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How to combat procrastination, based on your personality type

Many of us struggle with procrastination. But our success in combatting it might depend on our personality type.

How to combat procrastination, based on your personality type
[Photo: Helen King/Getty Images]

Procrastination. Most of us struggle with it, at least to some degree and are eager to find an effective solution. Some people procrastinate so much that they’re willing to pay people to (nicely) force them to get stuff done.

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But why is procrastination such a challenge to combat? Avoiding your to-do list is a common problem that seems like it should have a simple solution. After all, we just need to motivate ourselves to do whatever it is we’re putting off, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Our tendency to procrastinate has very little to do with willpower and self-control and everything to do with emotion regulation. When we think about completing a task, we project how we’ll feel about undertaking that activity. If we predict that it’s going to be unpleasant, we procrastinate.

The different ways we’re wired to procrastinate

Of course, emotions are complicated. Two people can experience the same emotions but have completely different triggers for them. And that’s what Dr. Linda Sapadin, a licensed psychologist, success coach, and author of It’s About Time!: The Six Styles Of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them and How To Beat Procrastination In The Digital Age discovered. “Some people in my practice would discuss things they might want to do or change,” Sapadin says. Some of those patients would go on to execute those changes, but then others would find “one reason after another as to why they couldn’t do it.”

That observation led her to develop a questionnaire, which she sent to people around the country. Upon analyzing the results, Sapadin concluded that there were six different styles of procrastination that people tended to exhibit.

1. The perfectionist

The perfectionist procrastinator, according to Sapadin, pays too much attention to details. They have such high expectations about themselves that they can’t bring themselves to start a particular task or finish it because they fear that it won’t be good enough.

Sapadin advises perfectionists to try to banish “shoulds” from their vocabulary and try and substitute them with “coulds” instead. “Instead of imposing unnecessary pressure on yourself, it’s more like you have a choice,” Sapadin says. Time limits and constraints can also be helpful for the perfectionist who finds it difficult to finish a project. 

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2. The dreamer

Unlike the perfectionist, the dreamer procrastinator doesn’t pay enough attention to details. They may have aspirations to do or complete something, but they don’t often have concrete plans to take that first step. Dreamers often use vague words like “someday” or “soon,” says Sapadin.

For dreamers, specificity is the key to tackling procrastination. Rather than say “I’ll do something when I have the time,” Sapadin recommends that dreamers make a plan to do one particular thing at a specific time on a specific day. If a task is big, make the commitment to do one part of that task a day. It’s about telling yourself “Everyday, I will do that in order to move ahead in this particular goal that I have,” says Sapadin. Without setting specific goals, dreamers will never have the time to finish a task.

3. The worrier

Worriers procrastinate by letting their worrying and overthinking tendencies take over their behavior. They tend to put off making decisions, often telling themselves that “they’re waiting to find out something.”

Sapadin says that the most important thing for worriers to recognize is that “not making a decision is in fact making a decision.” They’re choosing inaction and justifying it with their worrying tendency. Sapadin recommends that rather than trying to change their worrying tendency, they should lean into it. While they wait for something, Sapadin says, they should focus on doing something else that moves a project forward.

4. The crisis-maker

Opposite of the worrier, the crisis-maker is inherently optimistic (mostly about time and their own capacity). They’re the ones who wait until the very last minute to do things, and they justify it by saying, “I can’t get motivated until the end.”

Like the worrier, Sapadin says that there is a way to tackle procrastination that leans into their tendencies. For starters, they can create that kind of rush by setting a timer and giving themselves X number of minutes to do something. Sapadin also recommends that crisis-makers should switch from using “feeling'”phrases (“I feel like I’ll have enough gas to get there,”) to “thinking words.” (“It will be safer to fill up on gas now.”)

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5. The defier

There are two types of defiers—those who refuse to do things because they resist succumbing to expectations, and those who say they’ll do something but don’t (Sapadin calls this the “passive aggressive” defier.) This latter sort of defier tends to create more anger, Sapadin says, “because when you say you’ll do something but you don’t, people get upset.”

For defiers, Sapadin recommends getting away from the “reacting” mindset. When someone asks the defier to do something, the defier needs to shift their mindset from reacting to someone to choosing to act. They need to stop seeing requests or tasks as “a demand that [they] have to defy,” says Sapadin.

6. The pleaser

Contrary to the defier, the pleaser hates disappointing people. They find it difficult to say no, so as a result they often end up juggling more than they can handle. They find it difficult to prioritize, so they procrastinate because they have too much to do.

The procrastination solution for pleasers is simple but not easy to do. They need “to learn how to say ‘no’ in a gracious way,” Sapadin says. They need to be comfortable saying things like, “No, thanks for thinking of me,” or “No, I can’t do the whole thing, but I can do this part of it,” or “No, I can’t drive you today, but I can do it tomorrow.” Pleasers also need to learn to be comfortable to ask for help and accept that they will not be able to do everything, says Sapadin.

Sapadin believes that one of the biggest misconceptions about procrastination is that it’s a negative trait—and that people who do it just don’t care. It’s a human trait, she says. Chronic procrastination can have serious effects, but for most people procrastination isn’t “an awful and horrible trait if it’s mild and on occasion.” After all, Sapadin says, “everybody procrastinates on something.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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