6 Degrees of Delay: The Many Ways We Procrastinate, and How to Stop

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There are a number of ways we procrastinate. Here’s how you can put an end to putting it off.

Putting off tasks inevitably hurts us, so why do we keep (not) doing it? Getty Images

Your work project is due tomorrow… yet you’re on the couch, binge-watching Netflix.

You know you need to call your parents, but you’re just too tired.

Oh, and as for that hamper full of laundry that (still) needs to be folded? You’ll tackle it, later.

We human beings know all about procrastination: the art of putting off what we need to or should do now — or maybe even yesterday.

But putting off tasks inevitably hurts us, so why do we keep (not) doing it?

“Research shows that our brains are wired for procrastination to some extent — we are naturally programmed to value immediate pleasure and rewards over a delayed outcome,” explains Shefali Raina, a New York City-based high-performance coach. “Our brains like to default to existing habit loops and actions that take the least amount of effort.”

Yet, recent research provides another way of understanding why we don’t always get things done in a timely manner.

Apparently, it’s not always our fault.

An evolutionary need to avoid

Procrastination isn’t new to the 21st century, although social media and YouTube videos of kittens wearing banana costumes may have you thinking otherwise.

Researchers believe that procrastination is based in the limbic system — the part of your brain that deals with emotions and memories. It’s within this area that you feel fear, as well as motivation to survive.

There’s physical proof for this.

Brain scans show that the amygdala — an almond-shaped mass of nerve tissue located within the side lobe — is larger in people who tend to procrastinate.

Scientists believe this overactive area cranks up so much anxiety about the negative consequences of an action that the quickest way to get relief seems to be… put it off.

In other words, avoidance of a stressful task isn’t necessarily because you’re lazy. It’s what’s called “short-term mood repair.”

Why risk being intimidated by your workload, guilted by your mother, or even being bored by folding clothes when you can stay right there on the couch, relaxing and watching Netflix?

“Your present self thinks, ‘I don’t feel like doing this now,’ so you give in to put it off,” explains Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Of course, that’s at the expense of the future you, who’s then saddled with an even more onerous task: a shorter amount of time left to get your work done. That laundry’s not going to fold itself.

6 degrees of delay

Occasionally, theories crop up that procrastination isn’t all bad.

Can’t it be useful sometimes to wait until midnight to start on homework that’s due the following morning? Doesn’t a tight deadline motivate you to work faster and more efficiently?

To fully answer that question (which is “no”) it’s necessary to understand what scientists refer to as “delays.”

“Although all procrastination is delay, not all delay is procrastination,” says Pychyl.

Six different delays have been identified by one of Pychyl’s former doctoral students.

There’s an inevitable delay — like when you come down with the stomach flu and are so sick in bed that you can’t finish your work project.

An example of an arousal delay is pushing a task off until the very last minute (see above) because part of you relishes the adrenaline rush, not to mention the relief that follows.

A hedonistic delay is just another way of saying that something more enjoyable — be it a good thread on Twitter or a gorgeous, sunny day — is calling and you’re happy to lose yourself in it for a while.

If you’re depressed or grieving the loss of a loved one, saying “I don’t have the head space,” is true. This is a delay due to psychological distress.

A purposeful delay is putting something off for rational reasons. For example, while you physically could make that work phone call from your car while you’re stuck on the freeway, it makes sense to wait until you’re back at your desk, not distracted by traffic, and can concentrate.

Lastly, there’s what’s called an irrational delay. If your mind is bubbling with anxiety or stress, cognitive impairment is a well-known side effect.

Two of these delays — hedonistic and arousal — are true forms of procrastination. They’re different ways of avoiding negative emotions.

Yet the others are delays due to factors largely outside your control. You didn’t ask to be puking your guts out in the bathroom, for example.

Shifting the blame off you — “I’m so stupid for getting sick and not being able to work!” — and to the problem at hand (“What can I do to feel better?”) may actually make you more proactive.

“Delay is a part of life, part of planning, and setting priorities,” says Pychyl. “The most important thing is to be honest with ourselves when we’re differentiating between delay and procrastination… And some days when things just don’t get done, self-compassion is key.”

Knowing the difference between delay and procrastination can help us be more proactive. Getty Images

How to get back on track 

Regardless of whether your life feels like a minefield of delays or you know that you’re prone to putting things off, keep in mind that you do have the power to move — if not full steam — then slowly, ahead.

To do so, try the following tips:

Unwind

An overactive limbic system can stall you, so calm it down to get moving again.

That may mean taking deep breaths. It could require a run — or a walk around the block. Meditation can help, too.

Mind the gap

Raina asks her clients to drill down into their lack of action. Are they feeling overwhelmed because of a skillset gap? Do they not have the skills and understanding they need?

Is it a fear gap? Are they scared of being humiliated or judged?

Is there a motivation gap, in which they find something too boring or tedious?

“Once you understand the drivers, you can take steps to address them specifically,” Raina says.

Learn to live with the discomfort

Let’s say that every time you sit down to work on your novel, you freeze up with anxiety. What if it’s terrible? What if you never get published?

That mental stew of fear of failure, embarrassment, and disappointment can make you feel so uncomfortable that you never get past Chapter 1.

The trick isn’t to banish those negative emotions from your consciousness. It’s to learn to sit with them, even for a few minutes at a time.

“It’s important to remember that while approaching the avoided task can cause discomfort, [that]will likely lessen with each successive completion of the task,” says David Gershan, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Home Psych Services, P.C., a comprehensive behavioral healthcare service provider in Illinois.

Make fear work in your favor

Many experts theorize that what successfully pushes us through procrastination is the promise of reward.

You’re excited to lose weight and get in shape! You’ll be so relieved when your taxes are done! Yet Pychl is embarking on a new study which he believes will show that the opposite is true.

“It’s not so much reward as it is the closer you get to your deadline, the more you fear screwing up,” Pychl says.

Be aware of your “but” statement

Chances are, you know exactly why you’re not doing something. For instance, “I want to clean out my garage, but it’ll take me days.”

“What comes after the ‘but’ is often true,” points out Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist and coach who specializes in overcoming procrastination, “so change the ‘but’ to ‘and,’ and say it aloud.”

“The easiest way to make change is through language,” Sapadin says. “It creates change of thought and how you perceive the situation. That’s within everyone’s power.”

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