Why procrastination can be more harmful than we think - and what we can do about it

With so much technology at our fingertips, it's easier than ever to procrastinate. Who wants to deal with real tasks when you can scroll through Instagram?

By Jo Hartley
Procrastination. We've all done it.
Scrolled through social media when we should be responding to emails. Made another cuppa before facing the bills. Ignored a call because it might mean confrontation.
It's estimated that about 20 per cent of adults are procrastinators. However, some of us procrastinate more often than others.
But why do we do it in the first place?
"Procrastination is putting off something that you need to do and, instead, doing things that are less urgent or more pleasurable in the moment," says health psychologist Dr Marny Lishman.
While people often think procrastination is about laziness (cue laying on the couch, remote in hand), it's usually not the case.
Procrastination can be a response to a meaningless or boring task, something that's perceived as unpleasant or something that we fear may fail.
"I think in the modern age we're doing it more because we're more stressed out and overwhelmed, and also because we've so many distractions that enable procrastination," says Dr Lishman.
Research shows that many personal factors influence procrastination.
These include poor mental health, stress, sleep and personality type. Some studies even suggest that there's a genetic link.
However, in an ironic twist, some causes of procrastination can also be the effect. Procrastination has been shown to impact poorly on physical health.
One study found that chronic procrastination may make people more vulnerable to serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
It can affect mental health with low moods and feelings of guilt.
"Procrastination can often end up stressing us out even more," says Dr Lishman.
"Avoidance strengthens fear, so by not doing something we increase the fear that keeps us stressed and anxious. Body and mind are connected, so if our body is stressed it can contribute to a myriad of health issues, from headaches, digestive issues and insomnia to poor immune systems and heart health."
Tell-tale signs of procrastination:
  • Constant social media scrolling when you have things to do.
  • Regularly arriving late for things.
  • Making slow progress on tasks, despite the fact that you feel 'busy' all the time.
  • Feeling totally overwhelmed because your to-do list is getting longer.
  • Becoming easily distracted by other things, even the most mundane.
  • Constant snacking or making yet another cuppa.
  • Giving up easily when a task is too hard or daunting.
With so much technology at our fingertips, it's easier than ever to procrastinate.
Who wants to deal with real tasks when you can scroll through Instagram? And the feel-good hit keeps us coming back for more.
"The dopamine release that we get from distracting ourselves on technology is going to win over anything we don't really want to do," says Dr Lishman.
"Instead of leaving the outside world and 'noise' behind when we go to bed, we take it with us. Many people are in sleep debt because they stay on their phone way past their usual bedtime."
Lack of sleep can cause physical health issues and reduced cognitive function. It can also lead to a perpetual cycle of procrastination.
A study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that those who slept poorly were more likely to procrastinate the following day.

How to avoid sleep procrastination:

  • Remove technology from the bedroom to avoid temptation.
  • Take 30 minutes to an hour before sleep to unwind by reading a book, having a hot drink or taking a bath.
  • Use an alarm to notify you when to turn your phone off.
  • Become aware of how you feel when you don't sleep properly.

How to overcome procrastination:

There's no 'one size fits all' approach for overcoming procrastination. If only it were that simple.
But we all have different reasons why we procrastinate and first we need to become aware of these.
"When you start to recognise procrastination behaviours, you might discover some less than pleasant truths that you've been hiding from yourself," says women's business coach Georgina Bowden.
"Maybe you've been making excuses, blaming outside influences or people, or perhaps you're in complete denial about the issue. It's key to show some self-compassion at this stage, but also become aware of how this behaviour is impacting you."
When you learn the reasons why you procrastinate, you can start to take steps to manage and avoid it. "I love the idea of micro-steps," says Georgina.
"If you've been procrastinating about going running every day, then break it down into really tiny, non-threatening steps. The first step could be as simple as putting your trainers on."
If confrontation is causing you to procrastinate, Georgina suggests getting clear about the benefits of doing the thing that you're dreading.
"Remember that the longer you put off making sales calls or having tough conversations with people, the bigger and harder the problem feels," she says.
"It's so easy to catastrophise everything and stay in our comfort zone, but the fear of 'what could be' is usually far worse than the reality."
While sitting daydreaming may seem counterintuitive, it can actually help overcome procrastination if you use it to visualise your goals and action them.
"A great way to harness the power of your day dreams is to write down all the steps you'd need to take to get to that place, then look at what is the first tiny step you should take," says Georgina.
"Telling someone your plans or sharing on social media is also a great way to get – and stay – accountable."
Georgina admits that it can be really hard to overcome procrastination. But she believes that if you make a firm decision to do something (or stop doing something) you're already halfway there.
Ask yourself the following to determine why you're procrastinating:
  • Does the task make me feel discomfort, boredom or fear?
  • Am I avoiding the task because of how it makes me feel?
  • Does any fear I have about the task relate to social/general anxiety or potential failure?
  • Does the task trigger low self-perception or self-esteem?
  • Am I confident in the task that I'm doing?

Quick fixes for procrastinators:

  • Silence your phone and use an app that monitors and restricts your social media time.
  • Allocate a realistic time slot for tasks (and stick to it).
  • Make a to-do list and prioritise the things you want to do least.
  • Divide your tasks into bite-size pieces.
  • Reward yourself when things are done (hello chocolate!).

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