Everyone procrastinates, but why do we procrastinate? Since the dawn of time, people have been putting things off, and we still seem to have trouble figuring out what makes us avoid things we know we need to get done. Procrastination psychology can help us figure it out.
Procrastination slows your goals and dreams way down. It can create stress and feelings of frustration. It can make time management useless. This often appears at work with day-to-day projects and tasks. Fortunately, it’s possible to learn how to overcome procrastination once we know why people procrastinate.
Research has done a lot to help us understand procrastination psychology and why we continuously engage in this annoying behavior. We are going to take a look at the top reasons here, but first, let’s talk a little about active vs. passive procrastination.
Active Vs. Passive Procrastination
Passive procrastination is the type of procrastination we all think of. Most people don’t even realize there’s such a thing as active procrastination. Let’s discuss this first.
Active procrastinators are a sort of “positive” type of procrastinator. They deliberately decide to procrastinate because they know they work better under pressure.
For example, an active procrastinator may see that they have five reports to write before Friday. Instead of doing one each day, they decide to do one on Monday, one on Wednesday, and leave three for Thursday because they’re brain produces better results when there is an element of pressure.
Passive procrastinators, on the other hand, are the “negative” procrastinators we generally think about. These types of procrastinators fall into traps of indecision or lack of confidence that cause them to wait until the last minute to do something.
For example, an active procrastinator may be presented with those same five reports, but instead of waiting in order to increase a positive sense of pressure for themselves, they put off writing all five reports until Thursday night because they simply don’t feel confident in their ability to do them correctly, or the prospect of writing them sends them into a tailspin of boredom.
As you can see, the psychology of procrastination is complex, but there are some basic answers to the question, “Why do we procrastinate.” In the list below, we will be focusing on passive procrastination.
1. Wanting to Control Everything
If you put things off, they can’t go wrong, right? Unfortunately, you can’t put things off forever.
By procrastinating, you hold the most control over whatever task you’re working on. However, this also means, obviously, that that particular task isn’t being done.
While you may originally feel like you have more power through procrastination, this often dissolves into feeling a lack of control as your time constraints begin restricting your ability to make good decisions.
What to Try
If you feel like you need to control everything, it’s time to take a step back and examine why. What makes you feel the need to seek out control?
If this is a problem for you, try learning to trust yourself and others. Meditation can also be a great tool when it comes to releasing control and creating focus if you want to overcome procrastination. Start with just five minutes in the morning and work your way up.
You can also check out this article for more tips: How to Learn to Let Go of What You Can’t Control
2. Seeing a Task as One Big Project
Imagine your boss gives you the task of creating a two hour presentation for a new client. If you look at this as one large task, you’ll feel overwhelmed immediately, which will likely lead you to avoid the task altogether.
What to Try
Break down a large project into many small tasks.
For the example above, you may break down that large project into the following tasks:
- Research information to include in the presentation
- Decide on number of slides
- Create half of the slides
- Create other half of the slides
- Add graphics and pictures
- Proofread and polish
This is only one example, and this can apply to a number of situations. By breaking things down into parts, you’ll find the task much more doable. This will also produce less stress and aversion to the work.
3. Being a Perfectionist
Sometimes, being a perfectionist works in your favor. However, it can be tempting to put things off or delay completing tasks simply because you’re worried about the outcome being less than perfect.
A 2017 study confirmed that those with perfectionist tendencies were also more likely to engage in procrastination.
This TED Talk, featuring Charly Haversat, helps explain why perfectionism can do more harm than good:
What to Try
Altering the negative feelings that come when you feel something is less than perfect requires a simple change in perspective. If you continuously seek out perfection, you will constantly be disappointed. Understand that everyone makes mistakes and that no one realistically expects perfection from you. Simply do the best you can.
Try visualizing the completion of your task in a positive way.
For example, you have a presentation that your boss wants you to conduct for a potential client. Visualize yourself standing in the meeting room confidently, meeting the eyes of the client and seeing them light up as you explain the concept simply and concisely.
Imagine your boss telling you how impressive your presentation was. Think about how it would feel and focus on this as you move forward with the task.
Perfection doesn’t exist. Simply put in your best effort and realize that’s all you can do. This will help you stop asking, “Why do I procrastinate?”
Remember, a completed, albeit imperfect, task is better than an uncompleted task.
4. Worrying About Failure
Procrastination is sometimes a subconscious fear of failure.
If you put off a task long enough, then you don’t have to face up to the potential (and usually imagined) negative results. If you’re a stickler for minor details, the stress of getting things “just right” may be too much and cause you to delay continuing the task.
It can be tempting to procrastinate tasks because of a fear of failing. Of course, you cannot fail at something when you don’t do it at all.
Unfortunately, this is an unproductive way of thinking.
In a 2011 study based on student questionnaires, the researchers discovered the following:
“Most reasons [for procrastination] were related to fear of failure in relation to performance anxiety, perfectionism and lack of self confidence.”
What to Try
Facing your fear of failure will help you overcome that fear in the long run, or at least learn to manage it. Next time you think about putting something off simply to avoid potential failure, tackle it head on. Once you get it done, even if the outcome is less than ideal, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to complete tasks. Take this a day at a time.
If you’re interested in learning more about the fear of failure, you may enjoy this article.
5. Lacking Self-Control
There are definitely varying levels of self-control. Everyone is different. However, there is a point in which your self-control can get in the way of productivity.
Procrastinating comes easier to people who naturally do not have the discipline to complete tasks in a timely and organized manner.
What to Try
One study found that people were more likely to overcome issues with self-control and complete their tasks if they imposed deadlines for themselves. So, next time you have a big project to get done, break it down into smaller tasks and assign a time and date for each. This should help you stay focused and get more done.
6. Not Making Lists
Procrastination can come as a result of something falling through the cracks. If you put something off and then forget to write down that you need to do it later, it’s possible that you could completely forget about the first task.
What to Try
If you’re a forgetful person, make a to-do list with all your tasks on it, and only cross them off when they’re 100% complete. For an important task, put it at the top. This can work especially well in the short term.
Once you have your idea, write down a timeline of what you want to achieve and by when. Ideally, do this daily to keep yourself on track and accountable. Creative minds tend to jump from one idea to the next, so cultivating focus is essential.
For example, if you’re designing and creating a new product at work, set out a task list for the week ahead with the steps you want to focus on each day. Doing this ahead of time will stop your mind from wandering to different ideas.
For more information on how to make a good to-do list, check out this article: The Right Way to Make a To Do List and Get Things Done.
7. Underestimating Time Commitments
It can be discouraging when a project takes you two weeks to complete when you thought it would take one. This is also related to time management skills. The amount of time you set aside for a task doesn’t seem to be working well for you.
If you consistently estimate time commitments incorrectly, it might be causing you to procrastinate more than you would otherwise.
It’s tempting to put things off if you think you have the time, but realizing you don’t have as much time as you thought can cause serious scrambling to get things done.
What to Try
When you’re faced with a new task or project, it may help to talk with friends or coworkers who have been faced with similar tasks in the past. They will likely be able to give you some insight on how long you should expect the project to take.
If you don’t know anyone who can help in this area, always overestimate. If you get it done faster than expected, you’ll be left with free time, which is always a good thing!
8. Relying on Pressure to Finish Work
Procrastinating a task does not always equate to worse work. Some people work very well under pressure and can produce very good work, while others are simply lucky. This relates to the idea of active procrastination discussed above.
However, some people don’t do this on purpose, even when procrastination does generally go well for them. Eventually, there will come a time when procrastinating doesn’t work if it isn’t being done on purpose. Be mindful of the quality of your work and make sure your last-minute rush doesn’t show.
What to Try
If you find you work better under pressure, try moving into the realm of active procrastination. Plan to put things off, but give yourself enough time to do it well. If you know a project will take at least an hour, don’t give yourself 30 minutes to complete it.
A 2016 study suggested that this method could work particularly well for those with a high working memory capacity. If you fall into that group, added pressure may help you come out with a better product.
9. Overwhelmed by Tasks
This is one of the most common answers to the question “Why do I procrastinate?”: the sheer overwhelm of a daunting task.
The complexity of a task can cause the brain to lose motivation and avoid doing it altogether, choosing instead to stay in its comfort zone.
The search then starts for a more enjoyable task, and the harder tasks are put off. This can cause stress and dread when the task inevitably comes up to be completed.
What to Try
Break the challenge down into smaller tasks, and tackle each one individually.
For example, if you have a project that has technical elements to it that you know you’ll find challenging, list each step you need to take in order to complete these difficult elements. Think of ways you can resolve potential hurdles.
Perhaps you have a coworker that may have time to help, or even consider that the solution may be easier than you initially think. Put each task in order of most daunting to least daunting. Ideally, try to deal with the more challenging parts of each task in the morning so that momentum is created as the tasks get easier through the day.
A reward system will also help you stay motivated so, once completed, you can enjoy your treat of choice.
10. Lacking Prioritization
If you’re asking, “Why do I procrastinate?” it may be that you either have too many tasks or don’t truly acknowledge the differing importance of each task. The result? Getting nothing done.
Time is spent switching constantly from one task to another, or spending too much time deciding what to do.
This often happens to people who like to multitask or have a variety of things to do all the time. Things can get mixed up, and prioritization can become an issue.
What to Try
It’s all about priorities and choosing important tasks over urgent ones.
Make sure to question the value and purpose of each task, and make a list in order of importance.
For example, throughout your work day, you can waste a lot of time dealing with “urgent” emails from colleagues, but you need to ask yourself if these are more important than working on a task that will affect, say, several office projects at once.
If you’re not great at prioritization, you can use the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps to organize tasks based on their importance and urgency:
11. Prone to Distraction
Another common answer to “Why do I procrastinate?” is simply distraction.
Research has shown that our brains aren’t wired to focus for long periods of time, and it looks for something else. Throw in a bunch of chatty colleagues or the desire to mindlessly check social media, and you’ve got a recipe for ultimate procrastination.
However, this type of procrastination may not always be an unconscious decision to sabotage and put off work. It’s simply a result of your work setup or types of coworkers you have. Only you know the answer to that.
It’s also important to note that our attention spans depend largely on the task and on our individual brain. Dr. Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, explained, “How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation”.
What to Try
Be mindful of your workspace and potential distractions. Schedule a specific time to converse with your coworkers, put headphones on to minimize listening to what’s going on around you, and switch your phone off.
Aim to do this for 20-30 minutes at a time, and then take a break. This will be a much more efficient way of working and getting things done. This is also why scheduling down time is so important for productivity.
Whether this type of procrastination is self-sabotage or being a victim of a distracting environment, either way you can take control.
If you need a little more guidance on how to stay focused, this guide can help you: How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)
12. Being Lazy
This is a common reason that most of us procrastinate. We just don’t feel like doing whatever it is we’re putting off. This could also be translated as a lack of motivation
Being lazy doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. It’s totally okay for you to lounge around and watch TV rather than mow the lawn sometimes. Just don’t let that behavior become habitual.
What to Try
If you know you need to get something done but just simply feel lazy, try doing light exercise to get your brain working. This may stimulate the energy you need to tackle a task. This can be as easy as taking a walk around the block or doing ten jumping jacks. Find what works for you.
I’m going to be bold and assume you identified with at least one of these procrastination pitfalls. And that’s okay! Most people ask “Why do I procrastinate?” and most are likely to find answers here.
Fortunately, that means there are specific steps you can take to overcome procrastination and be more productive. Get started today!
Featured photo credit: Luke Chesser via unsplash.com