Procrastination—something I’ve been good at ever since I can remember. It’s a pricey lifestyle, though.
When I moved out of my last apartment, I had to pay $400 when I failed to clean it out by my leaving day. It was an enormous task and an emotional one. I was leaving Japan after two-and-a-half years. The pandemic was wreaking havoc, and I was overwhelmed by the entirety of the whole situation.
Don’t get me wrong—I’d been packing for weeks, but it wasn’t enough. If only I’d started sooner, I could have done it. If only I hadn’t filled those days with anxiety-driven binge reading, I could have saved a lot of trouble. If only.
When we procrastinate, it’s usually at odds with our most important goals. So it’s hard to understand why we’re acting this way when we know we should be doing something else. Procrastinating just doesn’t seem to make sense.
One of the worst feelings is the self-hatred mixed with helplessness: when I catch myself procrastinating, but I can’t seem to stop. Especially, when I find I’m neglecting my passions. I want to draw, I want to paint—so why am I reading about the agricultural history of potatoes?
By realizing what procrastination actually is, it makes it easier to understand why we do it so often.
Procrastination is a habit
Procrastination is a little monster fed by stress. It’s the habit of avoiding an unpleasant activity and doing something fun and easy instead. It starts small and harmless but—like tribbles—quickly escalates.
While living a stress-free life sounds wonderful, it’s also impossible. Stress happens. We can’t eliminate stress, so we’re left finding ways to manage it.
That’s much easier said than done, of course. Especially if you’re a chronic procrastinator.
Because it’s a monster, when we feed it, it gets bigger. Little acts of procrastination strengthen this habit until it controls our lives. The worst part is we may not even realize what’s happening.
A Little's not so bad, right?
Tasks like paying bills have a concrete, external consequence. So even though I procrastinated in doing chores, I was motivated by the pressure and avoided the negative consequences.
This contained my procrastination in the short-term. I knew I had a problem, but it wasn’t that bad, right?
Then my days started going something like this:
Today’s my day off, so it’d be nice to take out my watercolors and paint. Although, I need to clear my breakfast off the table. There’s a huge pile of dishes in the sink, though, since I was too tired to do them after work last night.
If I don’t wash the dishes they’ll start stinking, but I really don’t like washing dishes. So maybe I’ll just read a few pages of my book before getting started… It is my day off, after all. I have all day to get this done.
While it may have taken me a while to get the chores done, I’d finally get around to it. Doing things for myself was another matter.
Bit by bit, procrastination nibbled away at my favorite hobbies: drawing, painting, photography, and creative writing. I wanted to do them, I just didn’t get around to it as much as I liked. I was busy. Life happens—but I’d get around to it eventually.
After all, these were my personal goals. Things I did for myself, and not for anyone else.
But with no pressing need to do it, I just didn’t do them. There was always another day for me to do it. Somehow I just couldn’t get started.
I’d always thought of myself as someone who knew what I wanted to do. I knew who I wanted to be. I’d get there, one day. Just not right now. I was taking my time. I didn’t really worry about what neglecting my personal needs would do to my life.
This silent erosion led to the crippling accumulation of anxiety and guilt while depleting my self-esteem. Curiosity and passion faded; I lived one day to the next with a sinking feeling that my life was slipping by.
Knowing something is wrong, doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. Procrastination clogged the brilliant facets of my life without me noticing. There were always enough excuses.
Eventually, I started wondering if I even liked creating anymore. Or perhaps these things weren’t as important to me as I thought they were. After all, people change as they get older. Maybe it’s best to give up.
Where did my dreams go?
One day, I started an online class on resiliency. After completing the self-evaluation, I realized I didn’t even know who I was anymore. What did I want? What were my values? Where was I going with my life?
I felt as if I were someone else, dressing up and pretending to be me.
Procrastination had zapped my enthusiasm. I’d fed it my creative passions and been left an empty shell. I’d lost myself. I didn’t even know if I could create anymore.
Reflecting on the toll procrastination takes makes it seem a bit ridiculous. If I had just done the things I liked in the first place, this never would have happened. Do what you love. That’s the logical solution.
If only it were that simple.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do things. It’s that I didn’t know how to make myself do the things I loved anymore. Instead of finding ways to challenge my self-growth, I doubted myself.
Procrastination is a slow-acting poison. If left unchecked, it’ll eat away your dreams and vitality, and you’ll be left wondering just where, exactly, everything started to go wrong.
It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication to learn how to manage my procrastination. It’s a little monster that will probably always be inside me. But knowing it’s there, seeing what it’s capable of doing to my life is the best motivation I’ve had to keep it in check. I just wish I’d done it earlier.
Why it's so easy to procrastinate
Procrastination is when you avoid doing a stressful task and do a rewarding activity instead. When you’re stressed, your brain wants to do something fun to get a quick feel-good boost. It follows the path of least resistance.
In general, you’d much rather do something easy than something difficult that you might mess up. So we end up watching adorable videos of huskies eating ice cubes instead of cleaning the toilet. By engaging in this habit, you get sucked into the habit loop, reinforcing the behavior.
This makes it easier to procrastinate next time—just like a muscle that you strengthen. You’re essentially rewarding yourself for not doing that hard thing you’d really rather not do. Of course, it’s a toxic combination!
Eventually, you’ll start procrastinating without even realizing that you’re doing it. It’s habitual. Procrastination takes many forms, though, which is one reason why it’s so insidious. It can be difficult to recognize when we’re procrastinating at times because sometimes we procrastinate by keeping busy.
Whenever you procrastinate—and for whatever reason—it’s easier to procrastinate again when faced with a similar situation. It becomes the default mode when you’re stressed. That’s another reason why procrastination is so difficult to overcome.
Despite providing stress relief, procrastination leads to feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. There’s mounting evidence it can harm your physical health as well. All of these feelings can make it harder to find the determination needed to beat procrastination.
Finally, there’s the accumulation effect, where procrastinating makes you feel stressed because you put off what you needed to do. Now that you have more things you need to do, you’re even more stressed than before! It’s a difficult, vicious cycle that feeds itself.
procrastination: The anatomy of a habit
Stress is the trigger that cues procrastination. Triggers signal us to engage in a habit. Think of habits as turning the brain on autopilot. We don’t really think about what we’re going to do, we just do it. The trigger is like pressing the start button.
Stress can be caused by life events outside our control, but it’s usually compounded by other feelings related to the task at hand: fear of failing or being ridiculed, feeling overwhelmed, not knowing how to do something, or even just finding a task unpleasant or difficult.
In procrastinating we’re avoiding doing the activity we’re supposed to be doing. Procrastination is a habit of avoidance. It’s not doing something else; it’s not laziness; it’s avoidance.
We then substitute the task for a simple or fun activity, like watching cat videos. Or playing addicting games or reading the news or scrolling Facebook. Usually, it involves the much-uttered promise, I’ll do this just five minutes. And then we get started five hours later. Or never.
The feel-good part. The brain loves to feel good. We have habits because our brain provides a chemical reward for doing an activity. When we procrastinate, we reward ourselves for avoiding difficult tasks. This is stress-relief in action.
Procrastination makes you feel better. Only in the short term, though.
Live for future happiness
While accepting procrastination as part of yourself might seem like the easiest solution, doing this is harming you and your life.
Empathize with your future self instead of living in the present moment. When we favor cheap happiness and instant gratification instead of focusing on our lifelong dreams, we cheat ourselves out of self-fulfillment. Years later, we’ll wake up wondering where—and why—everything started to go wrong.
So much time wasted, and you can never get it back.
I’m not going to lie: procrastinating is a difficult habit to break. But it is a habit, so you can break it. It takes dedication and commitment. This has to come from inside of you, not the outside. You can only stop procrastinating if you decide that you want to.
By tending to your longterm happiness, you’ll find the spark that’s gone out of your life has been relit.
manage your procrastination
Once you see progress in your life, that’s motivation in itself. There’s no easy way to end procrastination, but it’s worth the struggle. Procrastination just gets harder to deal with the longer you indulge it.
Thankfully, there are science-based strategies to help you break this habit! If you’re interested in learning about what I’ve done in my life to manage my procrastination, I’ve made a post on what’s helped me.
Even with these strategies, I still struggle at times. But I’m improving. On the days when I’m tired of trying, when I’d rather do the fun things or go sleep instead, I have to remind myself: I can’t stop now, I’m getting better. I have to constantly remind myself of what I’m trying to achieve and why.
It works for me, so I believe it’ll work for you, too.
I’m regaining control of my life, and I’m more productive. It’s a wonderful experience.
Why you should start—today
I want everyone who struggles with procrastination to realize that they can take control of their lives and rediscover themselves in the process. It’s never too late. You can do it, and it’s worth it!
I love how I’m changing, and this affects so many areas of my life. I’m happier, more confident, and more productive. I’m painting, drawing, and picking up new projects to enrich my life.
It’s a learning process. I still have work to do, but I’m excited. Optimism has replaced the stifling anxiety that used to grip my chest.
There’s nothing about you or your brain preventing you from breaking your procrastination habit. With determination and the right techniques, you can stop procrastination from controlling your life and destroying your dreams.
Wanting to change is the first step, but it’s also the most important because it gives you the energy to take on the challenge—and it’s definitely a challenge. I assure you though, it gets easier the more you work at it, especially if you replace your bad habit with a good one like making art!
You can break free of procrastination! It’s worth your time and effort, so you can feel better about yourself, enjoy your life again, and realize your dreams.