If somebody were to ask whether you'd rather finish a task you've been putting off or get a colonoscopy and you hesitate to answer, chances are you're no stranger to procrastination and the effect it can have on your overall wellbeing.
"Procrastination is an avoidant behavior that involves putting off completing a certain task — usually, because we find it uncomfortable, overwhelming, boring or have other negative associations with the task," says Victoria Smith, LCSW, a California-based licensed clinical social worker. "By procrastinating, we're avoiding feeling the discomfort of these negative associations."
Video of the Day
It's a habit that can have a range of consequences, including poorly done tasks, lots of stress and an array of negative health outcomes. But when approached from a place of curiosity instead of judgment, getting to know your particular procrastination style can unlock the data you need to break the cycle — and maybe even use procrastinating to your advantage.
Why You Procrastinate in the First Place
"As with many behaviors, the psyche isn't to blame as much as the brain," says Taish Malone, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. "The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex have been seen as the areas responsible for procrastination."
The limbic system is a set of brain structures that oversee our behavioral and emotional responses (motivation, reward, responsivity, habits), while the prefrontal cortex acts as our executive assistant, taking care of things like planning, organization and impulse control.
The brains of procrastinators have a larger amygdala than non-procrastinators (the part of the limbic system known for fight-or-flight), according to a small August 2018 study in Psychological Science.
This suggests that when you're presented with an unappealing task or a flood of new tasks, the amygdala reacts as if they're a threat, overruling your prefrontal cortex and ordering you to escape the negative emotions you're feeling. Cue procrastination.
"If we're in a situation where we already have a lot on our plate and are perpetually overwhelmed, the brain and body are primed to resist change and newness," says Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, board-certified psychiatrist, neuroscientist and founder of Apollo Neurosciences.
Procrastination becomes a distorted form of self-preservation where the brain mistakes the instant feeling of relief as a reward. Your brain hits the jackpot each time you put off a task, releasing feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, and reinforcing the belief that avoidance is an adequate and acceptable response to discomfort.
Over time, this feedback loop can become chronic and destructive.
The Emotional Underpinnings of Procrastination
Procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or poor time management, but rather relates to emotion regulation — usually, you want to complete the task you’re avoiding but there are underlying feelings that are holding you back.
These underlying feelings might include:
Boredom. When we’re not mentally stimulated, we’re not receiving any dopamine for beginning or working on a task.
“This means we’re not feeling any immediate reward for the work we’re doing,” Smith says, which can peer pressure us to do something more interesting instead.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism usually comes with subconscious messaging related to not being good enough or a fear of failure, so tasks can feel daunting by default because you’re fighting through feelings of self-doubt on top of the mental load required to complete the task itself.
“It can also feel somewhat protecting to not engage with a task we feel could ultimately prove our fear right — that if we don’t do a perfect job we’re not good enough and other people will see that,” Smith says.
Overwhelm and frustration. “When we’re mentally or physically overloaded, our logical thinking task-oriented brain goes offline and our survival brain kicks in to try and get our basic needs met so our nervous system can recalibrate,” Smith says.
Instead of fight or flight, you freeze, unable to think in a clear, structured manner.
Fear, anxiety and depression. “Fear and anxiety are very powerful emotions that reinforce avoidance because they’re a survival mechanism,” Smith says. “Even though we know a certain task can’t harm us, our bodies may perceive the task as dangerous.”
Meanwhile, depression can trap you in rumination mode (a preoccupation with painful thoughts about the past), the feelings of shame from which may put your social- and self-image into question and encourage task-avoidant behaviors, such as procrastionation, suggests a small July 2022 study published in the Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy.
Sensory overload. If you have autism or ADHD, you might experience attention dysregulation that can make it incredibly challenging to follow through or stay on task. “This may look like procrastination from the outside, but may not be about intentional avoidance at all,” says Peggy Loo, PhD, New York-based licensed psychologist and director of Manhattan Therapy Collective.
The Consequences of Procrastination
One force that powers procrastination is wanting to avoid the feelings, such as boredom or stress, that accompany the task. But this avoidance gives these feelings free reign to collect interest on your insides and make things worse — typically in one or both of these forms:
- Negative emotional consequences — think: feeling more stressed out by the task you're avoiding
- Situational consequences — the task does not turn out as well as it could have
1. Procrastination Can Become Cyclical
The feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression that typically follow avoidance further strengthen the negative associations attached to certain tasks. So the next time there's a to-do on your list that makes a colonoscopy appealing, you're even more likely to put it off rather than get it over with.
"This long-term procrastination cycle becomes greater and more encompassing than merely the behavior itself," Malone says.
But it's not procrastination itself that's the problem, so much as our tendency to condemn ourselves for doing it (say, with classic lectures like "suck it up" or "just do it"), the pressure from which only leads to more procrastinating.
2. It May Be Hard on Your Health
Once procrastination becomes a habit, the cumulative effect of the constant turmoil can lead to negative outcomes.
Procrastinating is associated with higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety, along with "reduced satisfaction across life domains, especially regarding work and income," per a February 2016 study in PLOS One, which looked at several thousand German people, ages 14 to 95. That is, procrastinating has a professional, emotional and financial effect.
And, it can lead to both short- and long-term health issues, including insomnia and digestive concerns. It's also a "vulnerability factor" with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, per research published in March 2016 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. These types of health outcomes could be due to procrastinators being more likely to put off self-care and regular checkups.
Another study followed university students in Sweden, sharing several web-based surveys over the course of a year, looking for associations between procrastination and negative health outcomes. The results, published in January 2023 date in JAMA Network Open, found that "higher levels of procrastination were associated with worse subsequent mental health." The study also noted that procrastination is associated with poor sleep quality, a lack of physical activity and pain in upper extremities, as well as worse levels of loneliness.
Procrastination vs. Purposeful Delay
Back in 2005, researchers theorized that procrastination comes in two forms: passive (postponing tasks despite the knowledge that doing so will bring on negative consequences) and active (purposefully putting tasks off because you work better under pressure), according to an article in the Journal of Social Psychology.
But procrastinating on a task and deliberately delaying it aren't the same thing: Procrastination is considered a self-regulation deficit; a voluntary, irrational postponement of tasks despite the blowback postponing them will bring.
"Procrastination isn't positive for most because it's not a decision that inherently comes from a place of empowerment, self-control or joy," Loo says.
Even if a task works out despite leaving it until the last minute, it's usually a hollow win filled with relief, not pride or satisfaction. This ultimately reinforces the negative beliefs we have about ourselves and our abilities and causes us to engage in the same thought cycle each time we need to complete something important.
"Your identity can even begin to build around the idea that you're a procrastinator who never gets things done on time and is always stressed out by deadlines — a thought pattern that can become self-fulfilling," Smith says.
On the flipside, deliberately delaying certain tasks is considered a proactive and thoughtful form of self-regulation.
"The emotional and psychological tone is completely different from procrastination because these actions come from a place of autonomy and thoughtful choice," Loo says.
Deliberate or purposeful delay isn't based on an internal need to postpone tasks, but external situational factors requiring you to make rational decisions on how best to prioritize your time according to those demands, per a January 2018 article in Personality and Individual Differences.
"When you don't need a whole week to do something and put it off until later or decide to call it quits early to clear your mind and reset, yes, you're technically delaying tasks, but it's not motivated by avoidance at all," Loo says. "It's simply a strategy you know works for you and will aid the overall process."
Say you've hit a wall with your creative project and find yourself deep-cleaning your home. Are you scrubbing away because the thought of facing your project is making you feel angsty? Then you're probably procrastinating. Or is cleaning your go-to strategy when you know an idea needs to incubate a little longer? That's purposeful delay in real-time.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Procrastinate?
When you put off tasks out of avoidance and coping-by-not-coping becomes your autopilot, this self-destructive loop can seriously mess with your quality of life, not to mention your long-term health.
But your knee-jerk urge to procrastinate doesn't come from a bad place: It's your brain's attempt at protecting you from the emotional pain and discomfort you've attached to certain projects or tasks, such as boredom, perfectionism or overwhelm.
Keeping this in mind the next time you're tempted to procrastinate can help you work through the uncomfortable feelings that are holding you back instead of avoiding them.
By getting to know your particular procrastination style, you stand a better chance at not only finding effective workarounds, but using putting things off to your advantage in the form of purposeful delay.
Procrastination isn't the enemy, so much as our not digging deeper into why we're doing it. So, what's your need to procrastinate trying to tell you?
- Emotion Review: “Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation”
- Journal of Behavioral Medicine: “Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension of the procrastination–health model”
- Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy: “Does Rumination Mediate the Unique Effects of Shame and Guilt on Procrastionation?”
- Psychological Science: “The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control”
- Thinking Skills and Creativity: “The Hemingway effect: How failing to finish a task can have a positive effect on motivation”
- PLOS One: "Procrastination, Distress and Life Satisfaction across the Age Range – A German Representative Community Study"
- Personality and Individual Differences: "A critique of the construct validity of active procrastination"
- Global Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities: "Applying the Yerkes-Dodson Law to Understanding Positive or Negative Emotions"
- Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: "Teaching temptation bundling to boost exercise: A field experiment"
- JAMA Network Open: "Associations Between Procrastination and Subsequent Health Outcomes Among University Students in Sweden"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.