If your desk gets tidier as your looming deadline gets closer, you’re probably familiar with the effects of procrastination. Putting off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today isn’t just a harmless act—a February 2016 study in the journal PL0S One found it was associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and even unemployment.
And while there may be benefits to using procrastination wisely, the main motivation is to avoid something painful—and that can be detrimental, says psychologist Neil Fiore, founder of Albany, California-based Fiore Productivity, Inc. and author of Awaken Your Strongest Self. In the workplace, people who are chronic procrastinators may find that their lives are unbalanced because they’re avoiding doing things that are necessary, he says.
Examining your procrastination "style"—the reasons behind why you’re not doing what you need to do, can lead to important insights. Here are five common types of procrastinators, and the best tactics to help them get unstuck.
This procrastinator is trying to avoid being embarrassed by mistakes or judged, Fiore says. They may spend too much time on one component of a project, failing to manage their time properly, or avoid the project altogether, then rush to finish it at the last minute. Of course, this may increase the likelihood of making mistakes.
Afraid of being revealed as unqualified or inferior, this procrastinator puts off doing anything to avoid that risk, Fiore says. Often this type of procrastination is learned when the person is surrounded by people who are difficult to please. "If I cannot please my partner, my parents, my teacher, my boss, it creates what behaviorists call ‘learned helplessness.’ Learned helplessness is a pragmatic definition of depression," Fiore says.
When work is boring or unpleasant, we may procrastinate just to avoid doing it, says Nicole Bandes, founder of the consultancy the Productivity Expert. If you hate what you’re doing or you find it mind-numbing, it’s tough to get motivated to take action.
Sometimes, there’s just too much to do, and it’s hard to figure out where to start—so we don’t do anything, Fiore says. Whether they’ve chosen to take on too much or a supervisor is piling on the work, the sheer thought of getting it all done makes us avoid doing anything at all.
The Lucky One
Some people believe they do their best work under pressure, so they procrastinate until their back is up against the wall. If they have a history of doing this without consequence, they’ve essentially been rewarded for procrastinating, Bandes says. "In school, if you tended to be the kind of person that waited to the last minute to turn in a report, but you still got a really good grade on it, that would [create a belief that] ‘Oh, I don't have to do it right away because I'm going to get a great grade even if I wait until the last minute,’" she says.
So, what do you do if you’re a procrastinator and it’s hurting your work? Spotting the underlying issue is the first step to changing your behavior, Bandes says. And the approaches to managing and overcoming procrastination are similar for each type.
Make sure the work really needs to be done
If you’re procrastinating because you’re overwhelmed or hate your work, first ask yourself if the task really needs to be done at all. Where can you streamline or delegate? Often, by removing some of the unnecessary components, the path forward becomes clearer, Bandes says.
Break down the tasks
When you know exactly what you need to do to move forward, you remove uncertainty, which can foster procrastination and give you a clear series of steps to follow, Bandes says. The process of mapping out what needs to be done—preferably with deadlines attached to each step—can also help you see that it’s not as bad as you made it out to be in your head.
Commit to it
Fiore says it’s important to truly commit to the thing you’re doing and get in touch with why you’re doing it. For example, if you’re trying to improve your health and exercise is part of the plan, he says it’s important to truly commit to taking action.
"People who wrote down or said when they would start specifically, what they would do for a short period of time, even if, and this is a mental rehearsal of defaults and distractions, those programs were significantly more effective than other programs for increasing exercise, brushing teeth, eating more vegetables," he says.
Do one small thing
Forcing yourself to take action often helps dissolve procrastination, Bandes says. Even if it’s just looking up some research or organizing the project, the action puts you on a course to getting it done. It’s like working out—getting started can be the hardest part, she says.
Add a new urgency
Fiore and Bandes both agree that adding an element of urgency to the project or task can help overcome procrastination. Set a deadline for a first draft and tell yourself it doesn’t have to be perfect, Fiore says. For more immediate tasks, Bandes suggests setting a timer and working on the project for 15 or 30 minutes to help you get started. You can also gamify your progress, giving yourself a reward or incentive to finish each segment.
If procrastination is a problem, understanding your distinct "type" can help you face it more effectively, using these solutions and others to overcome it.