Many procrastinators struggle to overcome their procrastination, even when it causes them many issues. The following article can help with this, by explaining what it means to be a procrastinator, why people procrastinate, and how to stop doing it.
What is a procrastinator
A procrastinator is someone who repeatedly and unnecessarily postpones decisions or actions. For example, if a person repeatedly delays working on assignments until right before their deadline for no reason, even though they know that it would be better for them to start earlier, that person is a procrastinator.
Procrastinators generally suffer from various issues due to their procrastination, like missed opportunities and increased stress. They also usually suffer from intention-action gaps, since they’re unable to bring themselves to do things on time despite intending and wanting to do so, and despite being well aware of the issues that their procrastination causes. Accordingly, many procrastinators are stuck in chronic cycles of procrastination, which they keep trying to escape.
However, there are also differences between procrastinators, in terms of why they procrastinate, how they do so, and how this behavior affects them. For example, some procrastinators might delay to avoid thinking about a task that makes them feel anxious, while others delay because they get distracted by social media.
Examples of procrastinators
An example of a procrastinator is a student who repeatedly postpones studying for tests until the night before they take place, despite wanting to start earlier and feeling bad about delaying.
Another example of a procrastinator is someone who has months to work on an important application, but waits until the day before the deadline, despite repeatedly promising themselves that they’ll do it soon.
In addition, the following are other examples of procrastinators:
- Someone who frequently browses social media when they should be working, even though they’re frustrated with themselves for it and wish they could just get started.
- Someone who stays up hours later than they intend to each night, doing things like watching videos, despite knowing that this makes them exhausted.
- Someone who often does useful things, like cleaning their room, when they should be doing more important things, like finishing school assignments.
- Someone who keeps promising themselves that they’ll get started on a passion project (like writing a book or building a business) “one day” or “sometimes soon”, but never makes any progress, and instead just fantasizes about their future success.
- Someone who keeps making excuses to explain why they should wait before starting positive new habits—like dieting, exercising, or saving money—even though they know it would be better for them to just start.
- Someone who postpones dealing with unpleasant tasks—like paying bills or going to the dentist—even though the issue becomes worse the longer they wait.
- Someone who fails to ask someone else for something they want—like a romantic date—every time they have the opportunity to do so, even though they wish they could just ask and get it over with.
- Someone who postpones choosing between two opportunities, until this indecision means that neither opportunity is available.
Further examples of procrastinators include many famous and important people, like J. K. Rowling, Bill Clinton, Hunter S. Thompson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, and Steve Jobs.
Dangers of being a procrastinator
Being a procrastinator can cause various issues, including missed opportunities, worse academic performance, worse employment and financial status, increased interpersonal conflicts, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, and worse physical health. Furthermore, procrastinators tend to delay seeking help for their issues, including for their procrastination.
How common are procrastinators
Types of procrastinators
- Anxious procrastinators, who are worried about things like making mistakes or being criticized, so they avoid doing what they need to do. For example, an anxious procrastinator might repeatedly postpone bringing up an important issue at work, because they’re scared to speak in social situations. Such procrastinators can also be called neurotic procrastinators, if they’re high in the neuroticism personality trait.
- Perfectionistic procrastinators, who are concerned about being imperfect or doing things imperfectly, so they delay things like publishing their work once it’s ready. For example, a perfectionist procrastinator might repeatedly revise a research paper, even when it’s ready to be sent out for review, because they worry that it might still have some trivial typos.
- Overplanning procrastinators, who use unnecessary planning as a way to delay doing things, especially if they’re scared of doing them. For example, an overplanning procrastinator might spend months researching a new hobby instead of just starting it, because they can’t stand the uncertainty that it involves.
- Overwhelmed procrastinators, who feel so overwhelmed by things they need to do that they end up not doing them, especially if they’re unsure how to start. For example, an overwhelmed procrastinator might want to make a lot of positive changes to their life, but end up not doing anything because they don’t know which of many aspects of their life they should start with.
- Pessimistic procrastinators, who are overly doubtful of their ability to do things, and therefore avoid doing those things. For example, a pessimistic procrastinator might wrongly believe that they’re unlikely to get a certain job that they’re interested in, and consequently delay applying for it.
- Depressed procrastinators, who suffer from depression, which makes them tired and unmotivated to take action. For example, a depressed procrastinator might be unable to get out of bed or do anything for hours at a time, because they feel that there isn’t a point to any of it.
- Introverted procrastinators, who delay due to a preference for being by themselves, especially when it comes to avoiding engaging with others. For example, an introverted procrastinator might postpone scheduling an important appointment, because they don’t want to talk on the phone.
- Extroverted procrastinators, who delay due to their strong desire to engage in social activities. For example, an extroverted procrastinator might postpone studying for a test, because they really want to go out with friends instead.
- Hedonistic procrastinators, who delay due to prioritization of activities that are more enjoyable in the short term. For example, a hedonistic procrastinator might continuously postpone starting to work on a project, because it’s more fun to play video games instead.
- Laid-back procrastinators, who are generally unconcerned with tasks, goals, or consequences for missing deadlines, and who are often reluctant to put in effort toward their goals. For example, a laid-back procrastinator might continuously postpone starting to exercise, because it’s easier to sit on the couch and watch TV instead.
- Impulsive procrastinators, who delay because they can’t manage the impulse to engage in activities other than the one they should be engaging in. For example, an impulsive procrastinator might decide to simply get up while working on an important paper, because they suddenly feel like watching TV instead. These procrastinators are often also easily distracted.
- Thrill-seeking procrastinators, who delay getting started intentionally, because they enjoy the thrill of working under intense time pressure right before deadlines. For example, a thrill-seeking procrastinator might postpone writing a research paper until the end of the semester, at which point they’ll work hard to get it done on time. This behavior is also called sensation seeking.
- Rebellious procrastinators, who delay a way to get revenge against an authority figure, like a parent or a teacher. For example, a rebellious procrastinator might put off completing tasks that they were given by their boss, because they resent their boss.
- Optimistic procrastinators, who are unconcerned about their tendency to postpone tasks, and are confident in their ability to complete tasks on time. For example, an optimistic procrastinator might postpone working on an assignment until right before the deadline, because they’re unreasonably confident that they’ll be able to finish it then without any issues.
- Full-of-excuses procrastinators, who always find excuses for why they should wait before they do what they need to do. For example, a full-of-excuses procrastinator might manage to spend a whole semester without studying properly, while constantly justifying their behavior with excuses about other things that they need to spend their time on.
- Last-minute procrastinators, who can’t bring themselves to get started on tasks until right before the deadline, no matter how hard they try, and will usually waste time doing unrelated activities beforehand, even if they don’t really enjoy those activities. For example, a last-minute procrastinator might repeatedly put off studying for an important exam until the night before it takes place, at which point they’ll enter panic mode and finally manage to start studying.
- Indecisive procrastinators, who struggle to make decisions in a timely manner. For example, an indecisive procrastinator might repeatedly postpone making an important decision by claiming that they need to wait until they have more information, even though they already know what they need to do.
- Daydreaming procrastinators, who like to spend time fantasizing about things that they hope to accomplish, while procrastinating on working toward those things. For example, a daydreaming procrastinator might spend hours thinking about the interviews they’ll give once their book is successful, instead of actually working on their book.
Some of these types of procrastinators can sometimes be considered sub-types of others. For example, perfectionistic procrastinators can be considered a sub-type of anxious procrastinators, when the perfectionism is rooted in anxiety over being criticized.
In addition, a person can display the characteristics of more than one type of procrastinator. For example, a procrastinator might be both anxious and introverted, or they might be both hedonistic and impulsive.
Finally, there are other distinctions between different types of procrastinators, such as between passive and active procrastinators, productive and unproductive procrastinators, and academic and workplace procrastinators. Furthermore, procrastinators can differ in terms of other factors, like whether they usually struggle with getting started or finishing tasks.
How to tell if you’re a procrastinator
To determine if you’re a procrastinator, the key question you should ask yourself is whether you often delay when you shouldn’t. If the answer is “yes”, then that means that you’re likely a procrastinator.
If you’re unsure, then you can also consider the following signs of being a procrastinator:
- 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 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.
In addition, when assessing the severity of your procrastination, you can also consider how your procrastination hurts you, for example when it comes to productivity and wellbeing.
Why procrastinators procrastinate
Procrastinators procrastinate because their drive to delay is irrationally stronger than their drive to act. This happens when their self-control and motivation are weakened by issues like exhaustion, and are opposed by issues like fear.
Specifically, the drive to act represents how strongly procrastinators can push themselves to take action at the moment. It depends primarily on their self-control and motivation, which are influenced by various factors. For example, at any given moment, a procrastinator’s self-control can be influenced by how tired they are, while their motivation can be influenced by how long they will have to wait before being rewarded for taking action. Accordingly, issues like exhaustion and far-future outcomes can interfere with self-control and motivation, and consequently reduce procrastinators’ drive to act, as can many other issues, like depression, ADHD, and low self-efficacy.
Conversely, the drive to delay represents how strongly procrastinators feel pushed to avoid taking action at the moment. It depends primarily on the desire to feel better in the short term, by avoiding negative emotions (e.g., fear of a certain task), and by increasing positive emotions (e.g., through digital entertainment), a behavior described as “giving in to feel good”. This drive involves various issues, like anxiety and perfectionism, which procrastinators want to avoid in order to protect their emotions in the short term.
Accordingly, although procrastination often leads to issues in managing time, it’s driven primarily by issues with regulating emotions. In addition, procrastination is associated with akrasia, which is a state of mind where people act against their better judgment, due to insufficient self-control.
Based on this psychological framework, the following are the key reasons why procrastinators procrastinate:
- Prioritization of short-term mood (i.e., preferring to feel better right now even if this will lead to feeling worse later).
- Task aversiveness (i.e., thinking a task is frustrating, boring, or unpleasant in another way).
- Anxiety and fear (e.g., due to concerns over being criticized).
- Feeling overwhelmed (e.g., due to having so many things to do that it’s unclear where to start).
- Perfectionism (e.g., due to refusal to publish work that has any flaws).
- Disconnect from the future self (e.g., viewing the consequences of your delay as something that someone else will experience).
- Delayed outcomes (e.g., due to discounting of rewards that will only be given in the far future).
- Low motivation (e.g., due to low-value outcomes, low expectancy of achieving outcomes, or difficulty in associating outcomes with tasks).
- Expected effort (e.g., due to hard tasks).
- Inertia (i.e., the tendency to keep doing what you’re already doing).
- Abstract goals (i.e., ones that aren’t clearly defined).
- Cognitive biases (e.g., being unreasonably pessimistic about your odds of success).
- Time-management issues (e.g., failure to prioritize tasks).
- Problematic traits (e.g., impulsivity and distractibility).
- Underlying behaviors (e.g., self-handicapping, sensation seeking, or rebelling against an authority figure).
- Underlying conditions (e.g., depression and ADHD).
- Low energy (e.g., due to lack of sleep).
- Low capacity for self-control (e.g., due to exhaustion).
- Problematic environment (e.g., one that’s filled with distractions or has negative peer influence).
The relationship between these issues and procrastination is complicated. For example, although some types of perfectionism and fear generally increase procrastination, other types generally decrease it (by increasing people’s motivation to act).
Furthermore, many of these issues are interrelated. For example, depression can cause lack of energy, which can exacerbate anxiety, which can increase task aversiveness. Similarly, the effect of anxiety on procrastination can be reduced by factors like high self-efficacy and mindfulness.
In addition, these issues can also cause repeating procrastination cycles. For example, this can happen when someone is anxious about a task, so they procrastinate on it, which causes them to do badly, which makes them more anxious about similar tasks, which makes them likely to procrastinate again for the same reason in the future.
Finally, note that people can procrastinate for different reasons. For example, one person might procrastinate due to anxiety, while someone else might procrastinate due to a combination of perfectionism and abstract goals. Furthermore, a person can procrastinate for different reasons at different times and under different circumstances, sometimes leading to differences in how they procrastinate too.
For more information about the causes of procrastination, see the guide on why people procrastinate.
How to stop being a procrastinator
To stop being a procrastinator, you should do the following:
- Set specific and realistic goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, a good goal might be “be able to run a full mile by the end of the month”, while bad goals might be “do some running” (unspecific) and “run a marathon by the end of the month” (unrealistic).
- Assess your procrastination. First, identify cases in which you delay unnecessarily, to figure out what exactly you procrastinate on (e.g., studying) and how you do it (e.g., by browsing social media). Then, think about those situations to also figure out where and when you procrastinate (e.g., at home or the library, on starting or finishing tasks, in the morning or evening). Finally, figure out why you procrastinate (e.g., due to perfectionism, fear, anxiety, depression, ADHD, sensation seeking, or abstract goals), potentially after reading about why people procrastinate.
- Create an action plan. It should involve using relevant anti-procrastination techniques, which account for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
- Implement your plan. Make sure to reflect on your progress and refine your approach, primarily by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.
The following are key anti-procrastination techniques you can use as part of your plan:
- Break tasks into manageable steps (e.g., into sub-tasks that you can easily complete).
- Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., to working for just 2 minutes).
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work won’t be perfect).
- Make it easier to do things (e.g., by preparing everything you need in advance).
- Make tasks more enjoyable (e.g., by listening to music while you do them).
- Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by removing potential distractions).
- Delay before indulging the impulse to procrastinate (e.g., by counting to 10 first).
- Set deadlines (e.g., by deciding that you’ll complete a certain task by noon tomorrow).
- Plan how you’ll handle obstacles (e.g., by deciding that if X happens, then you’ll do Y).
- Identify and address your fears (e.g., by considering what advice you’d give to a friend).
- Increase your motivation (e.g., by marking streaks of days on which you achieve your goals).
- Increase your energy (e.g., by taking necessary breaks).
- Improve your environment (e.g., by adding reminders of your goals).
- Use social techniques (e.g., by emulating a role model).
- Use time-management techniques (e.g., by alternating consistently between work and rest).
- Create starting rituals (e.g., by counting down from five before taking action).
- Start with your best or worst task (e.g., with your easiest or hardest one).
- Develop self-efficacy (e.g., by reflecting on your successes).
- Develop self-compassion (e.g., by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes).
- Treat underlying conditions (e.g., ADHD).
For more information about these techniques and how to use them effectively, see the guide on how to stop procrastinating.
You can use any combination of techniques that you want, but should start by focusing on a few that seem most relevant to your situation.
Note that you’ll likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, like helping you think more clearly and making your decisions feel more concrete.
In addition, remember that imperfect action is generally better than no action, so you’ll benefit more from trying to do just some of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Also, the longer you delay, the more likely you are to do nothing, so you should start right now, while understanding that you’ll probably get some things wrong at first, but that you’ll be able to improve your approach over time.
If you feel overwhelmed, start by just identifying the smallest possible step you can take to make progress toward your goals, and then try to start with just that tiny step, while giving yourself permission to make mistakes during the attempt. Potentially, you can also make it easier for yourself to get started, for example by preparing your tools without yet trying to start working, and make it harder to procrastinate, for example by removing distractions from your environment.