To Stop Procrastinating, Start By Understanding the Emotions Involved

If you’ve ever found yourself procrastinating, welcome to the club! Most of us experience procrastination at one time or another. In fact, about 95% of people admit to putting off work, according to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation.

While we often beat ourselves up for just “being lazy,” there are some real emotions attached to chronic procrastination. Understanding these emotions can help us manage it better so that we stress less about upcoming deadlines.

In this article, you’ll learn: 

  • What procrastination is
  • How to uncover the emotions behind putting off what you know you need to do
  • How to overcome the emotional factors that lead you to procrastinate

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What Is Procrastination? 

Procrastination is the act of putting off tasks that we need to do. As in, “Yeah, I know I need to clean the house but Seinfeld is on again and I’ve seen every episode 100 times but this is my favorite episode.”

Everyone procrastinates from time to time, but it becomes a problem when it happens a lot and starts to make daily life difficult.

It’s not just about being a lazy person. Sometimes, we procrastinate because we feel worried, bored, or just don’t want to do the task. It’s like having a little voice in our heads saying, “Let’s do this later,” even when we know we should do it now.

woman sitting at desk with her feet up, holding a paper airplane, ready to launch it. Open journal, headphones, phone, glass of water on desk

Understanding the Emotional Underpinnings of Procrastination

In my corporate career, I was the resident productivity nerd, so I would often be called upon to assist co-workers with their productivity. From customer service associates to directors, procrastination doesn’t discriminate. It can become a chronic issue for anyone who doesn’t understand what is causing them to put things off for another day. 

One of the most common factors underlying procrastination that I identified in my productivity coaching sessions was overwhelm. 

My wife Larissa (a constant procrastinator) tells a story from when she was a kid that really shows what I’m talking about. When she was little, her mom would tell her to clean her room. But Larissa would just sit there, not able to start cleaning, and sometimes she would even fall asleep right in the middle of the messy floor! 

When I asked her why she didn’t just clean her room and be done with it, she said that it just felt like such a monumental task. The feeling of overwhelm would stress her out so just going to sleep was the best way she could handle it. 

Other people have told me that they actually get a thrill from working under pressure and even work better when their backs are against the wall.  

While a short deadline can feel invigorating, it doesn’t leave much room for error. Depending on the consequences of missing a deadline, the negative impact of procrastinating may be significant. Missing the beginning of a movie because you were late to the theater isn’t a huge deal. Missing an important job interview or failing to get a key deliverable to a client are much bigger issues.

Messy desk with a large computer monitor, keyboard, lots of disorganized papers and post it notes, a stack of notebooks, a coffee cup, and other items

How to Identify What’s Driving You to Procrastinate

Procrastination represents a classic “fight, flight, or freeze” response to stress which unfortunately results in even greater stress in the long run. Before you can tackle why you’re putting things off, you need to pinpoint what’s going through your mind and body when faced with a stressful situation. 

Here are a few things you can do when you start to hear that voice in your head that says, “Let’s save this for later”:

Notice your initial feelings 

Complete this sentence: “When I think about doing ______, I feel _________.”  Try not to think too hard about it at first. Jot down what pops into your head initially. Do you feel overwhelmed? Bored? Does your stomach tighten or do your shoulders feel heavy? 

Perhaps you actually like feeling the pressure and get an emotional high from it. This isn’t about judging yourself. Simply write down how you feel about the idea of putting off the task in question.

Dig deeper 

Sometimes, our first emotional response is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself why. Are you worried about not doing a perfect job? Are you scared of failing? Maybe the task just seems too big and daunting. 

Understanding these deeper fears can be really eye-opening. Be sure to write this down so that you can refer to it later. 

Connect emotions with actions

Once you’ve identified your feelings, think about how they influence your actions. Seeing this connection helps you understand your procrastination better.

For instance, if boredom is the issue, you might notice you always choose something more exciting over the task you need to do. If you feel overwhelmed, did you create manageable subtasks or did you simply create one huge, seemingly insurmountable task?

Remember, the goal here is to understand yourself, not judge yourself. Once you get to the heart of your procrastination emotions, you can start tackling them more effectively. It’s all about knowing yourself better and using that knowledge to break the procrastination cycle.

7 Tips to Overcome the Emotional Factors That Lead to Procrastination

Breaking the cycle of procrastination is achievable with the right approach. Here are seven tips to help you get started and stay on track:

1. Break down your tasks 

My years as a productivity coach have shown me that overwhelm is among the most frequent reasons for procrastination. It’s easy to deem something a task when it is actually a project involving a series of tasks. Your brain recognizes this (although you may not consciously be aware of it) and triggers that feeling of overwhelm. 

For example, let’s go back to the example of Little Larissa and her messy room. She just saw one big mess (toys and clothes on the floor, books off of shelves, bed unmade). No wonder she decided to take a nap in the middle of the floor! 

If I could go back and talk to Little Larissa, I might tell her to start with one corner of the room and work her way around. Or maybe just start by picking up her clothes from the floor. No toys or other things, just clothes. That seems more doable, right? Tackle large tasks by breaking them into smaller, manageable chunks. This approach, which I like to call “priming” your tasks, makes each step feel more achievable and less overwhelming.

6 post it notes pinned to a corkboard with pushpins. Post it note colors: pink, yellow, white, blue, green, orange

2. Change your environment 

Your surroundings can greatly influence your productivity. Find a quiet, comfortable, distraction-free space where you can focus. 

This could be a specific spot in your home, a library, or a non-busy café. Also, manage your digital environment by minimizing notifications or setting your devices to “Do Not Disturb.”

close up shot of two people at a table in a coffee shop. View of torsos and arms/hands only. Each working on a laptop computer. Cups of coffee and glasses of water on table next to them

3. Block your time

Dedicate specific blocks of time to different tasks or activities. This time management method, known as time blocking, allows you to focus exclusively on one task at a time, reducing distractions and increasing productivity. 

woman (hands only) writing in a planner / datebook. Lots of sticky notes and different colored writing in the planner

4. Change your emotional narrative  

Instead of focusing on negative emotions that lead to procrastination (like boredom), shift your attention to the positive emotions that come with the satisfaction of completing the task at hand. 

Imagine the relief you’ll feel or the free time you’ll have once the task is done. Shifting your focus can create a more positive emotional environment that reduces the tendency to procrastinate.

5. Set a timer  

When time blocking alone isn’t working for me, I sometimes use a timer to help me get started. I use the timer on my phone or this simple virtual egg timer to help me get started. Using a timer to count down your working time gamifies the process of completing tasks, which can help ward off boredom.

It can also help keep you from getting stuck—when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed by a task, I think, Can I do this for just 15 minutes? That seems much more doable than trying to block out 90 minutes for something I don’t really want to do in the first place. 

white kitchen timer sitting on a counter

6. Use positive reinforcement  

Reward yourself for completing tasks. These rewards don’t have to be large; they can be as simple as a coffee break or a walk. Positive reinforcement makes completing tasks more enjoyable and gives you something to look forward to.

Personally, I like to reward myself by playing virtual reality paintball: a fun, social, activity that gets me moving.

7. Practice mindfulness and self-compassion

Procrastination can often stem from negative emotions like fear or self-doubt. Practicing mindfulness helps you acknowledge these feelings without judgment. 

Also remember to be kind to yourself. Understand that overcoming procrastination is a process, and setbacks are part of the journey.

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Remember, procrastination isn’t just a bad habit; it’s rooted in your thoughts and emotional experiences. By recognizing and working through negative emotions and by applying strategies for emotional regulation, you can start to untangle the complex web of feelings and thoughts that lead you to procrastinate. 

The strategies above offer a balanced approach that addresses both the practical and emotional aspects of this common challenge.

If you’re looking for ways to get more in touch with your emotions and intuition, download my free guide, The Intuitive Edge: A 7-Day Transformational Journey to Reconnect with Your Inner Wisdom. 

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