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If you’re stuck in what seems like an endless cycle of procrastination, guilt and chaos, you might be wondering, “Why am I so lazy?” or “Why can’t I just get myself together?”
Despite that common perception, laziness usually isn’t the reason behind procrastination, said Jenny Yip, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Little Thinkers Center, which helps children with academic challenges.
“Laziness is like, ‘I have absolutely no desire to even think about this.’ Procrastination is, ‘It troubles me to think about this. And therefore, it’s hard for me to get the job done.’ That’s a big difference.”
Knowing why you procrastinate and learning how to combat it are the only ways to change your behavior, according to experts. Psychologist Linda Sapadin sought to help this self-improvement effort with her book “How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age.”
You could be the perfectionist, the dreamer, the worrier or the defier — these are all procrastination styles that Sapadin lists in her book.
These procrastination types aren’t specific diagnoses and aren’t backed by research, but “they are psychological types or reasons why someone might procrastinate,” said Yip, who is also a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
Procrastination can have practical consequences, such as falling behind at work or failing to achieve personal goals or to cross off errands from a to-do list. But there are also emotional or mental impacts. It has been associated with depression, anxiety and stress, poor sleep, inadequate physical activity, loneliness and economic difficulties, according to a January study of more than 3,500 college students.
“Particularly in America, where so much of our worth is tied up into what we do, how we work, what we produce — it can feel very shameful if you can’t do that,” said Vara Saripalli, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. “It can leave people feeling very defeated and feeling like there’s no point in trying.”
Knowing why you procrastinate can make you self-aware, but you still need strategies to break the habit. “Otherwise, we’ll just keep repeating things,” Saripalli said. “The strategy you’re going to employ to beat procrastination is going to change based on the purpose procrastination is serving for you.”
Here’s how to explore which type of procrastinator you might be — though remember, you could embody the traits of more than just one type.
A procrastinator is usually a perfectionist, Yip said.
“Because the perfectionist needs things done perfectly — all Ts crossed and Is dotted — it takes an insurmountable amount of effort. And if (they) don’t have a plan of how to get this task completed, then the perfectionist will get lost.”
Worriers tend to be indecisive and dependent on others for advice or reassurance before taking initiative on their own. They also have a high resistance to change, preferring the safety of the known.
Both perfectionists and worriers might put off starting tasks due to a fear of failure or criticism, said Itamar Shatz, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and creator of the website Solving Procrastination.
Challenge those beliefs and your behavior by recognizing that perfectionistic standards are unrealistic, Shatz said. “Replace them with standards that are good enough instead while giving yourself permission to make some mistakes,” he added.
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking and give yourself a time limit for completing a task. (And then stick to that time limit — don’t just give up if you don’t meet it.)
A “dreamer” procrastinator doesn’t like the nitty-gritty logistical details often needed to get projects done, Saripalli said. “They like to have ideas,” she added. “That stuff is fun. It’s kind of difficult or boring to then execute these visions.”
Dreamers might also think of themselves as people for whom fate will intervene, making proactive hard work and efficiency appear unnecessary.
And like a perfectionist, a dreamer might always want something better, Yip said. Train yourself to differentiate between dreams and goals, and approach goals with six questions: what, when, where, who, why and how. Change “soon” or “one day” to specific times. Write your plans into a timeline, specifying each step.
People with defiant procrastination tend to view life in terms of what others expect or require them to do, not what they want. This pessimism diminishes their motivation to complete tasks.
If you have this mindset, find positive ways to feel in control, Shatz said. Strive to act rather than react and try to work with a team or supervisor, not against them.
“If something doesn’t sit well with you, rather than being passive-aggressive about it, acknowledge what is or isn’t working and then have a conversation with whoever is giving you this assignment,” Yip said. “Defiers usually don’t feel equipped to have these conversations with who they see as authority figures, or they don’t believe that having the conversations would give them any benefit or positive outcome. … That’s not necessarily true.”
Just like working on anxiety or other mental health issues, addressing procrastination can be hard, especially if it comes from deep-rooted issues, Shatz said.
For some people who procrastinate, “their sense of self is so fragile that the idea of doing something and failing would just tip them over into complete worthlessness,” said Sean Grover, a New York City-based psychotherapist specializing in group therapy.
In such cases, “consider contacting a professional, like a psychologist, who might be able to help you,” Shatz added.
“Visualization works,” Yip said. “If you can visualize yourself completing (a task), then it becomes more achievable simply because you have an idea that it can be done.”
At the end of the day, how you approach life is “all about your belief system,” Yip said. “If you believe you can, you can. If you believe you cannot, you can’t. So whatever you believe, you’re right.”