Why We Procrastinate—and How to Stop

Whether it’s starting a daunting work project, tackling the Mt. Everest-sized pile of laundry or even something as simple as making a phone call, many of us tend to put off inevitable yet somewhat unpleasant activities. Ironically, the act of procrastination can end up making a task even more onerous, as we're faced with the added stress and anxiety that comes with a tight timeline. 

There’s no denying the sense of relief and accomplishment that comes with finishing something with plenty of time to spare, so why do we push off until tomorrow what could and should be done today?

Christian Eilers, a career expert at Zety, explains that two of our basic human instincts are to strive for happiness and to avoid suffering. "For some people, doing things they don't want to do equals suffering [and], therefore, they put it off," he says. "Interestingly enough, people who postpone doing something do not tend to have a weak will and are not unable to manage time properly—they simply want to avoid feeling unwell."

Psychologist Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D. says procrastination is, in a nutshell, a struggle with transitions. "The brain is better at finishing things than starting things," she explains. "Starting takes a lot of energy and opens up the space for anxiety, as we imagine how hard it will be and how poorly we will do it."

But all hope is not lost for chronic procrastinators! If you're plagued by a desire to put tasks off, there are plenty of strategies that will help you stop delaying and start doing. 

Confront the task head-on.

When you’re overwhelmed by something—taxes, bills, clutter or a project—you might be tempted to look the other way, assuming it’s too difficult or time-consuming to confront. But Chansky points out that when we take a closer look, the task usually isn’t as grueling as our anxious imagination would have us believe.

"If you open that email you've been avoiding, chances are it's not so bad, and you can start thinking about how to tackle it," she says. "Usually once you're willing to take a look, what you initially thought was insurmountable turns out to be surprisingly simple and manageable."

Break it down into small steps.

In most cases, Chansky says, procrastination comes from feeling daunted by a big goal, when it can usually be divided into five or six sub-goals. It all comes down to project management, she says: Break down the goal, name the steps and focus on one thing at a time. Not only will you start chipping away at the task, you’ll also get mini rewards along the way as you get the satisfaction of checking the smaller tasks off your list.

Start in the middle.

Although some projects must be done in a certain order, in many cases, there are no rules. Nipping procrastination in the bud means "sneaking" past the beginning and getting to the part that is most exciting to you.

"When you have a handle on the most important or gratifying part, not only will you be hooked into your project, [but] you'll be willing, or even eager, to go back to the beginning or other sticking points with a bang," Chansky explains.

Fire the perfectionist.

To get out of procrastination mode, Chansky suggests adopting the mindset of "good enough is great." Whether you’re cleaning your kitchen, writing a report or trying to broach a difficult topic with someone, push away the thought that it has to be perfect.

"Strive to do excellent work, not perfect work," she advises. "It's not about lowering your standards—it's about lowering the unrealistic stakes you've constructed in your mind of what it means to fall short of the nonexistent construct of perfection."

Stop just short of finishing.

But isn’t finishing the goal? Yes, ultimately, but especially with larger, complex projects, Chansky says it can be helpful to wrap up your workday (or work session) while you’re still in progress. That way, instead of facing the more daunting task of starting a new project from scratch the next day, you can always pick right back up with the undone piece of the job in a quick, easy transition.
"Immediately knowing where you were headed and what you need to do short-circuits fear and doubt," she explains. "Once you finish that mental bait, you'll be warmed up and ready to tackle the next chunk of work."

Use rewards as motivation.

Chansky suggests using your "reward" of choice—a Facebook break, a Netflix show or an afternoon snack—as an incentive to finish the task at hand. "We enjoy breaks more when they're earned, not sneaked," she points out. "Go into your project knowing your exit strategy. Designate a schedule [such as] work for 45, break for 15."
What are you waiting for? Start implementing these easy yet effective tips to put an end to dilly-dallying and make the most of your day.
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Member Comments

I set my kitchen timer for 15 minutes and tackle one area of the room I'm working in. When the timer goes off, I take a break and, reset the time for another 15 minutes. I don't feel pushed to get the whole room or area done, but during the 15 minutes, I concentrate on that area and only that.

It keeps me from getting burned out. Report
oh goodness! This is me all the way Report
Thank you! Report
good points Report
I have been using the 45 minute work, and 15 minutes break rule. It's been very helpful in keeping me motivated. I am now seeing my spare bedroom becoming a spare bedroom again instead of a catch-all room. Report
As a Cancer Sun I am worlds worst procrastinator. I always feel so accomplished once completed just making myself actually do it... 😂 not wait till last minute. Report
Great article! Report
Great article!! Thanks! Report
Before the Covid-19 I have been in the habit of doing me and my parents laundry. Initially I would have the clothes washed and dried but wait a few days before the folding. That has changed for the better. I treat everything as a job. Excellent article. Report
many reasons Maybe just don't feel like it. Report
This is me to a tee! Thanks for the info. Report
Great article! Report
Great article! Report
I am definitely a contrast to Chansky's assertion that "the brain is better at finishing". For some of us, it is a form of perfectionism that keeps us from finishing. Running into snags or realizing the end result isn't going to be as nice as I imagined has often left me abandoning a project. Still, I persevere and hope to be better and beginning and finishing, for Longfellow told us, "Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending." Report
Most procrastination I know if is done in hopes that something will occur preventing it to be done. Creative avoidance. Report


About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.