If you put things off until the last minute, you’re not alone. In a survey of more than 2,000 professionals, productivity expert Darius Foroux asked: How many hours did you procrastinate yesterday? Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they procrastinated at least an hour, and nearly 9% wasted at least half of the workday.
Procrastination not only hurts your productivity, it has measurable effects on your health. Putting things off can contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, low life satisfaction and even chronic illness, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease, according to the New York Times.
So, why do we do it?
The problem could be how you’re wired, or it could be the task, experts say. Here are five reasons people find themselves avoiding tasks, and targeted tips for finding motivation to push through.
1. It’s your personality
For some of us, procrastination could be part of who you are, says Marc Effron, author of 8 Steps to High Performance. “When we look at personality, one of the five parts is conscientiousness,” he says. “Some people are naturally high in this. They are the ones who wake up and decide ‘I’m going to get stuff done.’ Others who are low on conscientiousness are the opposite. They can’t even find their list.”
Being on the low end of conscientiousness is highly related to procrastination. While this reason is biological, it shouldn’t be considered an excuse. You can counteract your tendencies, says Effron. “Motivate yourself by using goals and deadlines,” he says. “If you set a deadline or goal, you’re more likely to achieve a task.”
For example, if you have a big project that’s due in 45 days and you know you have a tendency to wait until day 43 to put serious effort into a project, set earlier deadlines, suggests Effron. For example, identify a milestone to complete by day 30, then tie it to a reward that will reinforce good behavior.
“You can also include a threat of punishment,” adds Effron. “For example, ‘If I don’t get this done by day 30, I won’t allow myself to go to a restaurant for a month.’ You’ll be much more conscientious if you put in place a reward or threat of punishment.”
2. The task is unpleasant
Another common reason for procrastination is that the task isn’t enjoyable. “Do we procrastinate food or sex?” asks Effron. “No. We seek those things out. What we do procrastinate on is term papers or colonoscopies. We don’t want to do those things.”
If you’re feeling that you’re procrastinating because you dread a task, consider what will happen if you don’t do it, suggests Effron. “A penalty can shift your mindset, but so do consequences,” he says. “That colonoscopy doesn’t sound like fun, but having cancer would not be fun either. Find the positive benefit that will give you a reason to move up the task on your list.”
3. The task lacks meaning
Another reason people procrastinate is that the task holds little meaning. “At work, you might feel a lack of purpose if you’re working on projects and don’t see any outcomes or any importance around the things you doing,” says Petr Ludwig, author of The End of Procrastination.
Find the motivation you need to complete the task. It can be extrinsic or intrinsic. “Extrinsic is someone pushing you to do something, while intrinsic is that you want to do something,” says Ludwig.
Extrinsic motivation can work in the short term, but it also creates pressure that can backfire later and actually contribute to procrastination. Intrinsic reasons can be especially powerful. “The main ingredient of intrinsic motivation is autonomy, being able to take full responsibility for our own lives,” says Ludwig. “The outcome of that analysis in terms of procrastination is that intrinsic meaning is much better.”
4. You lack focus
Not having enough willpower to complete a task can cause you to put it off, says Ludwig. He likens this procrastination reason to a Japanese proverb: “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
“Vision without action” happens when you’re trying to change a behavior or habit but lack the willpower to take the actions needed to move toward the goal. “Action without vision is worse,” says Ludwig. In this case, you can be overwhelmed by too many priorities, so you choose the easiest option available, such as social media, Netflix, or YouTube.
“We need a vision to help us focus on own strengths,” he says. “If you have that vision, it’s much easier to say no to unimportant options and focus on what is important. We also need to have willpower to change behavior. If you have both, procrastination is much lower.”
5. You fear failure
Procrastination is also tied to emotions. “Important tasks are usually more difficult, unclear, and contain emotions of uncertainty,” says Ludwig. “When the instructions are certain and we know what to expect, it becomes easier to start a new project. When things are unclear and there’s emotion, it increases the risk of procrastination.”
If you’re doing a task for the first time, you’ll encounter negative emotions such as fear of failure. “In this case, it’s much easier then to do something else,” says Ludwig.
Remind yourself that it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. “At the end of life, during the final days, people do not regret what they did but what they didn’t,” says Ludwig. “Trying but not focusing on the results can help you decrease the emotions around risk of failure. The result isn’t important. What’s important is to try something new.”