Read: The procrastination doom loop—and how to break it
According to the DePaul University psychology professor Joseph Ferrari, there are two distinct types of people who have a problem completing household chores in a timely manner: task delayers and chronic procrastinators. The scientific distinction between the two is hazy, but it comes down to pervasiveness. You might feel overwhelmed by your aversion to housework, but on its own, it’s not enough to be indicative of a chronic problem. All people procrastinate sometimes, Ferrari says, but for chronic procrastinators, it happens in all areas of life and has a negative impact on a person’s health and relationships. It’s a “lifestyle of avoidance,” he says.
Ferrari’s research finds that description applies to about 20 percent of people. Simple task delayers are more common, but they usually have a much easier time building better habits than their chronic counterparts, which is good news for people whose primary problem is chore procrastination. We’re not that bad!
Part of the reason task delayers are lulled into their bad habits in the first place might be the time of the day or week when chores often occur. “Doing those tasks takes some self-control, and if you’ve made a lot of choices already that day, it’s harder to exert self-control,” says Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and Florida State University professor. Baumeister is referring to a somewhat contested theory called “decision fatigue,” which holds that people’s brains get worn out by the necessity of being decisive and exercising restraint, usually at work. If you could sit at your desk and play Candy Crush all day like you might want to, washing some plates when you get home might not seem as onerous.
As any good chore procrastinator knows, the drama doesn’t simply end with deciding to do something later. For Gloria Fraser, a caretaker from Massachusetts, that’s where it just begins. She’s always considered herself a prompt, efficient person in her professional life, but the emotional baggage of housework makes personal chores more difficult. “There’s the negative tape going on in my head that I should have done something, and why did I wait until it got this bad,” she says. “So that’s piling up, and instead of doing it, I’m thinking about all the times I should have been. So I end up kind of catatonic over not doing stuff instead of doing that stuff.”
Guilt and shame can be big parts of procrastination if the procrastinator begins to internalize the desire to avoid dirty dishes as indicative of larger moral failings. “We bring other things to this besides the task itself, and we tell ourselves stories about who we could be if we just buckled down and did that thing,” says Liz Sumner, a life coach who helps older women break bad habits and be more productive. Sumner recommends breaking tasks into small, manageable steps, but those efforts can still be thwarted when people worry they aren’t changing or progressing quickly enough.