All of us at some point or another have put off a task we needed to complete. Those tasks can range from doing the laundry or cleaning the bathroom to revising a grant application or finishing a manuscript. A little procrastination is to be expected, however, recurrent or chronic procrastination can have significant effects on work and relationships.

Why do people procrastinate?
Understanding why a person is procrastinating is very important. There are various explanations that can be as simple as a poor sense of timing and a lack of organization, or it can be as complex as perfectionism preventing a person from trying something that is unfamiliar or starting a task which they may fail. People may need structure from an outside party to focus on working. Procrastinating can also be a way to express anger or resentment towards a process, a colleague, a supervisor, or a loved one. Fear is another emotional reason why people procrastinate. Fearing failure, losing control, or trying to meet another person or one's own high expectations or standards can also be a cause.

What's the big deal with procrastination?
A person who procrastinates may not be aware of the stress, resentment, or bad reputation that one can get from putting off tasks. People often joke about procrastination or claim that they "work best under pressure." In fact, there are serious consequences to procrastinating. The most significant consequence is losing the trust or respect of your colleagues, supervisors, or loved ones. A person who procrastinates becomes a person who cannot be counted on to complete a task on time, a person who feels no responsibility for his or her actions, and a person who does not take a job or request seriously. Professionally, if you miss deadlines, you may lose your job, be passed over for advancement opportunities, lose grant funding, miss out on performance-based raises, etc. Personally, you could frustrate, irritate, and disappoint friends or loved ones. People won't necessarily find your behavior to be cute or endearing.

As for people saying they work best under pressure, research shows that people do better with a moderate amount of anxiety or stress in testing situations. Improved performance, however, declines as the amount of stress increases. Stress also affects blood pressure, sleep, muscle tension, chronic pain, and other physical conditions. A person may see stress created by procrastination as having positive outcomes, but it is more likely that the stress is taking a toll on a person's body, interpersonal relationships, and job performance and productivity.

How do people stop procrastinating?
Stopping procrastination can be a very individualized process. What works for one will not work for all. Here are a few tips to consider when exploring your own techniques to address procrastination:

  1. Break tasks into smaller pieces so they do not seem as large or daunting. Focus on one issue or part of a task at a time.
  2. Try making lists, using a planner, writing on dry-erase boards, or putting reminders on refrigerators.
  3. If you resent being held to a schedule, focus more on the amount you complete each time you sit down to work on a project. If you resent having to have a certain amount completed, focus more on working in timed increments. If you resent both, then just sit down and try to work without holding yourself to a particular expectation. You may actually get on a roll.
  4. Use friends or colleagues to support you or to help hold you accountable. Set up a check-in time to help you stay focused.
  5. Change your location. If you can't work in your office and you have the ability to leave it, then go to a coffee shop or to the park with your laptop.
  6. Fight negative self-talk. Don't beat yourself up or restrict access to good things based on your work product. Learn to associate working on a project with positive things, such as taking a walk, working out, or going out with friends. Instead of saying, "I can't ____ until this is done" say "I can do ____ if I do this piece of work."
  7. Seek professional coaching, such as the kind offered at Work/Life Connections - EAP. You can make a confidential and free assessment appointment by calling 615-936-1327.

Procrastination is something we all face in some way or another. There can be significant consequences to putting off tasks, but you can prevent or address procrastination if you consider your strengths, move away from punitive solutions, and focus on smaller and more achievable goals. Work/Life Connections-EAP has licensed staff who can help you stop procrastinating and start moving forward in your life.