By Heather Schmitt, Ph.D., LP
Hi, my name is Heather, and I’m a procrastinator at heart.
For a long time, I was a proud – and extreme – procrastinator. When I had a paper due, I would write the entire thing the night before. When I had an upcoming exam, I would frantically prepare notecards and memorize information at the last minute. When I had to schedule an annual eye exam, I’d wait to make the call until I was down to my last few contact lenses. When I had a big move, I’d pack and organize all of my items during the final 24 hours of my lease.
I thought procrastination “worked” for me. I had the evidence: aced papers, high exam scores, on-time appointments, and perfectly packed moving trucks. Time and time again, I overcame the odds. I believed that the pressure of the last minute helped me do and be my best. At times I longed for peace of mind of getting things done early, but my procrastination never seemed to end in catastrophe – only triumph. This earned me a nickname from my mother: “Last-Minute Ace.”
But that last-minute mindset didn’t really supply motivation when it came to less-pleasant tasks. The result? The less enjoyable the task, the more likely it was to remain on my to-do list. I would suddenly find the appeal of cleaning my room top to bottom (which was already quite clean), organizing my kitchen spices (which were already quite organized), or going for a run (which, for anyone who knows me, may as well be a cry for help). After all, I was being productive! I knew the time would come, yet I always found myself waiting until that last window of opportunity to start the paper, make the phone call, or pack my things.
So, then what? The looming deadline would hit, accompanied by guilt as I continuously set aside other work to be done. Completing a task became a cycle: major sleep disruption, a big dose of stress and adrenaline, and an inevitable “crash” afterward (often with a migraine). I recognized this cycle and the harm I was doing, but I couldn’t overcome the urge to divert my attention and efforts. Plus, it was easy to rationalize my procrastinating behavior (see above) and ignore the destructive process because of the sterling results. I was only accountable to myself.
About three years ago, as I was nearing the end of graduate school, the psychologist in me became fascinated with my procrastination. I was starting to question the (dark) “art” of procrastination. Why hadn’t I been able to break this conscious habit? What purpose was it serving for me? How was it actually not working? Could I possibly change this glorified behavior of 20-some years?
I started looking for patterns in what I put off, how I put it off, and why. I found that as a chronic procrastinator (which research suggests may include as many as 20 percent of people), I was consistently failing at self-regulation. I always knew what I should be doing, yet couldn’t bring myself to do it. There was a clear gap between my intentions and actions when a task was deemed less enjoyable. I was always chasing low stress and high enjoyment in the moment. For others, the habit of procrastination could be for other reasons: failure to regulate the fear of not doing a task well, the confusion about what needs to be done, or the distraction of other tasks to be accomplished.
Researchers of procrastination have categorized triggers for the behavior into four categories: expectancy (i.e., belief that you won’t achieve what attempting to), value (i.e., lack of value associated with task), time (i.e., poor time management, task deadline may not seem urgent), and impulsivity (i.e., easily distracted by other things). If you happen to be a chronic procrastinator, or find yourself engaging in occasional procrastination (which is completely normal!), trying strategies to combat these triggers can be life-changing. When I started confronting them, albeit in small doses, I found my habits slowly shifting. When I was finally exposed to the benefits of getting things done earlier, it made me want to do it more. It became a self-reinforcing cycle – a helpful one replacing a harmful one.
If expectancy is a challenge for you, try breaking things down into smaller, manageable chunks. This gives you a chance to experience some small successes and build confidence in what you might achieve. If value becomes a trigger, try finding or creating value in the task at-hand (while also breaking it down). Identifying personal benefit or some positive meaning from the task can help inspire action over procrastination. Another option can be to create value by giving yourself small breaks and earning something you value along the way. For instance, I’ve created a reward system for reading a boring (but necessary) article. When I finish a page, I allow myself to eat from a package of gummies (one page means one piece … I find a lot of value in food and use this often). Likewise, I allow myself to use my phone for 10 minutes after I complete three slides of a presentation.
If time gets in the way, choose what part of the day might work best for you for particular tasks. Don’t force yourself to work on something in the evenings if you’re more productive in the morning. Try to set yourself up for success in starting and completing tasks – and for me, that’s often in the evenings. Another way to address time is to make earlier task completion more rewarding than later task completion. Since a procrastinator-at-heart like me might not naturally find that to be the case, I’ve incentivized this for myself by setting a clear goal and reward for meeting a self-imposed earlier deadline. For instance, I told myself this year that if I completed my taxes by March 1, I could order new workout shoes. Likewise, I recently told myself that if I packed my suitcase for a weekend vacation by Thursday at 5, I could get an ice cream treat that evening (as I said before … I really value food).
If impulsivity is your Achilles’ heel, decrease distractors in your environment as much as possible. If it’s something that might divert you toward another task, eliminate or block access to it. For example, I have become much more diligent about minimizing computer windows I’m not using and turning off notifications on my phone. It’s also important to try to maintain your attention on just one task at a time; the more you attempt to “multitask,” the more impulsivity will work against you. Being able to wrap something up completely, without procrastinating it, has really helped me experience the satisfaction of being done with a task.
Have I completely vanquished my procrastination habit? Absolutely not. Old habits die hard. But am I more consistent at getting things done earlier, and do I feel better in those situations? Absolutely. And another thing I’ve learned? How important it is to forgive yourself when the habit inevitably creeps back in. Since procrastination is a self-sabotaging behavior, it can be really easy to view an instance of it as highly problematic or a failure. But with forgiveness, you leave the window open for yourself to make the more adaptive choice the next time. Ironically, some of my procrastination behaviors resurfaced when authoring this blogpost; so, self-forgiveness is something I am practicing today to hopefully prevent procrastination tomorrow. Why? Because I’m Heather, and I’m a procrastinator at heart … but no longer at everything.
About the Author:
Dr. Heather Schmitt is a licensed psychologist in Michigan who works with children, teens, and their families. Her clinical specialties include anxiety disorders, disruptive behavior problems, ADHD, and behavioral consultation. In her free time, she loves playing and watching sports, baking treats, and reading. She met Dr. Sam and had the privilege of calling him a colleague while completing her pre-doctoral internship at the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health.