If you tend to fall behind deadlines with big projects, put off important decisions until the very last moment, or feel like those tasks trigger anxiety, boredom, or resentment, chances are you struggle with procrastinating. While it can seem like it isn’t such a big deal, putting things off can significantly impact your well-being.
In this post, we will cover what procrastination is and how it works. If you’re wondering: “How does procrastination affect mental health?” and would like to learn tips on overcoming this unhelpful habit and living a happier life, keep reading.
What Is Procrastination?
Have you ever binge-watched Netflix instead of writing a research paper?
Perhaps you prefer to stay busy deep cleaning your kitchen rather than fill out your taxes ahead of time?
Maybe reorganizing your entire closet seems like a better idea than going to the gym.
Procrastination, aka intentional delay of urgent tasks and activities, is common for all of us. Contrary to popular stereotypes and myths, procrastination is not an effect of laziness, lack of productivity, or inability to manage your time or plan ahead. Believing that you just don’t have enough time or work better under pressure is nothing more than an excuse to help you cope with negative thoughts and feelings related to the avoided task, such as guilt, anxiety, or lack of confidence.
In this way, procrastination affects mental health and serves as a coping mechanism and a self-protection strategy enabling us to suppress and avoid discomfort for as long as possible.
Negative Consequences of Procrastinating
Many people fall into the habit of procrastinating due to insecurities, perfectionism, or fear of being judged or failing. The longer you don’t face these thoughts and feelings, the worse the consequences can get. In fact, procrastination can lead to developing various physical and mental health issues, such as:
- overwhelming anxiety,
- symptoms of depression,
- chronic stress,
- low self-esteem,
- self-blame and guilt,
- ruminative, intrusive thoughts,
The Psychology Behind Procrastination
Procrastination affects mental health and is a tendency, hard-wired in our brains, to prioritize short-term needs over long-term goals. It means that the human brain puts higher importance on immediately managing any negative moods over getting on with urgent tasks. Why so?
From the perspective of human evolution, the oldest, most primal part of our brain is called the limbic system or “lizard brain”. It’s responsible for behavior control, emotional responses, and ensuring your survival:
- If you’re hungry, your limbic brain will motivate you to
- If you’re scared of something, your limbic brain will tell you to avoid
- If a specific task triggers your fear of failure, the limbic brain will aim to reduce your anxiety by postponing the activity.
Later on in the process of evolution, human brains were equipped with the neocortex, a newer part responsible for higher-order functions such as decision-making, predicting, or drawing conclusions that allow us to plan our futures. However, in anxiety-inducing situations, our ability to make well-informed decisions regarding our future drops drastically due to a phenomenon called the amygdala hijack. When stressed, your lizard brain overpowers the neocortex, and alleviating discomfort in the present moment becomes the top priority. Unfortunately, this momentary relief is what keeps the vicious cycle of procrastination going:
Let’s say you need to start a difficult conversation with your partner, and you’re scared of rejection or further conflict. But because your lizard brain is almost always stronger, you choose to put it off and avoid the self-blaming thoughts by watching TV. You reward your brain for procrastinating at that moment, strengthening this unhealthy habit.
Procrastination Affects Mental Health, How to Stop
Rather than a time-management issue, procrastination affects mental health and can be seen as an emotional block preventing you from achieving your goals. When it comes to tackling this issue, it’s essential first to recognize the triggers, find the roots of your procrastination and understand what role it plays in your life. Only then are you able to implement further steps:
Trick Your Lizard Brain
Something that can help you overcome procrastination for good is making the dreaded task enjoyable and rewarding to your limbic system. All you need to do is:
- find the right kind of motivation,
- add an element of fun to the
Let’s say you’re not particularly sporty and often skip or delay working out. Rather than focusing on the negative reasons or external motivators, such as gaining social approval or not looking fat anymore, direct your attention inwards. Ask yourself: “Why do I want to do this? How can I benefit from pursuing this?”. Avoid putting yourself in a negative headspace by finding your intrinsic motivation.
Then, add an element of fun to your workout routine, whether it’s:
- an interesting podcast you could listen to while exercising,
- buying yourself a new workout set to wear,
- Or going to the gym with a friend
Stay Active with Action Steps
Long-term goals can be intimidating and overwhelming, which often paralyzes us. As an effect, we get stuck thinking about their importance or difficulty level and get nothing done. What if you made your big projects more tangible and realistic by breaking them down into action steps? These small, achievable chunks help us move forward with the work, feel satisfaction, and track progress.
Rather than writing a 20-page essay last minute, why don’t you write 2 pages daily over 2 weeks? This way you gain some flexibility and peace of mind. You can even reward yourself upon completing specific steps.
It’s important to keep showing up and working towards your goal. Avoid being passive and falling into a rut by creating a daily routine or several micro habits around the task you’re procrastinating on. Before you realize it, you’ll gain momentum, and sticking to action steps will become effortless.
Treat Yourself with Kindness
Lastly, go easy on yourself. As a procrastinator, you probably tend to stress more and engage in abusive self-talk. Research shows how the ability to forgive yourself for procrastinating reduces unhelpful patterns, such as negativity bias, and helps you focus on the future while letting go of the past.
So, rather than giving into your inner critic, choose to practice self-compassion, as it can:
- Decrease stress levels
- Boost motivation
- Increase your self-esteem
- Foster positive feelings like curiosity or optimism
Rather than saying: “I always ruin everything.”, set a constructive intention such as “I commit to XYZ”.
Get Professional Help with Harbor Psychiatry
Procrastination does affect mental health, which can be a challenging and painful experience. But you don’t have to face feelings like anxiety or self-doubt alone. Get professional help from our psychotherapists and learn how to stop resorting to old habits of delaying tasks and avoiding your emotions. Contact us today to overcome procrastination for good and live a happier life!