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Inside the Mind of a Chronic Procrastinator

By Shradha Shendge

I’m sitting at my desk, palms clammy and fingers flying over my laptop keyboard—today is the day my midterm paper is due. Every few minutes, my eyes glance over at the time. The paper is coming along, but I sure do wish I had started earlier. I check over my work and hit submit at 11:45 p.m., letting out a sigh of relief. 

If you’re a student, I’m sure you’ve been in this kind of situation at least once during your time at school. While there are nuances to the degree which one procrastinates—whether it’s submitting an application to an internship or studying for a final exam—it’s important to unpack why and how this action can be debilitating.  

Firstly, procrastination is not something that manifests from sheer laziness like many people chalk it up to be. There can actually be deeper reasons we procrastinate. To better understand this, it can be helpful to view procrastination as a coping mechanism rather than an isolated act; moreover, according to Dr. Tim Pychl, a professor at Carleton University, procrastination is not a time management issue, but instead an emotional regulation problem.

Personally speaking, I only recently discovered that my chronic procrastination wasn’t attributed to laziness or simply “being unproductive”—the root cause was fear. More specifically, it was a fear of not being able to meet my own standards. I realized that for many school projects, papers, and even studying for tests, the hardest part of the process for me was getting started. I always had a specific vision of how the final product of any project should look like in my mind before anything else. Oftentimes, this perfect picture of the end result stopped me from even starting because I was scared that the first attempt wouldn’t reflect what I had in my mind. 

The main thing that helped me in these situations was to keep in mind that it was okay if my first attempt was not perfect. Think of your project as a draft or a rough outline: this will make it easier to get the ball rolling. You’ll find relief in having an outline to follow, and then you can come up with a system to chip away at the project bit by bit every day. 

I also want to touch on a different kind of procrastination that is just as important to talk about but sometimes goes under the radar: the kind of procrastination when we put off things that don’t have a deadline to keep us in check. 

These range anywhere from passion projects to life admin tasks, and buried dreams that we always follow up with a “hopefully soon” or “sometime in the future.” Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a book. Perhaps you want to get in shape or self-learn a new skill. When there isn’t a solid deadline, it’s hard to stay accountable and get started. 

Whichever type of procrastination you’re dealing with and regardless of the root cause, there is no single prescription to combat the resistance you might face with your tasks and deadlines. Down below are a few suggestions, tips, and things to keep in mind that might help you take control of your life and stay on top of your endeavors:

1. Self-reflect and reframe your perspective.  

A good place to start is to self assess why you might be procrastinating a task. Is it because the task is particularly unpleasant to do? Are you self-conscious of how other people might view your performance? Dig deep and sit with the challenging emotions surrounding any undertaking you find yourself pushing off. 

2. Remember your Why. 

Procrastination is a textbook example of present bias. While it is often used in an economical context, present bias is the innate tendency to prioritize short-term needs for immediate gratification rather than what’s best for us in the long-term. 

To tackle giving in to procrastination as a means for temporary emotional relief (especially for those long-term goals or things without concrete deadlines) think about your Why, or your drive and motive for doing something. Writing it down and placing it somewhere to reference when you feel like procrastinating can be a great grounding method. 

3. Practice self-compassion. 

Be kind to yourself as you work towards overcoming procrastination and become a better version of yourself. By reaffirming positive thoughts and letting go of regret (perhaps ruminating not starting earlier on a project), you can redirect your focus towards supporting personal growth and healthier emotional coping mechanisms such as mindfulness.

4. Try these actionable tips too.   

  • Get rid of immediate distractions if you have a school—or work—related deadline. This limits your chances of procrastinating mindlessly. Turn your phone on silent if you need to, move to a quiet place in the library, or put time limits on social media and leisure apps. 
  • Do the hardest thing on your to-do list first. Think about how good it feels to accomplish a big task early on in the day and do it first! Plus, there’s less of a chance of procrastinating other smaller tasks if a large, impending one isn’t looming over your head for the entire day. 
  • Try the Two Minute Rule. Coined by American productivity consultant David Allen, the Two Minute Rule is a simple tactic to combat aversion to tasks. The rule says that if you can accomplish a task in two minutes, you should do it immediately. Chances are, even if a task takes longer and you still apply this rule, you’ll continue working once you get into the flow of things.

Combatting procrastination, whether chronic or intermittent, is a practice more than anything else. The more you implement these suggestions, tips, and mindset shifts, you’ll find yourself replacing the cyclical nature of work resistance with healthier coping habits.