Why Can't I Stop Procrastinating?

Illustrations by Gemma Correll

Read this now (not later!) to end the last-minute panic. For good.

You know the people who walk confidently into an algebra test without trying to burn last-minute formulas into their brains? They may seem like homework cyborgs, but they’re real, and you can become one of them—once you learn to keep procrastination under control.

The first step: Understanding that procrastination isn’t caused by laziness! Most of us put things off to avoid negative emotions—from awkwardness to boredom to anxiety. But the truth is, you’ll save yourself tons of stress if you outsmart those sneaky feelings that get in your way—and it’s easier than you think.

Just use our chart to find your  procrastination style, then turn the page to fix it ... not tomorrow, not when you “feel like it”—right now!

The Busy Bee

Sure, you’ll study for tomorrow’s Spanish test! Right after you walk the dog, call your grandma, go for a run, eat a snack, brush your teeth ...

The Fix: You may have tricked yourself into thinking you’re being productive, but you can’t fool us. You’re simply postponing that one big, terrifying task! To tackle it, break your studying into smaller chunks (think: “memorize 10 vocab words”) and put each piece on your to-do list. You’ll get to cross more items off (Best. Feeling. Ever!) plus you’ll start thinking of the test material as many manageable pieces—rather than one huge hunk.

Check This! Break up big projects into smaller pieces with Wunderlist (wunderlist.com), an awesome to-do list app.

The Multitasker

You’re great at getting started—if by that you mean opening a textbook and highlighting while also watching cat videos and eating fruit.

The Fix: It’s normal to be bored or hungry, but your diversions don’t need to derail you. To stay on track, turn your distractions into your rewards: Do work for 20 minutes, then watch a video of a cute kitten flushing a toilet. Dying to hit replay? Get another 20 minutes of research or writing in first. Once the tough part (getting focused!) is over, you’ll be barreling through that textbook before you can say “meow.”

Download This! SelfControl (selfcontrolapp.com) will block your biggest distractions (like YouTube) for a set time.

The Avoider

You open your backpack when—SLAM! You’re hit by an anxiety blackout. You can’t ever imagine finishing your work ... so you don’t even start.

The Fix: The panicky part of your mind is having a tantrum so the decision-making side can’t get a word in edgewise. To put your rational brain back in the driver’s seat, try meditating—which sounds a lot harder than it is. Simply sit with your eyes closed and slowly breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Repeat 10 times, then tackle your work. You'll feel more motivated—promise!

Chill On This! Meditating is easy—but this free app (stopbreathethink.org) makes it even easier. Don't believe us? Try it!

The Thrill Seeker

You know you always work better "under pressure.” So why would you waste time on your assignments before the heat is on?

The Fix: The heart-pounding pressure of working on a deadline can be exhilarating . . . until you meet the soul-crushing crash that follows. To re-create that adrenaline rush in a productive way, give yourself tiny deadlines as you go, or squeeze in work at random times. Got a 25-minute bus ride home from school? Pick a chunk of a big task (like reading just one chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird), and only give yourself those 25 minutes to do it. By the time you’re two streets away, you’ll be speed-reading to reach your goal.

Stream This! Pump up the pressure by adding a soundtrack to your work sesh. Try the “focus” section on Spotify!

 The Secret Science Behind Why You Put Stuff Off (And Brag About It!) 

Psychologists share two of the deep-seated sources of procrastination. They sound different—but are surprisingly similar!

1. Fear of failure

It sounds backward, but many students set themselves up for disappointment by (you guessed it!) procrastinating. Doing an assignment under extreme conditions—no sleep, no time, no research—gives them a built-in excuse if everything doesn’t turn out perfectly.

2. Fear of success.

On the flip side, others put off tasks because they’re afraid they’ll do well. Sound crazy? Think of it this way: When you’re used to getting Bs, procrastination helps you game the system so you never have to find out your true potential—and live up to high expectations.

The Bottom Line?

Next time you feel like brushing off work, don’t worry about succeeding or failing. Focus on the task—and you’ll be done before you can psych yourself out.

Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and founder of Procrastination.ca

Lenora Yuen, Ph.D., psychologist and co-author of Procrastination: Why You Do It,What to Do About It

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