Long before the Internet, as we know it today, people have been procrastinating, and for many folks, it isn’t a big deal.  But according to research from the American Psychological Association, nearly 20% of US men and women are chronic procrastinators.  When that happens, it can have a detrimental effect on their mental health

If it seems as if procrastination has been around for centuries, it has.  Consider some 535 years ago when the Friars of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception asked Leonardo da Vinci to create a painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child for the altar of their chapel.  The artist agreed to have it finished in seven months, but instead, it took him 25 years to completed the project.  Although Leonardo da Vinci is considered a Renaissance man, and a genius of art and design, he was, without a doubt, one of the best early procrastinators on record.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

“Usually procrastination happens because the task seems too difficult,” said A. Chris Heath, MD, a psychiatrist who practices in Texas.  “Sometimes the procrastinator thinks he or she won’t do a good job. This is really a self-esteem issue—as if the person is not equipped to carry out the task. Often the person carries some degree of shame or guilt, and they may not even be aware of. With just enough shame, that it makes that already difficult task seem near impossible.”

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Dr. Heath believes that procrastination is actually a defense mechanism. “Your unconscious mind thinks it is helping you. But it is misguided. So the procrastinator’s mind uses a defense mechanism—repression—to kind of forget about the task. ‘Oh, there are so many other things I need to do.’ And the procrastinator usually minimizes the amount of time the task will take. This, of course, is the trick our mind plays with us. It hopes the task will go away.”

Research has revealed that some people with certain types of challenges may also suffer from chronic procrastination.  “We have found some links with chronic procrastination and ADHD, people who have passive-aggressive tendencies, seek revenge, have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other areas,” said Joseph Ferrari, PhD, author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done.  “But let’s remember that while everyone puts off an occasional task, it is the person who does that habitually, always with plausible ‘excuses’ that has issues to address,” he said.

Passing the Blame

Some people blame modern technology, and especially the Internet, for the rise in procrastination rates over the past few decades.  How many times have you began searching for information online and then became distracted by other sites?  And before you know it, hours have passed and you are still without the original information you were seeking.

When the procrastinator does “get around to” the task, there is not enough time to do it well. The task is more stressful and is done less well, than if there were plenty of time. So this is false proof to the procrastinator that he or she was ill-equipped to do the task in the first place.

“We hear that technology today makes it easier to procrastinate,” said Dr. Ferrari. “Well, in 2006, a reporter phoned me and asked what I thought of the snooze button, which is more than 50 years old. The snooze button is one of the first technologies designed to give us more time, yet we have not gained anything. We still delay. Today’s technology can help us not procrastinate if we use it wisely. We don’t have to surf the Web for hours on irrelevant tasks. We can install systems that time us out after 10 minutes. We don’t need to carry an iPhone with us constantly. Use technology as a tool, not as a means of delay.”

Dr. Heath believes you can fool your brain into getting things done on time.  “One trick for overcoming procrastination is to recognize how desperately you are looking for something to do, and see it is your mind playing a trick on itself,” he said. “How else would you have so much energy for mundane avoidance tasks, like rearranging your sock drawer? If you have time, negotiate with yourself. Indulge the other tasks for a limited time, but have a strict time limit.”

How to Stop Procrastinating

While it may seem like an impossible task, it is possible to overcome the challenges of procrastination—and actually get things done that you have been putting off.  Here are a few tips to help you tame the procrastination beast:

  • Take a deep breath and get started. No matter what you need to accomplish, there’s nothing like taking a deep breath and moving forward towards your goal!
  • Have the right attitude. With the right outlook, you can go anywhere you choose to. But with the wrong attitude, the procrastination will continue to rule over you.  Decide “you can do it!”
  • Break it down into smaller tasks. If you are writing a paper, start with just one small paragraph. If a disorganized closet greets and discourages you every morning, attack one small section at a time—just organize the blue clothes, for example.  No matter what is on your “to-do” list, break it down into more manageable tasks and they won’t feel so bad.
  • Put aside the interruptions. If you are tempted by the Internet, log off of your wi-fi for a while. If you are constantly sending and receiving texts, put your phone into another room.  Take away the interruptions and you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.
  • Decide on a reward when you are finished. A small treat upon successful completion of a task can provide tremendous motivation. So, treat yourself to a trip to the mall, a Netflix binge or something else you can look forward to as you jump into your task.

“Optimally, ask yourself if you are truly able to do the task,” said Dr. Heath. “You probably are, but this will require you to face your self-doubts. And remember, perfectionism is usually a reaction to shame and self-doubt. Know you can do at least an adequate job. And consider seeing a mental health professional if procrastination is causing you undue stress in your life.”

Last Updated: Jul 18, 2019