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.
Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students. It’s associated with a variety of issues, such as worse academic performance, worse employment and financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and delay in getting treatment for one’s issues.
Because of this, it’s important to be able to tell if you’re a procrastinator, or if someone that you care about is, and if so then to what degree. The following article will help you with this, by showing you the common signs and symptoms of procrastination, as well as other relevant information that you should take into account when assessing someone’s procrastination.
Signs and symptoms of procrastination
The following are common signs and symptoms of procrastination:
- Repeatedly saying things like “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll do it tomorrow”.
- Getting stuck in neutral even though you know how important it is to get started.
- Taking a long time to complete things that require little except sitting down and doing them.
- Postponing things you don’t want to do (e.g., boring or frustrating tasks).
- Struggling to get started even if you hate yourself for it.
- Waiting until the last minute before deadlines to get started.
- Putting off making decisions for too long.
- Constantly postponing improving your work habits, despite intending to do it.
- Promising yourself you’ll do something and then dragging your feet instead.
- Finding yourself performing tasks that you intended to do days before.
- Working on trivial things instead of what you should be doing.
- Always having excuses for not doing things on time.
- Delaying taking action even after you decide what to do.
- Wasting time repeatedly and being unable to do anything about it.
- Delaying even though you know that doing it hurts your performance or wellbeing.
The more of these signs and symptoms you display, and the more frequently and seriously you do so, the more likely it is that you’re a procrastinator, and the more severe your procrastination likely is.
Note: These signs and symptoms are adapted from several psychological questionnaires that are used to assess people’s procrastination (the Tuckman Procrastination Scale, the General Procrastination Scale, the Pure Procrastination Scale, and the Irrational Procrastination Scale).
Key features of procrastination
As the signs of symptoms of procrastination show, the key feature of procrastination, which can be used as an indicator that someone is a procrastinator, is the tendency to engage in unnecessary delay. Accordingly, if you’re trying to determine whether you procrastinate (or if someone else does so), you may sometimes benefit from focusing on one key consideration: do you delay when you shouldn’t? If the answer is “yes”, then that means that you likely procrastinate. If the answer is “no”—and you’re sure of it—then that means that you likely don’t procrastinate.
- The delay that the person engages in generally leads to negative consequences (e.g., missed deadlines and low-quality work) and/or psychological discomfort (e.g., anxiety and stress).
- The person who’s delaying generally knows that the delay is likely to lead to negative outcomes.
- The person who’s delaying often has an intention-action gap, in the sense that they delay doing things despite intending otherwise.
A person’s procrastination may involve various combinations of these features, depending on which type of procrastination they engage in. For example, an anxious procrastinator, who procrastinates due to irrational fears, might display all of these features in their procrastination, whereas a hedonistic procrastinator, who procrastinates due to the prioritization of enjoyable activities, might have no intention-action gap and experience no psychological discomfort.
Finally, when considering the signs and symptoms of procrastination, it’s also important to note that people can procrastinate on various types of things, such as school assignments, workplace projects, or even going to bed, and that some people only procrastinate when it comes to a specific task or a specific domain, whereas others procrastinate on a broader range of things.
When assessing someone’s procrastination, including your own, there are other factors that you should consider beyond just whether they procrastinate or not, which can help you better understand the nature of the procrastination in question and its impact. These factors include the following:
- How often they procrastinate. For example, do they procrastinate multiple times per day or only a few times a week?
- How long they delay each time they procrastinate. For example, do they delay getting started for hours or for days?
- How long they have been displaying the tendency to procrastinate. For example, have they only started procrastinating recently, or have they been doing it for years?
- What domains they procrastinate in. For example, do they procrastinate only when it comes to school, or also when it comes to other areas of life?
- What types of tasks they procrastinate on. For example, do they procrastinate only on major tasks that require a lot of work, or also on small tasks that can be completed quickly?
- How important are the things that they procrastinate on. For example, do they procrastinate only on unimportant tasks, or even on important tasks?
- What outcomes their procrastination leads to. For example, does it can them to miss important deadlines and opportunities?
- How the procrastination makes them feel. For example, does it cause them to suffer from negative emotions, such as frustration and shame?
In addition, when assessing someone’s procrastination, it’s possible to draw a distinction between their procrastination as a behavior, trait, or psychological problem:
- Procrastination behaviour is a needless delay of a task, despite the initial intention to start or finish it.
- Trait procrastination is the long-term habitual tendency to delay tasks or decisions across a variety of tasks, despite the initial intention to perform them, which is very often irrational, accompanied by negative emotions, which may cause poor performance or personal dissatisfaction about the outcome.
- Procrastination as a psychological problem is procrastination behaviour or trait procrastination which is accompanied by negative emotions and cause poor performance or personal dissatisfaction about the outcome.
— From “Conceptualization and operationalization of delay: Development and validation of the multifaceted measure of academic procrastination and the delay questionnaire” (Haghbin, 2015)
Procrastination coping mechanisms
To recognize procrastination, it can sometimes help to be aware of the coping mechanisms that people use to deal with and rationalize it. These can serve as indicators of procrastination, and sometimes hide other signs and symptoms of procrastination.
These coping mechanisms include the following:
- Denying that you’re procrastinating (e.g., by repeatedly saying that you’re just charging up before getting started).
- Avoiding what you’re procrastinating on (e.g., staying away from the kitchen if there are dishes to wash).
- Distracting yourself from what you’re procrastinating on by engaging in alternative activities (e.g., browsing social media or playing video games).
- Fantasizing about things such as achieving your goals (e.g., daydreaming about publishing your book successfully).
- Ignoring your past patterns of behaviors (e.g., by repeatedly convincing yourself that you’ll start in just 5 minutes, or by repeatedly promising yourself that tomorrow will be different).
- Bargaining about how you’ll still be able to achieve your goals despite procrastinating (e.g., by saying that you’ll still be able to finish an assignment if you work all night).
- Justifying your procrastination (e.g., by rationalizing spending weeks researching different exercise plans as the best way to start exercising).
- Working on other things that are beneficial but not as important as what you should be doing (e.g., by cleaning the house when you should be studying for a test).
- Comparing your procrastination problem to someone else’s problems (e.g., by saying that your procrastination is fine, because someone else procrastinates more, or because you used to procrastinate more in the past).
- Externalizing your procrastination by attributing it to factors outside your control (e.g., claiming that you can’t start exercising because the gym that was closest to your house closed).
- Distancing yourself from goals associated with the tasks you’re procrastinating on (e.g., by saying that your grades don’t matter to you).
- Trivializing the tasks and goals that you’re procrastinating on (e.g., by saying that a certain assignment hardly affects your grade, so it’s hardly worth the effort).
- Pretending to be in full control of your behavior (e.g., by saying that you intended to postpone something until before its deadline, because you work best under pressure).
- Exaggerating what you did accomplish in order to minimize the apparent impact of your procrastination (e.g., by saying that you thought of a rough outline for the paper you need to write, so the paper is almost done).
- Glorifying your procrastination (e.g., by boasting to friends about how much you procrastinated before an exam).
- Joking about your procrastination (e.g., by saying that you’re wasting the money spent on your degree since you procrastinate all the time anyway).
- Resenting others, such as authority figures who gave you a task (e.g., a teacher who assigned an essay).
- Attacking others, such as peers who were able to work without procrastinating (e.g., fellow students).
- Ruminating about your behavior and mistakes (e.g., by spending hours feeling guilty and blaming yourself for your behavior).
- Scolding yourself for your procrastination (e.g., lying in bed for hours while criticizing yourself for not getting started).
- Isolating yourself, as punishment or to avoid showing others how bad your procrastination is (e.g., by pretending that you’re able to keep up with your studies, even though in reality you’re falling behind).
These coping mechanisms are mostly maladaptive—just like procrastination—which means that they generally lead to negative outcomes (as opposed to adaptive coping strategies, which generally lead to positive outcomes). However, whether a coping mechanism is adaptive or maladaptive can depend on factors such as how a person uses it exactly. For example, joking about your procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it serves as a way to display self-compassion while stick taking responsibility for your actions.
In addition, different coping styles can involve different combinations of cognitive and behavioral patterns. For example, denial is generally characterized as a cognitive coping mechanism, whereas avoidance is generally characterized as a behavioral coping mechanism. However, attacking others can involve both cognitive elements (e.g., thinking about how angry you are at other people) and behavioral elements (e.g., saying mean things to other people).
Procrastination as a symptom
Procrastination can sometimes itself be a symptom of an underlying issue, such as ADHD or depression. However, this does not mean that if you procrastinate then you necessarily suffer from these conditions, and there are many nuances to such diagnoses—which should generally be performed by a professional—such as why you procrastinate and what other symptoms you’re displaying.
If, after looking at the signs and symptoms of procrastination, you realize that you’re a procrastinator, then you should likely try to solve your procrastination, especially if you realize that it impacts you in a negative way.
To do this, you should generally start by figuring out why you procrastinate. Then, you should pick the anti-procrastination techniques that are likely to be the most effective in your particular situation, and implement them until you manage to substantially reduce your procrastination or overcome it entirely.