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How to stop putting things off

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

What are you doing reading this? You've probably got 101 other things to do - sort out those bills, write that essay, call your mother-in-law?

It's a fact of human behaviour that we all have a tendency to procrastinate, or put things off, from time to time. For some people chronic procrastination can be a serious problem, which affects their work and relationships.

What is procrastination?

There's a difference between procrastination and laziness, with procrastination you are avoiding a task but you know you will do it at a later date.

Procrastinators certainly don't live by the famous maxim of former US President Thomas Jefferson: "Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?"

There's always an excuse or perceived reason to delay.

"I'll do it later, in a minute, when I get round to it, it's on my list." Jefferson would be spinning in his grave!

It obviously makes good sense to stop avoiding tasks and to do them as soon as possible. Pay bills as soon as they arrive, do homework the night you're set it, write that report when the information's fresh in your mind.

It's not always as easy as that for procrastinators.

Why do we procrastinate?

Unsurprisingly, it's not usually the pleasurable tasks that we delay. We don't tend to avoid watching a good film or going out with a friend. It's the tasks that we don't want to do, that we find too boring, too difficult, or that cause us anxiety.

"I think the main reason for procrastination is people believe they need the presence of a certain set of conditions before they do whatever it is they have to do," says Professor Windy Dryden, author of Overcoming Procrastination.

He says people put things off as they're not in the right frame of mind to do a particular task, because they don't feel like it.

"Procrastination is avoidance behaviour," says consultant psychologist Dr Michael Sinclair. "You put things off because you want to avoid an uncomfortable feeling, a feeling of failure or low self worth."

It may be making a tricky phone call, asking someone out on a date, or finishing a university thesis.

He says: "It's a human reaction to avoid doing stuff we don't want to do to avoid potentially difficult situations, it's all about our confidence and a fear that it won't go well and we won't be good enough."

Perfectionism may be involved - you may not want to attempt anything unless you are sure you are going to be 100% brilliant at it.

"It's a vicious cycle as the more we procrastinate the more we beat ourselves up and undermine our own confidence," says Dr Sinclair, author of Mindfulness for Busy People: Turning from Frantic and Frazzled into Calm and Composed.

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