example, if someone procrastinates only to a very small degree (e.g., for only a few minutes at a time and only on minor things), then their behavior might not be classified as chronic procrastination, even if they engage in it over long periods of time.
- Some chronic procrastinators procrastinate in only certain domains of life. For example, some chronic procrastinators might procrastinate only when it comes to school or the workplace, and it’s possible to reflect this with associated terminology (e.g., by describing someone as a “chronic academic procrastinator”). However, some chronic procrastinators may procrastinate across multiple domains or even all domains of life, and the term “chronic procrastinator” is sometimes used specifically to refer to such individuals.
- Chronic procrastination is about the long-term tendency to postpone things, rather than about the tendency to postpone things for long periods of time. This means, for example, that a chronic procrastinator may postpone tasks for only a few hours or days at a time, but this still constitutes chronic procrastination if they display this tendency over long periods of time (e.g., years). That said, postponing things for long periods of time also generally constitutes chronic procrastination, since it involves a long-term tendency to postpone things.
Finally, note that chronic procrastination can also be conceptualized as trait procrastination or as dispositional procrastination, when it represents a relatively stable characteristic of a person, in terms of their tendency to repeatedly engage in procrastination as a behavior. In this regard, it may be contrasted with situational procrastination, which represents a person’s procrastination in a specific situation.
What causes chronic procrastination
People procrastinate in a chronic manner because they suffer from issues such as exhaustion and anxiety, which consistently outweigh their self-control and motivation.
Specifically, when people need to do things such as study or work, they rely primarily on their self-control in order to get themselves to do it. Furthermore, their self-control is often supported by their motivation, which helps them do things in a timely manner.
However, people sometimes suffer from various hindering factors, such as exhaustion, as well as demotivating factors, such as anxiety, which interfere with their ability to do things. When these negative factors outweigh people’s self-control and motivation, they end up procrastinating, until they reach a point where the balance between these factors shifts in their favor, or until it becomes too late.
This explains why many people procrastinate in a chronic manner even when they’re motivated and truly want to get things done on time. Furthermore, this also explains why many people always procrastinate until right before deadlines, at which point the increased motivation, often in the form of stressful pressure, finally pushes them to get to work.
Accordingly, common reasons why people procrastinate chronically are the following:
- Having abstract goals.
- Feeling disconnected from their future self.
- Feeling overwhelmed or without control.
- Suffering from anxiety, fear of failure, or fear of negative feedback.
- Struggling with negative perfectionism, for example when it comes to being unwilling to create work that has any flaws.
- Feeling task aversion, for example due to the tendency to find tasks boring.
- Suffering from physical or mental exhaustion, often due to a combination of reasons, such as a high workload together with lack of sleep.
- Feeling resentment, generally toward things such as specific tasks or the person who assigned those tasks.
- Engaging in sensation seeking, for example by preferring to work on things right before the deadline, when there’s intense time pressure.
Many of these issues can involve procrastination cycles, which perpetuate procrastination in the long term. For example, if someone procrastinates on a certain task because of anxiety, which leads them to perform poorly on the task, this can cause them to feel anxious about similar tasks in the future, which can cause them to procrastinate on those tasks again. Similarly, if someone procrastinates due to exhaustion, this can lead them to stay up late at night to finish tasks right before the deadline, which can cause them to keep being exhausted, and consequently to keep procrastinating.
Other common causes of chronic procrastination include issues such as self-handicapping, which involves procrastinating so that if a person fails then they can blame their failure on procrastination rather than on their abilities.
Furthermore, certain personality traits, such as distractibility and impulsivity, are also associated with the tendency to procrastinate, meaning that people who are naturally high in these traits are more likely to procrastinate.
Overall, people procrastinate in a chronic manner because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation. Accordingly, common causes of chronic procrastination include abstract goals, a disconnect from the future self, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, task aversion, resentment, and sensation seeking.
Note: if you want to learn more about the psychology behind why people procrastinate, read the dedicated guide on the topic.
How to overcome chronic procrastination
To overcome chronic procrastination, you should first figure out what’s causing you to procrastinate. Then, you should implement anti-procrastination techniques that will address the causes of your procrastination.
In general, the main techniques that you can use to overcome procrastination include the following.
Improve your planning:
- Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you need to write a paper, you can break it down into tasks such as choosing a topic, drafting an outline, and finding five relevant sources. When doing this, you don’t have to figure out all the necessary steps; rather, you can start with only the first few steps that you need to take, and then add a few new steps at a time as you make progress, to avoid feeling overwhelmed and getting stuck.
- Set intermediate goals and deadlines. For example, if a large project involves just one major deadline at the end, setting additional intermediate deadlines for yourself can help you plan ahead and feel more motivated to make progress. Note that setting deadlines in general can be especially important if you don’t have any set for you by others, since a lack of clear deadlines can promote long-term procrastination.
- Identify your productivity cycles. People’s ability to handle certain tasks varies based on factors such as the time of day, which you should this into account in your planning. For example, if you know that you struggle to focus on creative tasks at noon, then you should try to avoid scheduling such tasks for that time period.
Improve your environment:
- Change your environment to make it easier for you to work. For example, if you know that you struggle to focus when there’s a lot of background noise, go somewhere quiet or put on noise-canceling headphones.
- Change your environment to make it easier for yourself to get started. For example, if you know that you will need to make an important phone call tomorrow, which requires you to have a lot of material with you, then before you leave the office prepare everything that you will need for the call, so that the only thing you need to do tomorrow is dial the number.
- Change your environment to make it harder for yourself to procrastinate. For example, if you tend to procrastinate because you keep browsing social media, try using browser extensions that block your access to relevant sites.
Change your approach:
- Start with a tiny step. To help yourself get started on tasks, it can sometimes help to only commit to a tiny first step, such as writing a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after that step if you want to.
- Start with the best or worst part first. Some people find that starting with the most enjoyable or easiest task of the day helps them get going, while others find that getting the worst task out of the way first helps them avoid procrastinating over time. You can use either approach if you find that it works well for you.
- Add a time delay before you procrastinate. If you can’t avoid procrastinating entirely, try committing to having a time delay before you indulge your impulse to do so. For example, this can involve counting to 10 before you’re allowed to open a new tab on a social media app that you often use to procrastinate.
- Use the Pomodoro technique. This involves alternating between scheduled periods of work and rest. For example, you can work on your task for 25-minute long stretches, with 5-minute breaks in between, and a longer 30-minute break after every 4 work sets that you complete.
Increase your motivation:
- Make your progress feel more rewarding. For example, you can gamify your work and try to achieve a streak of days on which you successfully manage to clear your to-do list, and potentially also give yourself some concrete reward once you reach a sufficiently long streak.
- Make your work feel more enjoyable. For example, you can listen to music that you like while you work.
- Visualize your future self. For example, you can visualize yourself being able to relax after finishing, visualize yourself being rewarded for making progress, or visualize yourself having to handle the issues associated with missing an important deadline.
- Focus on your goals instead of your tasks. For example, if you need to work on a task that you find boring, then instead of focusing on the task, think about the reason why you want to complete it.
Change your mindset:
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re tasked with writing a report, accept that your writing won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft.
- Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re procrastinating on your work because you’re afraid of getting negative feedback from someone, then find ways to make yourself care less about their feedback, such as realizing that it doesn’t really matter.
- Develop self-compassion. Self-compassion can reduce your procrastination, as well as various issues that are associated with it, such as stress. It consists of three components that you should develop: self-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Develop self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals, and it can help you reduce your procrastination. To develop self-efficacy, try to identify the various strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and think about your ability to execute those strategies successfully.
In addition, when it comes to overcoming chronic procrastination, keep the following in mind:
- When figuring out why you procrastinate, it can help to also identify when and how you do so, since the better you understand your procrastination problem, the better you will be able to select the appropriate anti-procrastination techniques to use.
- Even if you’re not sure about the nature of your procrastination problem, you could still benefit from using anti-procrastination techniques that you think might help.
- When dealing will procrastination, you can likely also benefit from setting goals for yourself that are clearly defined, possible to accomplish, and significant enough to allow you to make meaningful progress.
- If your procrastination is caused by some serious underlying issue, such as lack of sleep or depression, you should generally do your best to also address that issue, using professional help if necessary, which will benefit you in general and also help reduce your procrastination.
- As time goes on, you should assess how well the different anti-procrastination techniques work for you, and modify your plan of action accordingly, for example by modifying techniques to make them more effective, dropping techniques that don’t work, and trying new techniques that seem like they could be beneficial.
Overall, chronic procrastination is a common and serious problem, but one that you can likely reduce or overcome. To deal with chronic procrastination, you should start by figuring out what’s causing you to procrastinate in the first place, and then select and implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques that will address those causes and help you stop procrastinating.