A man sits at his desk procrastinating by making paper airplanes instead of working.
Maybe he's a master paper-plane engineer or maybe he's just procrastinating, a lot.John M Lund Photography Inc/Getty Images
  • Mental health and emotional concerns, including ADHD and anxiety, often lead to procrastination. 
  • Breaking down tasks, encouraging yourself, and ditching lengthy to-do lists can make a difference.
  • A therapist can offer more guidance with identifying triggers and building more productive habits.
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Plenty of people postpone errands and dreaded chores from time to time. 

Procrastination is pretty common. According to a small 2011 study, in fact, up to 95% of undergraduate students struggle with procrastination, and almost 20% of adults procrastinate on a regular basis. 

It can be pretty tempting to play now and work later, but procrastinating by putting important tasks off until the last minute can leave you feeling more overwhelmed than relaxed. Here's how to understand your procrastination and kick the habit.

What is procrastination?

Most people have experienced acute procrastination — which is when you occasionally put off something you don't want to do, like studying. This can lead to temporary bouts of stress as you approach a deadline, but it generally doesn't have any serious consequences.

But if you have chronic procrastination, your tendency to put things off could begin to interfere with your life. It can get in the way of managing responsibilities, taking care of basic needs, or achieving goals large and small. 

Chronic procrastination can have bigger consequences than just studying late into the night or living with a messy room until you find the motivation to clean it. For example, you may do things like:

  • Fail to submit that important proposal by the deadline, leading to an official reprimand from your supervisor.
  • Put off picking up your medication until you realize you're completely out, only to find the pharmacy closed for the weekend.
  • Browse your phone until late at night, putting off sleep to the point where you wake up groggy, fatigued, and far from ready to face the day. 

As a result, you might end up feeling stress and regret, and possibly even increase your chances of getting sick

The causes of chronic procrastination

Even when you recognize the ways chronic procrastination affects your daily life, you might find the habit hard to break. That's because the behavior often stems from underlying factors, some of which you might find it tough to address alone. 

Causes of procrastination can include: 

  • Anxiety: With anxiety, you might worry too much about making the wrong choice and put off making any decision at all.
  • Pride: You might feel so confident in your productivity you think you can do it all, only to drop the ball on something urgent. This can send your self-esteem plummeting, which makes you more likely to procrastinate in the future.
  • ADHD: Trouble with time management and executive dysfunction, including organizing tasks and getting started, are hallmarks of ADHD that can lead to procrastination and chronic stress.
  • Low self-esteem: If you're already stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, low self-esteem can intensify these thoughts. "I won't do it right anyway, so why bother?" you might think. 

It's possible to overcome both acute and chronic procrastination, but it does take some effort. These seven tips can help you get started. 

1. Trace it to the source

Learning why you procrastinate is a good first step. "You need to understand the reasons for procrastination to overcome it. If you don't understand the source of the problem, you can't come up with an effective solution," says Aniko Dunn, doctor of psychology and psychologist at EZ Care Clinic.

For example, if you procrastinate on mundane chores like paying bills and washing dishes, then maybe you're procrastinating to avoid the boredom of these tasks. 

On the other hand, if you're procrastinating on studying for a class you're finding really challenging, perhaps you're avoiding things you've failed at before. 

Understanding why you procrastinate can help you notice when you're repeating behaviors, so that you can focus on breaking the habit.

2. Manage your expectations with chunking

One method for overcoming procrastination involves chunking, or breaking your tasks into smaller to-do lists. The American Psychological Association defines chunking as a way to break large pieces of information or tasks into smaller pieces, making them easier to manage. This can help you manage your expectations more realistically.

For example, if opening and sorting all of your mail at once feels overwhelming, you might commit to opening two envelopes each morning and afternoon. Setting manageable expectations can make it easier to build up to bigger tasks in the future.

3. Practice the two-minute rule

Not sure how to break your tasks into individual steps? Try the two-minute rule. This involves committing to just two minutes of any task. 

For instance, instead of telling yourself you'll put away all of your laundry, commit to folding your clothes for two minutes. You might find that a smaller commitment makes the task feel less daunting. If you keep folding for five minutes or until the laundry is done, great! If not, two minutes is still better than zero. This can help you build confidence in your abilities to lessen future procrastination.

"Once people get started on a task, they're more likely to see it's not as bad as they imagined and keep going," says Angela Ficken, licensed social worker and psychotherapist at Progress Wellness

Telling yourself to work on a task for just two minutes can make your to-do list feel less overwhelming and easier to start.

4. Soften your self-talk

Chronic procrastination can trigger negative feelings like guilt and anxiety about your abilities. These unwanted emotions can raise your stress levels and make it harder to cultivate self-compassion

Rather than letting guilt eat at you, try to soften your self-talk. 

Instead of thinking: "I'm hopeless and I'm never going to get this right," you might try reframing your thoughts to: "I'm going to get started and do my best. I can perfect it later."

If you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts, try pausing to put your hand on your heart, and take a deep breath. You can also tell yourself things like "I am enough," or "I can accomplish difficult things."

This helps open your mind to self-acceptance, which can help you consider more possibilities for yourself in the future.

5. Consider the positive "what-ifs"

Procrastination due to anxiety, ADHD, or perfectionism can stem from worries that the outcome of your efforts won't measure up. 

Try asking yourself instead if there's another way things might turn out. How would you encourage a friend who was so afraid of failing they had trouble getting started? You might say, for example, "You've succeeded at things that seemed overwhelming before."

Talking to yourself in a similar way can help you find a more helpful and realistic approach to getting started on tasks. 

6. Skip your to-do list

Jotting down everything you want to accomplish in a given day could leave you feeling burned out before you even tackle that list. 

Instead, try working backward based on the day's biggest goal instead. Identify which items on your list are the most important, then focus on completing those. If you have time left after completing those essential responsibilities, you can start on other, less urgent tasks. 

7. Reach out for support

When chronic procrastination begins to affect your relationships, performance at work and school, or general quality of life, seeking professional support from a therapist can make a big difference.

"If procrastination interferes with your daily routines, mental health experts can identify causes for your behavior. They can help you replace self-defeating thoughts with more productive ones," says Dunn.  

Insider's takeaway

Procrastination can happen for plenty of reasons, from anxiety to low self-esteem. "We think doing it later pushes stress and anxiety away, but it doesn't. The task is still on our mind, and the more it lingers, the more stress and anxiety builds," says Ficken. 

Treating yourself with kindness, adjusting your expectations, and connecting with a mental health professional for more support can help you conquer chronic procrastination and accomplish your goals.

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