Those expense reports you've been putting off for months? That power yoga class you never seem to make? Chances are, there are at least one or two projects on your plate that have taken up permanent residence on your to-do list. You know you need to get them done, and yet you push them to the side to focus on something—anything—else, whether it's diving into a less-urgent work project or spring-cleaning your entire closet.
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In other words, you're procrastinating.
Piers Steel, professor and distinguished research chair at the University of Calgary and author of "The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done," puts it simply: "Procrastination is the difference between what you are doing and what you should be doing."
Experts say that people procrastinate for different reasons—they fear being judged, they're overwhelmed by the project at hand, or they find the task downright unpleasant or boring (taxes, we're talking about you). But the result is the same: You're left feeling stressed out.
The Procrastination-Stress Connection
The moment you put off a dreaded project and focus on something that's more entertaining—like scrolling through food photos on Instagram—you probably feel a blissful sense of relief. But on some level, you're still haunted by the task at hand, knowing in the back of your mind that you still have to complete it—and that can take a toll on several fronts.
"Procrastination has physical and economic costs," says Joseph R. Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of "Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done." "It has consequences from your relationships to finances."
Research shows that procrastinators, especially ones who lack self-compassion (in other words, they beat themselves up for putting off important tasks) experience high levels of stress—and that stress can do some serious damage to your health. Case in point: A 2015 study found that procrastinators are more vulnerable to hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
When you realize all the different ways procrastination can hurt your life, it’s clear that you should prioritize making at least a little headway in reducing it.
Ways to Impact Procrastination Problem Areas
The key to breaking out of the procrastination-stress loop is to focus on key parts of your life where you repeatedly put things off and make small, doable changes to help you get things done and in turn, stress less. While you probably won't be able to kick the bad habit completely—research shows that being a procrastinator, along with being impulsive, is in your genes—you can dial it back.
Try these expert tips for tackling three common procrastination trouble spots.
Procrastination Pitfall #1: Putting Off Financial Paperwork
Do you have an ever-increasing stack of mail you haven’t opened? A pile of invoices you keep meaning to organize for your taxes? Whether it’s paying bills at home or filing your expense reports at the office, these tasks often get pushed to the side because they're, well, not fun for most of us. But delaying these tasks can not only cause us stress but also cost us money—which is why it’s critical that you try different ways to get these jobs done on time.
Do Yourself a Favor: Instead of picturing a specific task as grueling homework that must be completed, reframe the situation. Think of getting your paperwork done—or whatever you are procrastinating on—as being a way to do yourself a favor that you’ll appreciate down the road, says Neil Fiore, author of "The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play."
Turbocharge Your Deadlines: If you’re like most people, you're never more productive than in that last hour of work because you know that time is tight and you have to wrap things up. Steel suggests tapping that high level of energy and focus by giving yourself less time to complete a task than you normally would. Set the clock on your phone and tackle your financial paperwork with a vengeance. Not only will you have a visual deadline to get more things done, but it will also be easier to get started knowing you only have to do the torturous task for a short amount of time.
Automate What You Can: Finally, make financial paperwork easier in the long run by setting up autopay for your monthly bills, which eliminates the opportunity for procrastination entirely. There are also apps that can help you log your expenses immediately, making it far less painful. Ask your company what is compatible with their systems, or try Expensify or Shoeboxed—both are free and can scan your receipts rather than making you manually enter them. You can even mail in your paper receipts to Shoeboxed and they'll itemize them all for you.
Procrastination Pitfall #2: Never Actually Getting Around to Working Out
You know you need to exercise and you really, truly have the best intentions of doing so. Yet somehow you never take your run or get to that spin class you already paid for. You know working out is a good stress reliever, but instead you find yourself stressing out over not following through with it. Here are a few tips to help get you going:
Ease Into a Routine: The hardest part of working out can be simply getting out the door, especially when you're trying to motivate yourself to take a one-hour cardio sweat-fest at the gym and your sofa looks sooooo comfortable.
The solution? Just put on your sneakers—it helps to leave them right by your bed or front door—and tell yourself that you'll only work out for 15 minutes and then you can come home. Chances are, once you make it to the gym, you'll stay longer. It’s also helpful to not set the bar too high. "You can tell yourself, 'I don’t have to do that intense 90-minute class at the gym, but I will do something along those lines," says Steel.
Call In the Troops: Creating accountability and social support is a savvy way to help defeat procrastination. You're much more likely to show up for a run if you have a friend depending on you or a personal trainer you’ve committed to seeing. Also, focus on the bigger picture. When you have a goal to work out three days a week and Netflix is calling, ask yourself, “Does this action help or hinder my vision?” suggests Fiore. If you have a goal for yourself, think about how this one workout can help build toward it.
Procrastination Pitfall #3: Avoiding Tackling Complex Tasks
Many times, when we're facing a behemoth project at work, we find ourselves at a loss as to how to begin. When you're feeling overwhelmed, it's easier to put the whole thing off. "It's an avoidance strategy," explains Ferrari.
Focus on Short Bursts of Productivity: By divvying up the project into smaller, doable chunks, you can make it less daunting and gain a sense of accomplishment that will keep you motivated. Fiore should know—he wrote most of his books and his Ph.D. dissertation in short, 30- to 40-minute bursts with breaks in between. "I would achieve a couple hours a day, totaling 15 hours per week," he says. "If you get started for 15, 30 or 60 minutes before breakfast or lunch, you'll have the motivation to come back to it [after your break]."
Remember, Language Is Power: "How you talk to yourself is one of the major causes of procrastination," says Fiore. "Saying to yourself 'I have to do something' means you don't want to do it. You may not even realize it, but with that word choice, you may be sparking rebellion and resistance within yourself. Replace that with 'I choose to start for 15 minutes, doing a rough draft, with plenty of guilt-free play built in.' "
Dial Back Your Perfectionism: Being afraid that you won't do a good job on the project or striving for perfection is a sure-fire procrastination trigger. Instead, try holding yourself to the 80% rule, suggests Ferrari, and commit to doing a good but not necessarily "perfect" job. "When people say, 'I have to do this perfectly, and then they fail, that's part of the excuse-making," he says. "What if it's not 100%, but it's 80%? If you can get 80% of something done, then you're successful."
Focus on What's Best for the Team: Thinking of others can also help motivate you to move forward. Ask yourself, "What are the consequences if I don't get the project done?" Will you hold up your coworker who is counting on you? "If you don't finish something, the next person won't be able to finish their task," says Ferrari. Many of us rise to the occasion when we realize how many people our actions will impact.
But, most importantly, try not to beat yourself up too much when you do slip up and procrastinate. A 2010 study found that forgiving yourself for putting off a specific task makes it more likely you'll complete that same task in the future.
The moral of the story if you just can't get around to something today? Give yourself a break and try again tomorrow.