6 Tips for Managing Fitness Procrastination

6 Tips for Managing Fitness Procrastination Plus, why we procrastinate in the first place

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“I’ll work out tomorrow.” How many times have you told yourself this? How does this work out for you?

Procrastination is an incredibly common experience that most of us face at some point in our lives. While it is most commonly considered within the realm of work or school, it can impact any domain of life and can have very real implications for our health when related to health-promoting behaviors like sleep and exercise. This article will explore what we know about procrastination, its causes, and ways to manage procrastination in your everyday life. 

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the act of putting off important activities or tasks even when we know that the consequences of this delay are substantial (Klingsieck, 2013). Procrastination can be either behavioral or decisional in nature. Behavioral procrastination is the delay of tasks, whereas decisional procrastination is the delay of making decisions (Karas & Spada, 2009). Additionally, procrastination can either be a trait in which someone procrastinates on all or most tasks or it can be task/situation-specific. 

This definition has a few components that distinguish it from what scholars call strategic delay or the intentional delay of activities or tasks in order to obtain some known benefit (more information, greater preparedness, etc.). Procrastination involves an unnecessary delay of the activity and this delay leads to significant discomfort or negative consequences for the individual (Klingsieck, 2013). These consequences can range from mild stress to failure to complete important tasks (which may snowball into further consequences).

Procrastination has significant negative implications for many domains of our lives. Generally, it is linked with poorer well-being and academic/work performance (Klingsieck, 2013). Within the realm of health and wellness, procrastination affects our health both directly through added stress and indirectly through the delay of health-promoting behaviors (Kelly & Walton, 2021). When we unnecessarily put off certain health-related tasks — like exercise — this can lead to an overall less active life, which is related to all sorts of other health concerns. 

Procrastination of health-promoting behaviors

The majority of research on procrastination has been conducted within the context of academic and/or work life. However, there is burgeoning research on the procrastination of health-promoting behaviors that also has important implications for our general well-being.

Procrastination tends to impact at a greater rate tasks that people deem undesirable, making exercise a common task that some people put off as long as possible. In fact, one study found that people who are generally high in trait procrastination — meaning they tend to procrastinate all things in their life — are more likely to also procrastinate with exercise. This procrastination then led to overall less physical activity (Kelly & Walton, 2021). Low levels of physical activity has been identified as a predictor of future exercise procrastination. Essentially, when people have low physical activity, they tend to develop low self-efficacy for exercise and negative attitude about that exercise, which leads to even more procrastination (Zhai et al., 2021). This contributes to some people not moving their bodies in ways that enable them to live their best lives.

Another health-promoting behavior that often gets put off is sleep. Some people have a tendency to delay their bedtime unintentionally and/or unskillfully, despite knowing that not sleeping will have negative outcomes for their life in the days to come. Sleep procrastination is related to poorer sleep outcomes like quality and quantity of sleep. Poor sleep is known to be related to health issues (hypertension, diabetes, and depression to name just a few), work/school problems, and generally poorer well-being (Valshtein et al., 2020). 

Related: Sleep Hygiene and How to Improve Your Sleep Habits

Contributing factors to procrastination

Given all of this information, what factors contribute to procrastination? This isn’t an easy question to answer, as the reason for any two people can be vastly different — not to mention the fact that even for a single person there can be several reasons. However, research shows that there are several factors that contribute to greater levels of procrastination. Seven of those contributing factors are listed below.

  • Low self-efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to a specific person’s belief in their own ability to succeed at a given task or domain (Bandura, 1977). When we have low self-efficacy, we are less likely to be motivated, keep going when things get tough, or set goals for that task. It is no wonder, then, that procrastination is more common amongst folks with lower levels of self-efficacy (Klingsieck, 2013). When we don’t feel like we can do something but still hold that task as a priority, we will keep it in our minds, but continue putting it off. 

    Related: 5 Tips for Improving Self-Efficacy
     
  • Difficulty of task: Sometimes, people procrastinate because the task is just too difficult for their current skill level. The idea of completing the task becomes overwhelming and creates such high fear or dread that we employ a common coping technique: avoidance. This avoidance turns into long-term procrastination and may or may not ever be completed.
     
  • Self-protection: Procrastination can also be an intentional self-handicapping coping strategy that protects our self-esteem if we are to fail a given task. If we feel or believe we are unable to successfully perform a given task, procrastination gives us a valid reason to have failed. Rather than attributing that failure to an inability or incompetence, we can say that we had a million other things to do and couldn’t devote our full time. This allows us to emerge from the perceived failure with our self-esteem roughly in tact.
     
  • Mental health: There are several mental health concerns that have been known to be related to greater levels of procrastination, including ADHD, depression, and anxiety (Klingsieck, 2013). The inattentive symptoms of ADHD, in particular, seems to disrupt people’s capacity to carry out the necessary functions to regularly plan and complete tasks (Niermann & Scheres, 2014). Depression and anxiety are not direct causes of procrastination, but certainly exacerbate the problem. It seems like this is particularly true when people engage in more rumination, or deep and repetitive thoughts about negative things in their life (Constantin et al., 2018).
     
  • Perfectionism: Though it seems counterintuitive, those high in perfectionism tend to exhibit greater levels of procrastination. In particular, those with what has been deemed maladaptive perfectionism — holding oneself to a high standard and perceiving the self as unable to achieve that standard (hello again, self-efficacy) — are more likely to feel the negative effects of procrastination (Coutinho et al., 2022). It is my experience that folks who are highly perfectionistic fear failure, and this fear can be almost paralyzing for them, making it hard to get started. 
     
  • Motivational failure: Procrastination is viewed by some as a failure to appropriately motivate oneself to do a given task. There is evidence that those who are highly intrinsically motivated — meaning they find personal reward from the task — are less likely to engage in procrastination (Klingsieck, 2013). When we lack this intrinsic motivation, we have to find other ways to get ourselves to complete an important task (like an external reward, praise, or attention). Our mindset and attitude toward the task(s) can hinder us from ever getting to it, contributing to greater levels of procrastination. 
     
  • Reinforcement from past experiences: There are occasions when we procrastinate and everything turns out okay anyway. We go through all the worrying and stress and then it all works out. Unfortunately, this positive experience with procrastination can turn into a reinforcer that makes it more likely that we will procrastinate again in the future. We think to ourselves, “Well, it was okay last time,” and that reduces our anxiety. The more this works out in our favor, the more likely we are to continue engaging in procrastination. 

So, now that we know where procrastination comes from, what do we do to manage its effects? 

Tips for managing procrastination

While there is not necessarily a single way to overcome procrastination, there are several things that people can do in conjunction to overcome procrastination. Below are a few tips.

  • Mindset evaluation: Sometimes, people inadequately label their selective delaying as procrastination and feel significant anxiety about it anyway. So, if you notice that you are procrastinating, take a moment to assess whether there is a legitimate reason for the procrastination. For example, I once had a major project for work that required me to meet with several people in order to adequately complete the project; starting the project before those meetings might've meant needing to make significant changes later on. Delaying beginning the project was giving me severe anxiety, but this is an example of strategic delay, not procrastination. In cases like this, you must first shift your mindset toward recognizing the situation for what it is: you are doing this to reap overall benefits in the long-run. However, this doesn’t get rid of the anxiety and the overarching goal shifts from reducing procrastination toward coping with anxiety. Related: Recognizing the Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms in Your Life and Simple Techniques for Reducing Anxiety
     
  • Self-compassion: There is evidence that the tendency to procrastinate is decreased amongst those who are high in self-compassion. The ability to approach life situations with a non-self-judgmental attitude and exhibit kindness toward the self — regardless of our perceived ability level — means that we are less likely to put things off for the aforementioned reasons (Rapoport et al., 2022). Self-compassion is a skill that needs to be actively practiced to see continued benefits, so be sure to engage in active strategies that help you flex this muscle.

    Related: How to Practice and Improve Your Self-Compassion and Managing Your Inner Critic Through Self-Compassion
     
  • Shaping: When a given task feels too large, too difficult, or generally overwhelming, we can use the behaviorist principle of shaping to help us manage the inevitable anxiety. Shaping is when we break down a large or complex task into successive approximations or “baby steps” toward the desired behavior and reward ourselves for things that help us out or get us a bit closer to our goal behavior. For example, I once worked with a person who was perceived by others in their life as having personal hygiene issues. In reality, their depression was making it hard for them to be able to do anything, and they were seriously procrastinating doing laundry and therefore wearing dirty clothing. So, the goal became to do laundry at least once every other week. This person would reward themself for any attempt at laundry (putting clothing in the hamper, sorting the clothing by colors, stripping their bed, actually taking the laundry to the laundry room). These rewards eventually enabled them to complete a single load, which deserved a huge reward and got them enough momentum to keep going! This eventually led to more regular laundry completion, which helped to manage their overall hygiene.
     
  • Process goal focus: Generally, having goals is an important step toward reducing procrastination. The act of setting a goal makes it more likely that we will go through with the target behavior. That being said, the type of goal that one sets matters. Focusing on process goals rather than outcome goals tends to reduce procrastination more effectively. Process goals are those we set that focus primarily on the means toward an end, whereas outcome goals focus on the end itself. For example, if your overarching goal is related to gaining strength and muscle, a process goal might be to “get in 2-3 strength sessions per week,” whereas an outcome goal might be “to be able to lift X-number of pounds.” That being said, having a process goal does not mean that you don’t also have some end-goal in mind — that just isn’t the primary focus. One study found that amongst folks in an 8-week HIIT workout program, those with a process focus were less likely to procrastinate and actually worked out more consistently and more overall than those with an outcome focus. Those with the process focus perceived the workout as less difficult and were more satisfied with each individual workout (Kaftan & Freund, 2019). Therefore, be sure to incorporate process goals into your overall goal-setting!

    Related: SMART Goals for a Growth Mindset
     
  • Intentional deadlines: Most people who procrastinate are able to get their work done in the last few hours or days before a given deadline. That being said, it is sometimes helpful for folks to intentionally set their own deadlines at a time where you “should” get the task done, rather than at a time where you “must” get the task done. While this requires self-discipline, this can help you increase pressure to complete a task by a particular time without so much pressure that it feels mission critical. This can help keep the anxiety at a manageable — rather than overwhelming — level and may help you to be able to actually complete the task(s). 
  • Mental health support: As always, if you assess that your procrastination is stemming from mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, or ADHD, then maybe seeking help from a mental health professional is a great step for you. Be sure to mention that procrastination is something you are struggling with and would like to discuss. 

How has procrastination impacted your life and ability to complete tasks? What are some ways that you have managed procrastination throughout your life? Share your tips with others in the comments below!

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

Constantin, K., English, M.M., & Mazmanian, D. (2018). Anxiety, depression, and procrastination among students: Rumination plays a larger mediating role than worry. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, 36, 15–27. 

Coutinho, M. V. C., Menon, A., Ahmed, R. H., & Fredricks-Lowman, I. (2022). The association of perfectionism and active procrastination in college students. Social Behavior and Personality, 50(3), 1-8.

Kaftan, O. J., & Freund, A. M. (2019). How to work out and avoid procrastination: The role of goal focus. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 50(3), 145-159.

Karas, D., & Spada, M. M. (2009). Brief cognitive-behavioral coaching for procrastination: A case series. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice, 2(1), 44-53.

Kelly, S. M., & Walton, H. R. (2021). “I’ll work out tomorrow”: The procrastination in exercise scale. Journal of Health Psychology, 26(13), 2613-2625.

Klingsieck, K. B. (2013). Procrastination: When good things don’t come to those who wait. European Psychologist, 18(1), 24-34.

Niermann, H. C., & Scheres, A. (2014). The relation between procrastination and symptoms of attention‐deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in undergraduate students. International journal of methods in psychiatric research, 23(4), 411-421.

Rapoport, O., Bengel, S., Möcklinghoff, S., & Neidhardt, E. (2022). Self-compassion moderates the influence of procrastination on postponing sporting activity. Personality and Individual Differences, 185, 11242.

Valshtein, T. J., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2020). Using mental contrasting with implementation intentions to reduce bedtime procrastination: Two randomised trials. Psychology & Health, 35(3), 275-301. 

Zhai, Y., Xue, Y., & Li, H. (2021). Testing physical activity level as determinant of procrastination in exercise: Will this direction work? Journal of Sport Psychology, 30(1), 18-30.