Procrastination Cycles: What Causes Them and How to Break Them

Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone delays working on an assignment until right before its deadline for no reason, despite intending to work on it earlier, that person is procrastinating.

A procrastination cycle is a pattern of behavior that people repeatedly go through when they delay unnecessarily, and especially one where procrastinating for a certain reason increases the likelihood of procrastinating for the same reason again in the future.

For example, a procrastination cycle can occur when someone feels worried about their ability to perform a certain task, so they procrastinate on it, which causes them to do badly, which makes them worried about their ability to perform similar tasks, and which therefore also makes them likely to procrastinate again for the same reason in the future.

Procrastination cycles can be highly problematic, so it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the different types of procrastination cycles, understand why they occur, and see what you can do to break such cycles effectively.


Examples and types of procrastination cycles

There are many types of procrastination cycles, which differ from each other in their causes.

A key type of cycle is the emotion-regulation procrastination cycle. It can, for example, occur when someone is afraid of doing badly on a task, so they delay getting started, which causes them to do badly in reality, which increases their fear of doing badly on similar tasks, which increases the likelihood that they’ll procrastinate again on similar tasks for the same reason in the future. Similarly, this type of cycle can occur when someone postpones working on a task, which causes them to feel negative emotions like shame or guilt, which makes them likely to keep postponing the task, because they worry that engaging with it will make them feel worse when they realize how much time they’ve wasted, or because they feel so bad that they struggle to focus on work.

Emotion-regulation procrastination cycles can be driven by causes such as depression, anxiety, stress, fear (e.g., of failure or negative evaluation), perfectionism, pessimism, self-doubt, self-criticism, self-blame, low self-compassion, and task aversion. These cycles often also involve inaction inertia, a phenomenon where skipping an initial opportunity to take action decreases the likelihood of taking action under similar future opportunities (e.g., to avoid feeling regret due to engagement with something that serves as an unpleasant reminder of previously missed opportunities).

Other examples of procrastination cycles are the following:

  • Low confidence and self-efficacy procrastination cycles. For example, this type of cycle can occur when someone has no confidence in their ability to avoid procrastinating on a task, so they don’t bother trying to do so, which leads them to procrastinate in reality, which further decreases their confidence in their ability to avoid procrastinating on future tasks, in what becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Exhaustion procrastination cycles. For example, this type of cycle can occur when someone is exhausted due to working too hard, so they procrastinate on important tasks, which leads them to have to work hard on those tasks to finish them under intense time pressure, which causes them to stay exhausted and therefore also makes them likely to procrastinate for the same reason again.
  • Sleep procrastination cycles. For example, this type of cycle can occur when someone procrastinates on going to sleep, which causes them to go to sleep later than intended, which shifts their biological clock and causes them to procrastinate on going to sleep again in the future.
  • Online procrastination cycles. For example, this type of cycle can occur when someone procrastinates on a task by doing something online, which makes them feel bad about the task, which causes them to keep procrastinating online as a way to avoid dealing with the task, which causes them to keep feeling bad, and so on. This type of cycle can also involve other mechanisms, such as associating a cue (e.g., feeling frustrated) with a procrastinatory response (e.g., checking social media), which causes people to procrastinate whenever they encounter the cue, which reinforces their response to the cue, and increases the likelihood that they’ll procrastinate when they encounter it, and so on.

These cycles can be complex, and involve multiple factors. For instance, the following is a detailed description of what such a cycle might look like in the context of academia:

“… it is possible that, once enrolled in statistics and research methodology courses, high procrastinators experience extreme elevations in statistics anxiety, because these classes threaten their self-esteem… levels of hope… and the like, which result from the perception that these courses are too difficult, as well as from an attitude that statistics is not relevant for them… Individuals who experience increases in levels of statistics anxiety are more likely to postpone undertaking statistical activities and assignments (e.g. writing term papers, studying for examinations, and keeping up with the weekly readings) due to task aversiveness.

Subsequent difficulties in understanding the course material may lead to them being anxious about asking for help from either their instructors or their peers, for fear of revealing their procrastinatory tendencies and other inadequacies. This increase in statistics anxiety associated with fear of asking for help and fear of the instructor may be accompanied by test and class anxiety and interpretation anxiety stemming from fear of failure-based procrastination.

These aspects may lead to further procrastination about studying for examinations and writing term papers, which, in turn, intensifies levels of statistics anxiety. In any case, this cycle of procrastination and statistics anxiety is likely to continue until levels of both are maximized.”

— From “Academic procrastination and statistics anxiety” (Onwuegbuzie, 2004)

In addition, people can suffer from several procrastination cycles at the same time, and these cycles may even exacerbate each other, which can make the downward spiral that’s associated with them even stronger. For example, someone might suffer from anxiety and exhaustion procrastination cycles simultaneously, and the anxiety that they experience could contribute to their mental exhaustion, while their exhaustion could also make them more prone to anxiety.

Finally, the following is an example of a different type of procrastination cycle, which describes common stages that people go through when they procrastinate, regardless of whether or not the cycle perpetuates the very issue that caused it:

  1. I’ll start early this time.” At this stage, the procrastinator is hopeful, since there is the possibility that they’ll manage to start working without delay.
  2. I’ve got to start soon.” At this stage, the time for starting early has passed, and the procrastinator is starting to become less hopeful that this time they’ll manage to finish their work without procrastinating too much, though there’s still plenty of time until the deadline.
  3. “What if I don’t start?” At this stage, there’s no longer the possibility of getting started on time, and optimism is being replaced by pessimism, as the procrastinator is worried about the negative consequences of their delay. The procrastinator may be dominated by thoughts such as “I should have started sooner”, “I’m doing everything but what I should be doing”, “I can’t enjoy anything”, and “I hope no one finds out”.
  4. “There’s still time.” At this stage, even though the procrastinator may feel guilty and ashamed, they continue to hold on to the hope that they’ll somehow manage to get started on their work.
  5. “There’s something wrong with me.” At this stage, the procrastinator is desperate when it comes to the task at hand, and experiences many negative emotions with regard to their personal inability to get started on time.
  6. The final choice: to do or not to do. At this stage, the procrastinator decides whether to abandon the task or to finally get started. If they choose to abandon the task, they may be dominated by thoughts such as “I can’t stand this!” or “why bother?”. Conversely, if the procrastinator chooses to keep going, they may think things such as “I can’t wait any longer” or “just get it done!”. Furthermore, once they get started they may think things such as “This isn’t so bad, so why didn’t I start sooner?”.
  7. “I’ll never procrastinate again!” Once the project is either fully abandoned or completed, the procrastinator usually feels a mix of emotions such as relief and shame. Because the process was unpleasant, they promise themselves that next time will be different—they’ll start early, stay on schedule, be in charge, and so on. However, in spite of these intentions, and in spite of any hopes and optimism that the procrastinator may have, they often find themselves repeating the same cycle again and again.

— A common cycle of procrastination, based on its description in the book “Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now


Stages of procrastination cycles

In the context of self-perpetuating procrastination cycles, there are two key stages that people go through:

  1. The issue stage. At this stage, the procrastinator suffers from an issue like anxiety, fear of failure, or exhaustion, which makes them more likely to procrastinate.
  2. The procrastination stage. At this stage, the procrastinator unnecessarily postpones some decision or action (i.e., procrastinates) because of their issue, which makes them more likely to keep suffering from the same issue again.

People can go through both stages simultaneously, in the sense that they can suffer from the underlying issue while they’re procrastinating. As such, the key point about these stages, as they pertain to procrastination cycles, is that the underlying issue that a person suffers from leads to procrastination, and this procrastination, in turn, perpetuates or even exacerbates the issue that caused it.

These cycles therefore often involve a positive feedback loop, which means that the initial issue that causes people to procrastinate also leads them to suffer more strongly from the same issues in the future. Furthermore, people can suffer from multiple issues that lead to procrastination, and sometimes a single initial issue can end up leading to multiple ones (e.g., an initial fear of failure may lead to anxiety, which in turn leads to exhaustion).

However, note that procrastinating due to a certain issue won’t necessarily lead to a procrastination cycle, if the increased procrastination doesn’t exacerbate or perpetuate the original issue.

In addition, procrastination cycles can also involve other types of steps. Notably, the following are the key stages of a common type of procrastination cycle that people go through while procrastinating, which may or may not involve the perpetuation of the issue that caused it in the first place:

  1. Intention. At this stage, people intend to get started on their work early, and generally feel optimistic about their ability to do so.
  2. Problem. At this stage, people still want to get started, but keep delaying unnecessarily (i.e., procrastinating). For example, at this stage they might sit in front of their computer ready to write a paper, and constantly tell themselves that they’ll get started soon, but instead keep procrastinating for a few minutes at a time by browsing social media. This stage often involves various negative emotions, like frustration and shame.
  3. Resolution. At this stage, the pressure of the task, and especially of an upcoming deadline, leads people to either give up or finally do their work. If they decide to give up, they might rationalize it in various ways, such as by devaluing the importance of the task in question. Conversely, if they manage to get to work, they can react in various ways, such as by feeling stressed due to the upcoming deadline, or entering a calm and focused flow state.
  4. Aftermath. This stage comes after people have either fully given up or finished the task they were procrastinating on, and are now dealing with the aftermath of their procrastination and actions. They might feel various emotions, such as relief at not having to deal with the task anymore, and guilt for having delayed for so long. They might also promise themselves that things will be different next time, though they often won’t change their plan for avoiding procrastination, and might instead assume that they’ll just be able to rely on their self-control next time, even though that didn’t work this time.

Note that people don’t necessarily go through these stages as they procrastinate. For example, in cases where there are no concrete deadlines involved, people may get stuck in the problem stage indefinitely. Similarly, in some cases, people will manage to perform well while rushing before the deadline, which means that they don’t form a strong intention to get started on time in the future, even if they could achieve better outcomes by not procrastinating.


Stages of overcoming procrastination

When attempting to stop procrastinating, people can go through a series of stages, as described by the Stages of Change Model. This model, which explains how people overcome self-destructive behaviors, involves the following stages:

  • Precontemplation, when they’re either unaware of the problem or have no intention of fixing it in the foreseeable future.
  • Contemplation, when they’re aware they have a problem and intend to fix it, but their intentions are vague, as they don’t know what exactly they’re going to do.
  • Preparation, when they plan to undertake a specific course of action in the near future in order to solve their problem.
  • Action, when they begin to undertake their planned course of action.
  • Maintenance, when they no longer engage in the original problematic behavior, but must continue to undertake certain actions in order to avoid relapsing.

Chronic procrastinators often get stuck in the first stages, for example if they fluctuate between precontemplation, contemplation, and preparation. But, it’s possible for procrastinators to reach the maintenance stage and remain there consistently. Furthermore, some procrastinators may even reach the termination stage, when the problematic behavior they were trying to avoid is completely eliminated and they’re highly unlikely to relapse.

However, an important caveat about these stages is that they should only be viewed as a rough simplified explanation of the process that people go through, for example because these stages aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.


How to break procrastination cycles

To break a procrastination cycle, you should figure out what’s causing it, and then implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques that address its causes. For example, if your problem is that you feel overwhelmed with tasks, which makes you feel anxious about them and therefore postpone them, you can use techniques that make you feel better about your ability to handle those tasks, such as breaking them into manageable steps and committing to start with a tiny first step.

The following are some of the key anti-procrastination techniques that you can use.

Improve your planning:

  • Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on this paper next week”, set a concrete goal, such as “next week, starting Monday, work on this paper every day from 9:00–11:00, and have a draft ready to send out for feedback by Friday”.
  • 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.
  • Identify your productivity cycles. People’s ability to handle certain tasks varies based on factors such as the time of day. For example, it may be the case that you’re best able to concentrate on difficult tasks early in the morning, before you’ve started dealing with emails or minor administrative aspects of your job. You should take your productivity cycles into account as much as possible when planning and scheduling your work, so you can take advantage of times where you naturally perform best, and avoid trying to get difficult work done when you’re naturally predisposed to procrastinating on it.

Improve your environment:

  • Change your environment to make it easier for you to work. For example, if you know that you struggle to concentrate in the presence of loud background sounds, go somewhere quiet or put on noise-canceling headphones when necessary.
  • 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 a lot of background material, then before you leave the office prepare everything that you need for the call, so that the only thing you need to do the next day 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.
  • Start with the best or worst part first. Some people find that starting with the most enjoyable or easiest task of the day first 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 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 on your tasks. For example, if you need to work on a task that you find boring, then instead of focusing on the task, try thinking about your goals for completing it.

Change your mindset:

  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re tasked with writing a project proposal, accept that your work 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 their feedback doesn’t really matter.
  • Develop self-compassion. Self-compassion can help 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.

It can also help to use debiasing techniques, such as self-distancing, to reduce some of the cognitive biases that may perpetuate procrastination cycles, such as the projection bias and the empathy gap. Furthermore, if your procrastination cycle is caused by an underlying issue that isn’t addressed by these techniques, such as lack of sleep or depression, you should also try to address the issue directly, using professional help when necessary.

In addition, when breaking vicious procrastination cycles, you can strive to build virtuous cycles, which lead to positive outcomes and reduce procrastination. For example, developing your self-efficacy can make it easier for you to get started on your work, which reduces the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate, and which can consequently increase your self-efficacy further, and therefore further reduce the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate in the future.

Finally, note that you can use this approach not only to break your own procrastination cycles, but also to help other people break their procrastination cycles. For example, if you see that someone procrastinates due to an anxiety procrastination cycle, you can help them overcome it by making them aware of their procrastination cycle, explaining the mechanism for their behavior and helping them pick and implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques to use, such as breaking large tasks into small and manageable steps.

Overall, to break a cycle of procrastination, you should figure out what’s causing it (e.g., anxiety), and then implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques that help address those causes (e.g., starting with a tiny step or giving yourself permission to make mistake). In addition, you should directly address any underlying issues that lead to procrastination and that aren’t solved by anti-procrastination techniques, such as lack of sleep or depression, and potentially promote virtuous cycles, as in the case of increased self-efficacy and reduced procrastination.