5 signs you're procrastinating and how to stop

"Just get started" is one expert's mantra to help procrastinators get moving.

Story highlights

  • People procrastinate while trying to replace frustrating emotions with happy ones
  • Regular procrastination can jeopardize health and relationships
  • Experts recommend creating small goals and cutting out distractions

(CNN)You had every intention of starting that work report first thing Monday, but now, the deadline looms large.

Sound familiar? You might have a problem with procrastination.
    "We procrastinate because we give in to feel good," said Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. "If a task makes me frustrated or bored, avoidance lets me escape those negative emotions."
    Procrastination actually becomes a problem when it undermines your well-being and your health, said Pychyl, who wrote "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle." Severe procrastination can lead to stress, anxiety and relationship problems. It may even cause you to neglect health problems such as heart disease.
    The first step to managing procrastination is to understand that it's a coping strategy to deal with unhappy feelings.
    "You have a 6-year-old alive and well inside of you (who) gets hung up on how you feel or what you want," Pychyl said. It could even be something benign, such as shopping at the market, which you put off for no obvious reason, he added.
    The good news is that there are more tools than ever before for managing this behavior. A recent study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that a 10-week online therapy course that explains why people procrastinate and how to change the behavior substantially helped perpetual procrastinators.
    Rather than offering up a self-help book, the course gave participants the equivalent of a chapter of information each week. Each chapter was about 15 pages and covered topics such as techniques for setting goals, avoiding distractions and prioritizing tasks. The style of delivering different information each week is similar to what might happen if a person went to a clinical psychologist, said Alexander Rozental, a psychologist and graduate student at Stockholm University and lead author of the recent study.
    It may be easier to learn about procrastination through a tool that controls the pace of information, Pychyl said, but "anybody that is going to do an online module or read a book has to have quite a bit of commitment."
    Just learning what procrastination looks like and why you do it can help start to turn that behavior around, Pychyl said. Here's what to look out for, and what can help.

    Your deadline is fast approaching

    Just because you are rushing to meet your deadline does not make you a procrastinator. It is fine to delay writing that report until the night before, if you know you'll have enough time, Pychyl said.
    Procrastination is when you had planned to start working on the report earlier and did not do it because you just didn't feel like it. Even if you spent the time cleaning your entire house and catching up on bills instead, it is procrastination nonetheless. "It is like a moral substitution because (those things) are still on your to-do list," Pychyl said.
    One way to help overcome the lure of procrastination is to set small goals for yourself, said Piers Steel, professor of organizational behavior at University of Calgary. This strategy can help you get motivated each day, instead of just the day before deadline. The more defined the goal, the better -- such as writing 500 words by noon. "You want something that is almost like you are telling another person what to do," said Steel, author of "The Procrastination Equation."

    The exercise bike in your living room is collecting dust

    Your doctor may have warned you that you are at risk of a heart attack and should start exercising. But that might not be enough to motivate you if you are a procrastinator. "Your (inner) 6-year-old grabs hold and says, 'I don't want to,'" Pychyl said.
    The best way to get moving is to break the task into the smallest actions possible. It is as simple as telling yourself to put yourself on the bike seat and then move your legs. "All of a sudden, you think you are riding the Tour de France. ... The key is to find this very small actionable step that will prime the pump and get you in the zone," Pychyl said.
    You can also help yourself out by having what you need to complete the task at your fingertips. Maybe that means buying an exercise bike or treadmill for your home so you don't have to go to the gym. Try to make it part of a mindless routine: After you watch the nightly news, you turn off the TV and step on the treadmill.

    You spent the whole morning checking Facebook

    Procrastination is not just about avoiding what you have to do, but also about finding ways to distract yourself. The most common are eating, watching TV, sleeping -- and recently, social media has joined the mix, Steel said. To overcome procrastination, you must also find a way to control your Facebook habit.
    You can start by making it a little harder to indulge. One way is to create a password for social media sites that is separate from work-related passwords. Technology can also help you out here. Anti-Social and Freedom are some of the apps that block Facebook, Twitter and other distracting sites. Steel and his collaborators are also testing an app called Saent that makes users wait short periods of time before they can access sites such as Facebook.
    Research has suggested people procrastinate in part because they are impulsive. These same people might grab candy at the checkout register or order dessert, even though they planned to have a light meal, Steel said. If you move that candy farther away -- perhaps by making it a little harder to check Facebook -- you might just decide to skip it, he added.

    You are late for dinner with friends, again

    Another clear sign that you have a problem with procrastination is if it is hurting your relationships. You never feel like you get enough done during the workday, so you are late to meet friends, you cancel a date with your spouse or you don't have time to play with your kids.
    "Guilt is the No. 1 emotion correlated with procrastination," Pychyl said. And the hurt feelings that your procrastination causes can ruin friendships and even marriages, he added.
    Although self-help books and online tools can help you feel better about yourself, the only way to make long-term improvements for yourself and your relationships is to break the pattern of procrastination. This goes back to spending less time thinking about what you don't want to do and more time thinking about the first small step you have to take.
    "Just get started. That is my No. 1 mantra. It's not 'Just do it' because that is too big," Pychyl said.

    You despise those always-ahead-of-time folks

    Your procrastinating ways could influence the company you keep. Procrastinators tend to look for people who are even worse off and resent those who manage to file their work report ahead of the deadline -- imagine that!
    Instead of resenting the do-gooders, you might want to befriend them. Just be careful that the punctual folks you start associating with also want the best for you, Steel said.
    "Emotions and attitudes tend to be contagious. By hanging around these people you tend to up your game," said Steel.