Procrastination and Stress: How They’re Connected and What to Do About 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. This is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students.

One of the key issues that procrastination is associated with is stress, which is mental strain that’s caused by internal or external factors. This association means that many procrastinators suffer from stress, both because procrastination can cause people to feel stressed, and because feeling stressed can cause people to procrastinate.

Because of this, if you want to reduce procrastination and procrastination-related stress, it’s important to understand how and why they’re connected between them. The following article will help you with this, by explaining the association between procrastination and stress, and showing what you can do to successfully deal with these issues.


Link between procrastination and stress

Procrastination is associated with stress in two main ways:

  • Procrastination can cause stress. For example, if someone delays getting started on a task, this can cause them to feel stressed about the possibility that they won’t finish the task before the upcoming deadline.
  • Stress can cause procrastination. For example, if someone’s stress makes it difficult for them to focus on their work, this can lead them to procrastinate by doing things that don’t require concentration, such as browsing social media.

In some cases, people experience this association in only one direction, for example if their procrastination causes them stress, but their stress doesn’t cause them to procrastinate. In other cases, people experience this association in both directions, which can lead to a self-reinforcing stress-procrastination cycle, where their procrastination causes them to feel stressed, which in turn causes them to procrastinate further, which causes them to keep feeling stressed, and so on.

This cycle can continue indefinitely, or it can end when something changes, such as when the pressure of an upcoming deadline finally pushes the procrastinator to do their work. However, even in such cases, the stress-procrastination cycle can restart later, for example if the procrastinator becomes stressed about a new task.

Finally, note that the effect of stress on procrastination can vary based on factors such as who is experiencing it, when, and why. Notably, this means that although stress often leads to procrastination, it might also have an opposite effect in some cases, especially when stress over potential negative consequences serves as a motivator to act in a timely manner.


Procrastinating to postpone stress

Procrastination can sometimes have an opposite effect on stress (i.e., reduce it), especially in the short term. For example, this is the case if thinking about a school project causes a student to feel stressed, and distracting themselves by procrastinating online makes them mostly forget about the project, and therefore feel less stressed, at least until they have to deal with the project before its deadline.

Accordingly, some people use procrastination as an emotion-regulation strategy for reducing stress, either consciously or unconsciously. However, this behavior is generally considered maladaptive, because, in addition to interfering with goal achievement, it can also increase the total amount of stress that people experience. The increased stress—which joins the stress that people feel when they finally deal with the task that they postponed—can come from several sources, including:

  • Thinking about the task in the back of one’s mind while procrastinating.
  • Rushing to complete the task before its deadline (often under intense time pressure).
  • Additional negative emotions (e.g., shame) that procrastinating caused.
  • Additional problems (e.g., interpersonal conflicts) that procrastinating caused.

Because of this, procrastinating to reduce stress in the short term means often means that the procrastinator is really only postponing that stress, and is essentially “borrowing” temporary peace of mind, which their future self has to pay back with interest in the long term. The one exception is if someone is fine with postponing things indefinitely, or until the deadlines for those things pass and they no longer need to be done; this can allow the procrastinator to reduce the total stress that they feel, but can cause other serious issues, such as a continuous failure to achieve goals.


Dangers of procrastination and stress

In addition to stress, procrastination is associated with various other issues, such as worse academic performance, worse financial status, increased interpersonal relationship issues, reduced wellbeing, worse sleep, and worse mental and physical health.

Many of these issues, such as mental and physical health problems, can also be caused by stress, and are therefore at least partly attributable to the increased stress that procrastination can lead to. For example, when procrastination causes people to feel stressed, this can make them more susceptible to physical health problems, such as getting sick.


How to reduce procrastination and stress

To reduce procrastination and stress, you can use anti-procrastination techniques that address both issues.

One such technique is inquiry-based stress reduction. Briefly, to use this technique, you should first identify a stressful thought that you have, and then consider the following questions:

  • Is this thought true?
  • Can you absolutely know that this thought is true?

Then, you should reflect on the stressful thought, by considering factors such as its causes and effects, which will help you understand it better. You can help yourself do this by considering the following questions:

  • How do you react when you have this thought?
  • Does this thought bring peace or stress to your life?
  • What images do you see, past or present, as you think this thought?
  • What physical sensations arise from having this thought?
  • What emotions arise when you have that thought?
  • Do any obsessions or addictions begin to appear when you have this thought?
  • How do you treat others when you have this thought?
  • How do you treat yourself when you have this thought?

Then, you should try to perceive reality without the distortions that are caused by the stressful thought, and think about how you would feel without that thought, by considering:

  • Who would you be without the thought?

Finally, you should identify concrete evidence for the validity of the opposite of the stressful thought, and explore whether that opposite could be true. For example, if your initial thought was “I won’t be able to study properly for the test”, you can turn it into the opposite thought “I will be able to study properly for the test”, and then find evidence that supports the new positive thought that you generated.

In addition, there are many other useful techniques that you can use to reduce procrastination and stress. Most notably, you can:

  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as writing a research paper, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, finding relevant resources, and writing the introduction.
  • Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to writing only a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, 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 afraid of getting negative feedback from someone who isn’t really important, you can tell yourself that their feedback doesn’t matter.
  • Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
  • Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and are unable to make progress, switch to a different task, until you’re ready to go back to the initial one, rather than trying to force yourself to work on the task that you’re stuck on.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
  • Improve your social-support network. For example, you can find a role model to imitate or an authority figure to hold you accountable, or you can associate with people who motivate you to make progress while minimizing your contact with people who make you feel stressed.
  • Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest can reduce your productivity in the short term, it will often be much better for you in the long term, both in terms of your productivity and in terms of your wellbeing.
  • Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.
  • Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassionself-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.
  • Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.

When choosing which of these techniques to use, it can help to first identify the causes of your procrastination and stress, since this will help you find the techniques that are most relevant in your particular case.

In addition, you should also take care of yourself in general, for example by getting enough exercise and sleep. Furthermore, if you experience severe stress or other serious issues, such as anxiety and depression, you should likely seek help from a certified mental health professional.

Finally, keep in mind that because both procrastination and stress are problematic on their own, it can be worthwhile to use techniques that only address one of them rather than both. Furthermore, because of the strong association between these issues, reducing just one of them can also reduce the other, for example when reducing procrastination means that you also reduce the main source of your stress.

Overall, to reduce procrastination and stress, you can use various techniques that address one or both of these issues, preferably after first identifying the causes of your procrastination and stress. Such techniques include, for example, inquiry-based stress reduction, breaking your work into manageable steps, starting with a tiny first step, giving yourself permission to make mistakes, and getting enough rest.