You’ve had a month to complete a rather daunting project. The deadline is tomorrow and, although it has been looming over your head, you’ve yet to start. You’ve put it off and put it off until you can’t ignore it any longer, and now you’re finally getting started, last minute, with an absolute pit in your stomach. Ouch. This is procrastination and the subsequent dread, shame, and anxiety that it can bring into our lives. 

We’ve all been there. Whether it’s ignoring a stack of bills, laundry piling up in the corner, or a dreaded work project, procrastination is when we choose to do something else instead of the task that we know we should be tending to. Of course, ignoring these unpleasant tasks doesn’t make them go away. However, it can lead to a shame spiral in which we beat ourselves up for wasting precious time. 

Since procrastination is so common, we’ve decided to take a look at how we can become more aware of our behavior patterns, tend to ourselves in these moments, and make informed decisions that set us up for success. 

Getting to know the reasons we procrastinate. 

Fortunately, procrastination is a habit, meaning its possible to change this behavior. It’s helpful to first understand the reasons we choose to put off certain items on our to-do list in favor of others. 

When you find yourself putting off one task to focus on another, is it because you find one boring and the other one more pleasant? Or do you sometimes doubt your abilities to tackle certain projects, and therefore put them off so that you don’t have to face possible failure? Oftentimes people with perfectionist tendencies find themselves avoiding tasks that they fear they might do imperfectly. 

Avoiding overwhelming expectations or seeking pleasure over discipline are common reasons for putting off things that need our attention. It’s important to understand that procrastination is not a form of laziness. Despite what you may tell yourself during moments of frustration, procrastination involves a choice, while laziness implies apathy and an unwillingness to take an action. 

Learning to be kind to yourself.  

The truth is that this can be a painful cycle to repeat over and over again. In order to make effective change, it’s important to forgive yourself for all of the times you’ve procrastinated in the past. 

Studies have found that self-forgiveness can improve feelings of self-worth and actually reduce the chances of procrastination in the future. The next time you find yourself avoiding something that is difficult or unpleasant, instead of falling into a pattern of negative self-talk, try to tend to the underlying emotions with a gentle curiosity. Investigate where you feel that shame in your body: is it in your stomach? In your throat? Wherever your shame manifests, write down how it feels, what the shape of it is, and write about why you might be choosing to procrastinate.  

Once you’ve shown your shame a little curiosity, take a moment to reflect on a time when you did complete a difficult task and how good it felt. You are not what you achieve, so it’s essential to remind yourself of this each time you bump up against procrastination. 

Try changing up how you approach tasks. 

  • Empower yourself. When it comes to your internal dialogue surrounding a task, try replacing phrases like “I have to” with “I choose to.” It’s a subtle shift, but taking ownership of your responsibilities can help you to feel liberated to take positive action. 
  • Break large projects down into smaller tasks. If a particular project is feeling overwhelming, try breaking it into more manageable tasks and setting achievable deadlines for each item. As you chip away at the list, you’ll likely find yourself building momentum and confidence along the way. 
  • Limit outside distractions. Email alerts, social media feeds, and external demands can often lead us to being pulled away from tasks before we even get started. Take time to determine what distractions are taking you away and try putting boundaries in place to ensure that you have time and space to focus. 
  • Utilize helpful tools. There are a whole host of time and task management apps, like Focus To-Do and Trello, that can help you to be more organized and focused. 
  • Recognize your procrastination crutches. When a project looms large, many of us find creative ways to replace it with another kind of productivity to help justify our procrastination. Do you “have to clean your room” before you can start? Is it “easier to really focus” when you’ve finished other chores first? These are often excuses, and they can feel really good. That’s a good sign you need to look a little closer.  

Reach out for support. 

If you’re struggling with procrastination, consider reaching out to a friend, family member, or a trained professional for additional support. Most everyone can relate to a time when they’ve put off something that they shouldn’t have, so your request will likely be met with a great deal of empathy and understanding. 

Having an accountability partner can make you feel much less alone when it comes to tackling unappealing items on your to-do list. Share your goals with this trusted person and hold one another accountable, celebrating wins and investigating moments of procrastination.  

You can also seek out the help of a therapist or coach to help you better understand your goals, the obstacles that are getting in the way, and how to take actions that get you closer to where you want to be.   

The most important thing to remember is that procrastination is a common, yet deeply-ingrained, habit that many people struggle to overcome. You are certainly not alone in feeling overwhelmed or intimidated by certain tasks. 

We’re here to help if you need a little extra support in getting through the emotions associated with those less desirable tasks. At every turn, try to be kind to yourself and remember that your worth is not tied to what you check off of the to-do list today.