Procrastinating can have a range of consequences, including poorly done tasks, lots of stress and an array of negative health outcomes. In this Livestrong article, Mindpath Health’s Taish Malone, PhD, discusses why knowing your procrastination style can help break the cycle.
If somebody were to ask whether you’d rather finish a task you’ve been putting off or get a colonoscopy and you hesitate to answer, chances are you’re no stranger to procrastination and the effect it can have on your overall well-being.
“Procrastination is an avoidant behavior that involves putting off completing a certain task — usually, because we find it uncomfortable, overwhelming, boring or have other negative associations with the task,” says Victoria Smith, LCSW. “By procrastinating, we’re avoiding feeling the discomfort of these negative associations.”
Why you procrastinate in the first place
“As with many behaviors, the psyche isn’t to blame as much as the brain,” says Taish Malone, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health. “The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex have been seen as responsible for procrastination.”
The limbic system is a set of brain structures that oversee our behavioral and emotional responses (motivation, reward, responsivity, habits), while the prefrontal cortex acts as our executive assistant, taking care of things like planning, organization and impulse control.
The brains of procrastinators have a larger amygdala than non-procrastinators (the part of the limbic system known for fight-or-flight), according to a 2018 study in Psychological Science.
This suggests that when you’re presented with an unappealing task or a flood of new tasks, the amygdala reacts as if they’re a threat, overruling your prefrontal cortex and ordering you to escape the negative emotions you’re feeling. Cue procrastination.
Procrastination becomes a distorted form of self-preservation where the brain mistakes the instant feeling of relief as a reward. Your brain hits the jackpot each time you put off a task, releasing feel-good chemicals, like dopamine, and reinforcing the belief that avoidance is an adequate and acceptable response to discomfort.
Over time, this feedback loop can become chronic and destructive.
The consequences of procrastination
One force that powers procrastination is wanting to avoid the feelings, such as boredom or stress, that accompany the task. But this avoidance gives these feelings free reign to collect interest on your insides and make things worse — typically in one or both of these forms:
Negative emotional consequences — think feeling more stressed out by the task you’re avoiding.
Situational consequences — the task does not turn out as well as it could have.
Procrastination can become cyclical. The feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression that typically follow avoidance further strengthen the negative associations attached to certain tasks. So, the next time there’s a to-do on your list that makes a colonoscopy appealing, you’re even more likely to put it off rather than get it over with.
“This long-term procrastination cycle becomes greater and more encompassing than merely the behavior itself,” Malone says.
But it’s not procrastination itself that’s the problem, so much as our tendency to condemn ourselves for doing it (say, with classic lectures like “suck it up” or “just do it”), the pressure from which only leads to more procrastinating.
It may be hard on your health. Once procrastination becomes a habit, the cumulative effect of the constant turmoil can lead to negative outcomes.
It can lead to short- and long-term health issues, including insomnia and digestive concerns. It’s also a “vulnerability factor” with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, according to research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. These types of health outcomes could be due to procrastinators being more likely to put off self-care and regular checkups.
Procrastination vs. purposeful delay
In 2005, researchers theorized that procrastination comes in two forms: passive (postponing tasks despite the knowledge that doing so will bring on negative consequences) and active (purposefully putting tasks off because you work better under pressure), according to an article in the Journal of Social Psychology.
But procrastinating on a task and deliberately delaying it aren’t the same thing: Procrastination is considered a self-regulation deficit; a voluntary, irrational postponement of tasks despite the blowback postponing them will bring.
So, how bad is it really to procrastinate?
When you put off tasks out of avoidance and coping-by-not-coping becomes your autopilot, this self-destructive loop can seriously mess with your quality of life, not to mention your long-term health.
But your knee-jerk urge to procrastinate doesn’t come from a bad place: It’s your brain’s attempt at protecting you from the emotional pain and discomfort you’ve attached to certain projects or tasks, such as boredom, perfectionism, or overwhelm.
Keeping this in mind the next time you’re tempted to procrastinate can help you work through the uncomfortable feelings that are holding you back instead of avoiding them.