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When you’re stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of procrastination, guilt, and chaos, you might be asking yourself, “Why am I so lazy?” or “Why can’t I just pull myself together?”
But despite popular perception, laziness isn’t usually the reason for procrastination, said Jenny Yip, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Little Thinkers Center, which helps kids with academic challenges. “Laziness is like, ‘I really don’t want to think about it.’ Procrastination is: “It worries me to think about it. And that’s why it’s hard for me to do the job.” That’s a big difference.”
According to experts, the only ways to change your behavior is to know why you are procrastinating and to learn how to counteract it. Psychologist Linda Sapadin attempted to support these self-improvement efforts with her book How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age.
You could be the perfectionist, the dreamer, the worried, or the unruly—these are all procrastination styles Sapadin lists in her book.
While these types of procrastination aren’t specific diagnoses and aren’t supported by research, “they are psychological types or reasons why someone might be procrastinating,” said Yip, who is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
Procrastination can have practical consequences, such as: For example, falling behind at work, not meeting personal goals, or skipping errands like grocery shopping or sending a letter off your to-do list. But there are also emotional or mental effects. It has been linked to depression, anxiety and stress, poor sleep, insufficient physical activity, loneliness and economic difficulties, according to a January study of more than 3,500 college students.
“Especially in America, where so much of our value is tied to what we do, how we work, what we produce — it can feel very embarrassing when you can’t do that,” said Vara Saripalli, a Chicago native resident clinic psychologist. “It can make people feel very down and like there’s no point in trying.”
Knowing why you’re procrastinating can make you feel confident, but you still need strategies to break the habit. “Otherwise we just repeat things,” Saripalli said. “The strategy you will use to combat procrastination will change depending on the purpose that procrastination serves for you.”
This can help you figure out what kind of procrastinator you might be—but remember, you can embody more than just one type.
A procrastinator is usually a perfectionist, Yip said.
“Because the perfectionist wants everything to be perfect—all Ts crossed and dotted—it takes an insurmountable effort. And if (they) don’t have a plan how to get this job done, then the perfectionist is lost.”
Concerners tend to be indecisive and need advice or reassurance from others before taking the initiative. They also have a high resistance to change and prefer the security of the known.
Both the perfectionist and the anxious may put off starting tasks out of fear of failure or criticism, said Itamar Shatz, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the UK and creator of the Solving Procrastination website.
Challenge those beliefs and your behavior by realizing that perfectionist standards are unrealistic, Shatz said. “Instead, replace them with standards that are good enough, while giving yourself permission to make some mistakes,” he added.
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking and set a time limit for completing a task. (And then stick to that time limit—don’t just give up if you don’t meet it!)
A “dreamy” procrastinator doesn’t like the small logistical details often needed to get projects done, Saripalli said. “They love to have ideas,” she added. “The stuff is fun. It’s kind of difficult or boring to then implement those visions.”
Dreamers might also see themselves as people for whom fate will intervene, making proactive hard work and efficiency seem unnecessary.
And like a perfectionist, a dreamer may always want something better, Yip said. Practice distinguishing between dreams and goals, and approach goals with six questions: what, when, where, who, why, and how. Change “soon” or “one day” to specific times. Write your plans on a timeline and detail each step.
People with defiant procrastination tend to view life in terms of what others expect or require of them, not what they want. This pessimism reduces their motivation to get tasks done.
When you have that mindset, you find positive ways to make yourself feel in control, Shatz said. Strive to act rather than react and try to work with, not against, a team or manager.
“If something doesn’t suit you, instead of being passive aggressive, acknowledge what works or doesn’t work, and then have a conversation with whoever gives you that assignment,” Yip said. “Resisters typically do not feel able to have these conversations with people they see as authority figures, or do not believe that these conversations will bring them any benefit or positive outcome. … That’s not necessarily true.”
Just like working with anxiety or other mental health issues, procrastination can be difficult to address, especially when it stems from deep-rooted issues, Shatz said.
For some people who procrastinate, “their self-esteem is so fragile that the idea of doing something and failing would just throw them into utter worthlessness,” said Sean Grover, a New York City-based psychotherapist who specializes in group therapy specialized.
In such cases, “consider reaching out to a professional, such as a psychologist, who may be able to help,” Shatz added.
“Visualization works,” Yip said. “If you can imagine yourself doing (a task), it becomes easier because you have an idea that it can be done.”
At the end of the day, how you approach life “everything depends on your belief system,” Yip said. “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Whatever you believe, you are right.”