Procrastination is self-harm, psychologist Piers Steel says. A kind of self-harm that we can become addicted to if we do not detect the reasons behind it and especially the effective strategies to counter it.

In general, procrastination is not good for us, regardless of its form, is the emphatic conclusion reached by Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, starting from the definition of procrastination: “a voluntary delay of an intended task, despite expecting to be worse off for doing so.”

The tendency to put off small tasks is therefore not at all harmless. What seems easy to put off for a freer day or a day in which we will have a better mood accumulates like a giant snowball. Not just on our to-do lists, but also in our minds, becoming stressors that drain us. Small tasks turn from molehills into real mountains when they’re put off, Sirois says.

Procrastination and the war of emotions

There is a vicious cycle to procrastination: the decision to procrastinate generates a feeling of relief, an immediate reward, which will later facilitate the repetition of the dysfunctional behaviour.

A reward is an essential element in the habit loop, the link that makes it very difficult to change a bad habit. On the other hand, the feeling of relief is followed by shame or guilt, feelings that intensify stress, increasing the possibility of a new postponement as soon as we face another unpleasant, meaningless, or feared task, Sirois explains.

Research has shown that, once we get involved in solving a task, it seems less stressful and difficult, which shows that emotions vividly influence our perception of the degree of difficulty of the task.

Procrastination is, in its essence, irrational, says Sirois, emphasising that procrastination stems from the inability to control the negative emotions that a certain activity generates, from anxiety and insecurity to boredom and frustration.

When we put off a task, we assume that tomorrow will be different, that somehow we will be different in the immediate future, and we prioritise our present disposition over the consequences that inaction will have on ourselves in the future, say psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois in a study published in 2013. We thus commit ourselves to pay the price of procrastination in the future, blinded by the need to fix our mood in the short term. It’s like stealing from our own pocket, just because we find ourselves unable to manage our negative emotions.

Psychological patterns of procrastinators

To solve the problem of procrastination, it is necessary to dismantle the reasons behind this behaviour. We also need to distinguish procrastination from regular postponement, which falls within the perimeter of the natural.

“Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,” says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. About 20% of the world’s adults procrastinate, which means that they turn postponing into their lifestyle, delaying the start or completion of domestic, school, or work tasks and thus diminishing their quality of life. If we realise that this is a significant percentage, much higher than the rate of various diseases and conditions, we should focus more on finding solutions to restore life and joy to those for whom procrastination has become a chronic problem, Ferrari says.

Procrastination becomes problematic when it targets those tasks that we have every interest in completing on time, thus becoming a common reaction, says professor William McCown, a pioneer in the study of procrastination and author of the book Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research and Treatment.

Those who procrastinate are divided, according to the criterion of motivation, into three large categories, says Ellen Hendriksen, a psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

The first category includes those who postpone the completion of a task because they want to avoid the negative emotion associated with it. Perhaps writing an essay, for example, makes us feel anxious, worried about the outcome, or unsure of the originality of our ideas, so a high-calorie snack, a few minutes or hours spent on YouTube or Netflix, or simply an engaging discussion, but unnecessary at that moment, serve as a buffer between us and the stress associated with that task. Procrastination not only sabotages our productivity; it doesn’t even deliver the promised feeling of well-being.

The only thing that the procrastinator succeeds in is ripping apart the negative emotion associated with the task and using these strips to fill in the time they waste.

The optimist is part of the second category of procrastinators—those who chronically underestimate their time budget or overestimate their ability to juggle tasks in a given time frame. In reality, the optimist lives in a delusion that seems to bother others more than him, being always caught unprepared and overwhelmed at the eleventh hour. Active procrastinators are also in the same category—the ones who deliberately postpone solving a task because they calculate their time relatively well and can work under pressure. However, there are better ways to carry out a project, especially if it is a creative one.

The slacker, or pleasure hunter, is the last type of procrastinator—the one who waits until they feel like working and whose avoidant behaviour is often exacerbated if people around them take over their tasks, fed up with this eternal procrastination.

How to fight procrastination

Oftentimes, procrastination is indicative of an underlying, unresolved emotional problem, says therapist Nathaniel Cilley, explaining that, without professional help, people often don’t even realise that procrastination isn’t their only problem (and probably not even the core problem).

Procrastination is an avoidance strategy that creates psychological suffering and that can be associated with depression, anxiety, perfectionism, eating disorders, and many other conditions, counsellor Rachel Eddins says. Shame is a way we have been trained to use for self-motivation, Eddins says. We believe that, if we are self-critical and severe with ourselves, then we will be able to achieve better results—but shame is an effective catalyst for procrastination.

Self-compassion is a better way, according to studies which have found that it reduces psychological distress, boosts motivation, is a good predictor of optimism and well-being, and is associated with initiative, curiosity, the desire for exploration, and conscientiousness.

Self-compassion includes the willingness to forgive ourselves for past mistakes, and the ability to release us from guilt and provide the relaxation we need after a hectic work pace—but it should not be used as an excuse to indulge in procrastination. The first step in combating procrastination is to admit that we have fallen into the trap of this dysfunctional behaviour, instead of hiding behind some shallow excuses, says psychologist Ellen Hendriksen. Accepting the fact that we have a problem is already half of the solution to it, Hendriksen says.

The next step refers to changing the environment and making radical changes, such as deleting an application on the phone that distracts us from work. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to go from chronic procrastination to high productivity, so Hendriksen recommends a transition period in which simpler tasks are tackled, without the usual interruptions and deferrals. Limiting the task list is essential, the psychologist says. When we set out to check off an overwhelming number of activities, we predispose ourselves to new postponements.

It’s not easy for a therapist to help a chronic procrastinator, professor McCown says. He points out that the process is almost as arduous as the recovery of someone with severe depression. Ferrari believes that the same way a depressed person won’t cheer up just because you advise them to do so, someone for whom procrastination has become a chronic problem won’t mend their ways just because you explain time management techniques to them. These techniques work, but not necessarily for the 20% of people for whom procrastination is a deeply-rooted behavioural problem and who may need counselling or even therapy.

McCown recommends too that the procrastinator begin to apply what they have learned, solving small tasks and enjoying the first successes in completing them on time.

Defeating procrastination can start with changing the way we think, says Christopher Rim, director of the consulting firm Command Education. Even though we know we’ll enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done (and in a timely manner), we procrastinate because it feels better at the moment to do that than it does to face what we have to do. Starting from this reality, we can teach our minds to enjoy the process of completing a project, to the point where we get more satisfaction from our work than from avoiding it, Rim says.

We truly taste the satisfaction of the completed work only when we defeat two formidable enemies: workaholism (as the authors of the bestseller Rework argue, the workaholic is not concerned with increasing efficiency, because they like to work overtime) and perfectionism, the perfect accomplice to procrastination.

Because of the pressure under which a perfectionist lives (generated by exaggerated fear of failure, setting unrealistic standards, inability to enjoy achievements, thinking in terms of “all or nothing”), putting off a project becomes an easy, almost inevitable choice.

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Besides the harmful effects of perfectionism on physical and mental health, it is important to note that it resembles perfection, but delivers underproductivity, Rim says. If you wait for things to be perfect, you will end up missing out on opportunities and most likely the result will be inferior to what you would have gotten if you had used the time you wasted by procrastinating, to practise and gain experience, the specialist says.

Humorist Douglas Adams, known for his procrastination while working on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels, wryly noted the pleasure he took from deadlines. What he particularly loved was the dry sound they made as they raced past him.

Although he applied various strategies, Adams could not manage the problem of procrastination, so he solved this shortcoming by creating his epitaph in advance: “He finally met his deadline”—an epitaph that reminds us that our life has the fragility of dewdrops and that time passes far too quickly between two deadlines, between two seasons, between two breaths. And if that’s the case, it would be so sad to waste this little bit of life by letting ourselves be crushed by the heel of perfection or the terror of deadlines. Let us not waste today’s moments with the recklessness of someone who doesn’t know how to pay tomorrow’s bill.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network magazines.