Procrastinating is common and almost always comes with an uncomfortable price. Learn to tackle this unhelpful habit once and for all.

Procrastination is something many of us have done at one time or another, and there are plenty of reasons for why we do it.

You wake up early in the morning vowing to begin your new exercise routine, only to sink back into bed and drift back to sleep.

Maybe you are putting off starting next week's tough research paper assignment - you have seven whole days to do it, why start now?

Or maybe you are sitting at your desk at work, staring at the day’s long list of tasks ahead, and opt to reach for your phone to browse social media instead.

Sound familiar? If so, you are likely one of the many people who procrastinates.

Procrastination is the tendency to push off necessary, often unpleasant tasks, like work reports, studying, appointments, or conflicts that need to be accomplished at the expense of reaching long-term goals.

More often than not, we push off those tasks for more gratifying activities, like playing games, catching a movie, hanging out with loved ones, or even sleeping.

Procrastinating sure feels good in the moment, but it can mean real trouble in the long run.

Why do we procrastinate, even if we know we might face harsh consequences?  Let us find out.

Is procrastination just another word for “lazy”?

Procrastination and laziness might seem interchangeable, but in reality, they are two different traits.

When we are able to complete a task but choose not to because we think it will take too much effort, we are being lazy.

In other words, laziness takes over when we are more concerned with sparing ourselves effort than with actually doing the thing that is expected of us.

On the other hand, someone who procrastinates delays the required task yet has every intention of completing it - and eventually does - but at a higher emotional or physical cost.

The cost of procrastination

Procrastination often comes with an uncomfortable aftermath including feelings of guilt and stress, and we know that stress can be a major contributor to a variety of physical and mental health conditions.

Not surprisingly, procrastinating in the classroom or workplace can also negatively affect performance and ability to reach important goals.

Students who procrastinate report worse grades and higher rates of withdrawal, and procrastinating employees see a reduction in their efficiency, a shorter duration of employment, and a lower salary.    

Another critical area that sees an unfortunate share of procrastination is sleep.  “Bedtime procrastination” is the common behavior that describes unnecessarily delaying going to bed.

What makes this type of procrastinating so troubling is the fact that postponing our bedtime shortchanges us the amount of sleep we get, and sleeping less appears to reinforce an unhealthy procrastination cycle.

A lack of sleep is shown to increase the tendency to procrastinate, which in turn causes even less sleep, which then leads to even more procrastination.

So why do we procrastinate?

Experts agree that the main reason we procrastinate comes down to our inability to self-regulate our own behavior, which is an elaborate way of saying that we sometimes act without self-control against our better judgement.

Procrastinating is irrational and unintended - we do it even when we want to stop and we know it is wrong.

But we do it because we prioritize feeling good right now over achieving an unpleasant long-term goal in the future, even if it means it will cause us suffering down the road.

There are many reasons we can find a task unpleasant.  We may not like being told what to do, or feel frustrated or resentful by the task. We may not find the task to be important, useful, worth the effort, or interesting.

Who is more inclined to procrastinate?

Psychologists have studied the personality factors that might predispose someone to procrastination, and found that people with anxious or perfectionistic tendencies are more inclined to push tasks off until later. The fear of failure is powerful, and can make it exceedingly hard to even get started.

Also, when people do not feel connected with their future selves or able to envision their lives in the future, they are less motivated to act by a punishment or reward, leading to procrastination.

On the flip side, the “self-determination theory” can explain why some people are less apt to procrastinate. This theory states that people with a high level of intrinsic motivation, or the motivation to complete a task because they derive their own satisfaction from doing so, are less likely to procrastinate.

A student who wants to excel in school for external validation like praise from parents or winning awards is more apt to procrastinate than the student who wants to do well because of his or her own curiosity and desire for learning.  

How to stop procrastinating

If you already have years of experience as a master procrastinator under your belt, changing this harmful habit might seem overwhelming. But take heart.

Just like any unhealthy habit you want to change, a bit of planning and determination is what it takes to achieve status as a former procrastinator.

Follow these guidelines to turn it around today.

Chuck the excuses. When we procrastinate, we give in to our inner voice that tells us we are too tired, or not ready, or simply not in the mood to accomplish what we need to. Recognizing this voice for what it is - nothing but an excuse generator - is the first step toward getting the better of it.

Keep your perspective in check. Often, we delay getting something done because we exaggerate how unpleasant the experience will be. Maybe the task is boring or tedious or challenging. But you can handle the discomfort, and doing what you need to will avoid the real discomfort that awaits you if you do not, which is stress.

Focus on why you need to get it done. The temptation to forgo the challenges that come with doing the work in order to feel good right now is real, but you know there is a benefit to you for getting it done. What is that benefit? Really pinpoint it and write it down. Then try to envision your future self in detail, gratified with your accomplishment and everything you stand to gain.

Pencil it in. Forget banking on a time when you are finally ready to tackle your task. Like any important activity, schedule exactly when you will work on it, and stick to it. Be realistic and set yourself up for success. Work best in the afternoon or evening? Pencil in your activity for then.

Break it up. It is easy to get overwhelmed when a large task is put before us. Break it up into smaller, manageable parts that you can be satisfied checking off along the way.

Become accountable. If you need some extra help to stay on track, connect with someone on a regular basis that you can share your progress with. Not wanting to fall short on what you have personally committed to can be a powerful motivator to stay on task.

Transform your environment.  Your environment can make or break your ability to accomplish what you need to. A pinging phone or messenger app that keeps inviting your attention will make it more difficult to stay focused. Silence and put away your phone, and stay offline until you are done.

Reward yourself. Reserve what you love for after you have completed what you have set out to do. Cannot wait to watch that new show on Netflix? Miss scrolling through your latest social media feed? Excited to try out that new restaurant for lunch? Enjoy those rewards only when you are finally done with your hard-earned work.