How to Stop Procrastinating and Live a Happier Life

You can procrastinate about nearly anything: unappealing tasks, like dental appointments, or enjoyable tasks, like planning vacations. Everyone does it differently—here's how to put a stop to it.

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You can procrastinate about nearly anything

Looking at his pile of unpaid bills always makes Giuseppe Del Giudice feel anxious and uneasy. More often than not, Del Giudice leaves his paperwork undone and sweeps the floor or watches TV instead, waiting until the last possible moment to make payments. He’s incurred the occasional late fee because of his habit of putting things off. But even when everything goes through on time, he pays an emotional toll.

“My wife and I make enough money, but I internally feel as though we don’t have any money,” says Del Giudice, 57. “Feelings of guilt and lack were ingrained in my childhood. The longer the bills go unpaid, the more elevated my anxiety soars.”

Procrastination is the voluntary delaying of tasks that you need to do, even though you know that delaying can lead to negative consequences.

“It’s part of the human condition,” says procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “One of the ways we cope is avoidance, and that’s what procrastination comes down to: We want to feel good now. The way to do that is avoid the task.”

You can procrastinate about nearly anything: unappealing tasks, like dental appointments; or enjoyable tasks, like planning vacations. Everyone does it differently. “Some people procrastinate cleaning. Some people procrastinate by cleaning,” says researcher Piers Steel, but research has shown that the top tasks that people delay are cleaning, advancing their careers, taking care of their health, and planning their finances.

“One that almost everyone procrastinates on is their wills,” says Steel, a management professor at the University of Calgary. “Seventy to 80 per cent of people, when they pass away, have no will or an out-of-date or incomplete will. It leaves terrible situations.”

Although most people delay tasks occasionally, they generally get things done when they should. But about 20 per cent of people are chronic procrastinators, constantly putting things off at home and at work.

“They always have a reason for why they can’t get things done—believable reasons,” says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who researches chronic procrastination. “You can’t count on them.”

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Some people procrastinate out of fear

Procrastination seems like a time-management problem, but it’s actually a lack of motivation and self-regulation.

“You’re spending time you don’t have,” Pychyl says. “We’ve got research to show that people say later, ‘Oh, I wish I had gotten started. How do I get myself to just get started?’”

Some people procrastinate out of fear, including Kelli Saginak, who endured unfulfilling work for years without switching careers.

“My greatest source of procrastination is my reluctance to market myself,” says Saginak, 56. “It’s totally fear of judgment. If I don’t take the risk, decide, or commit, I don’t have to face the judgment. Yet it’s simply me judging myself.”

Although in the future you’ll regret putting things off, your present self allows it, because it requires no effort. “In the short term, we can often have good feelings,” Pychyl says. “That’s why it’s so reinforcing. That’s why people say, ‘Why do I keep doing this to myself?’”

Some people embrace procrastination, believing that they thrive under pressure. Researchers have debunked this notion.

“I did an experiment several years ago, putting procrastinators under restrictions of time,” Ferrari says. “They did worse than non-procrastinators, but they thought they did better. They made more errors. They took longer.”

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Procrastination can harm your health

Indefinitely delaying a diet or exercise program may increase your risk of heart disease. Not seeing the doctor when your illness was easier to treat may shorten your life.

Fuschia Sirois, a psychology lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., studies the health effects of procrastination. “If you are a procrastinator and you are worried that you may have symptoms of cancer, your likely response will be to avoid the issue and procrastinate on seeking care," she says. "Facing the potential diagnosis would be more anxiety-provoking than putting it out of your mind and not taking action."

Just thinking about what you haven’t done may cause discomfort.

“Procrastinators experience higher levels of stress, from both their leaving things to the last minute and from their own negative and self-critical feelings about their procrastination,” Sirois says. “Some of the research has shown that this stress increases their vulnerability for catching colds, experiencing digestion issues, insomnia, migraines and muscle tension.”

Kate Romero constantly postpones, which produces guilt, shame and physical symptoms.

“I sometimes lay awake all night,” says Romero, 63. “I have had gut issues forever, due to the numbness I have felt to act in a timely manner.”

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Procrastination can result in sleep problems

Many people procrastinate about going to bed each night, which may cause sleep deprivation. Some lose track of time and accidentally miss bedtime. Others deliberately stay up late because they think they deserve to unwind. “You think, ‘At the start of the day, there were all these things that I was going to get done,’” says Joel Anderson, a philosophy researcher-lecturer at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who has studied bedtime procrastination. “At the end of the day, there’s this disappointment, particularly on a bad day. You face: ‘If this is when I go to bed, it’s not going to be the day I was hoping for.’ That’s frustrating. You’ve got to be a strong person not to give in to the illusion that you can just stretch time out and rescue the day.”

Retirement may cause bedtime procrastination among older adults.

“The structure of their day may disappear,” Anderson says. “Suddenly, they don’t have the kinds of regular routines and constraints that would keep them from just sliding into staying up later than they really intend.”

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Procrastination is impacted by boredom

If you put off projects until the last minute, you may be uninspired or lack allegiance to your workplace.

“We found out procrastination is not directly impacted by workplace conditions, but it is impacted by the boredom state that individuals feel,” says U. Baran Metin, who studies workplace procrastination at Utrecht University. “When you have little to do, you have a bored state of mind, which leads to procrastination, which eventually leads to lower performance.”

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Procrastination lessens as you age

People tend to procrastinate less about important matters as they age.

“As you grow older, the illusion of our immortality does get stripped away,” Steel says. “It becomes clearer: How many real summers do we have left? Ten? Fifteen? They’re really finite. What are you going to do with each of those summers?” These realizations may help you strive for important goals.

“Life is not a dress rehearsal,” Pychyl says. “You have to have some sense of agency and author your life. And when people realize the existential nature of time, they don’t linger, although they may still procrastinate on the little things around the house.”

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How to stop procrastinating

Try these tactics:

Consider actions, not tasks. For many people, the task itself isn’t problematic; getting inspired to take action is. Convincing yourself to do one small action associated with the task—like putting on your walking shoes or reading an e-mail from your boss—can help you begin. “We used to believe behaviours follow attitude, but if you can prime the pump with a little bit of progress, that motivates us,” Pychyl says. “You find your motivation follows.”

Adjust your attitude. Finding something enjoyable about your task may help you begin. Research shows that people are more likely to procrastinate when tasks are called cognitive evaluations than when they’re called fun puzzles. “If you perceive it as a chore, it can quickly become one,” Steel says. “The gamification craze is trying to make simple things more enjoyable. The enjoyment of a task isn’t fixed—you can shift that needle.”

Imagine your future self. If you’re delaying seeing the doctor or exercising, think about an attainable healthy future version of yourself. “It can serve as a motivation for improved health states and all the things that you can do if your health improves,” Sirois says. “But envisioning the negative things that can occur if they don’t go to the doctor, or change their diet, or get more active, can backfire.”

Use “if, then” planning. Signals may prompt action. Anderson studied the effectiveness of a timer dimming lights to help people honour bedtime. “They formed an intention: When the lights start to dim, I’ll start going to bed,” Anderson says. “It had a significant effect on getting participants to go to bed at a closer time to the intended bedtime.”

Reward yourself. Identify something that you enjoy, and don’t let yourself do it until you’ve completed an unappealing task. “You love a TV show, but you’ll only watch if you load the dishwasher first,” Ferrari says. “If you don’t do that, you don’t get to see it.”

Celebrate small achievements. Divide projects into smaller chunks and track your progress. “When you achieve something, put it on the ‘done’ menu, so you can see you are becoming successful—‘Let me carry on. I have achieved 50 per cent,’” Metin says. “Sometimes the bigger picture scares more than the smaller pictures.” Saginak has been taking small steps with her job hunt lately, and she’s feeling more optimistic. “I have changed my relationship with perfection and seek excellence instead; perfection is a prison,” Saginak says. “I wish I would have invested myself in my passion sooner instead of being afraid to take the risk."

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Originally Published in Readers Digest International Edition