Many of my esteemed colleagues write about procrastination and most of these informative articles suggest creative ways to maximize human potential. All sorts of remedies are suggested to curtail the deferral of tasks such as overcoming a compelling need to reject authority, demonstrating more discipline, or coming to grips with your personal perception of time. Thankfully, these practical approaches are highly effective to eliminate the symptoms of postponing important tasks, but few, if any of these strategies address the motives that drive the procrastination or what I like to call the scary truth.
Identifying the root cause of our behaviors is equally as important as eliminating the symptoms in order to effectively prevent the symptoms from recurring. By analogy, consider going to the doctor for recurring headaches. The physician can prescribe medicine to make you feel better, but wouldn’t you also want the assurance that the headaches were not symptomatic of a condition more ominous? Of course you would! Thus, while comparing procrastination to a menacing illness sensationalizes the habit, we must determine why the behavior begins in the first place to have any hope of taming the procrastination beast.
First, to be sure your conception of procrastination is the same as mine, let’s clarify what is and what is not procrastination. Many researchers define the deferral strategy merely as postponing required tasks, but this definition does not necessarily imply there are performance consequences associated with task suspension, which is usually the case when someone procrastinates.
Motivational scientists also emphasize the counterproductive nature of procrastination, which contrary to the opinions of many students, is consistently linked to lower quality performance compared to working on a task or project well in advance of established deadlines (Kim & Seo, 2015). Consequences can also be related to how the person feels when procrastinating, as the delay tactic is often associated with anxiety and uneasiness when a deadline is rapidly approaching. Thus, for the purposes of this discussion, procrastination is defined as the deliberate and intentional deferral of tasks that MUST be completed by a deadline which may potentially trigger performance consequences or negative feelings.
Complicating the procrastination dilemma is the stark reality that procrastinators often succeed in reaching their academic and performance goals, despite putting things off. When success is achieved, the procrastination belief is reinforced, often increasing the frequency of similar future deferral behaviors. Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson (2007) asked students about the reasons for their delay tactics and found that procrastination was often planned because students believed that task deferment promoted a more efficient thinking process and the pressure of tight deadlines motivated performance. In the same study, some students reported using a form of psychological aerobics by creating self-competition scenarios. Individuals using this approach deliberately waited until the last minute to start a project as a means to challenge their own abilities. These mind games were designed to make boring work more stimulating and to generate positive self-evaluations when the work was frantically and successfully submitted before a deadline. Ironically, Schraw and colleagues found no scientific evidence to support student contentions that these procrastination strategies actually worked, suggesting the general unreliability of self-reported impressions often found in motivation research.
The root cause of procrastination
It may appear that for some, deferring deadlines, putting things off, and revising goals has potential psychological benefits. However, to be certain, we must engage in root cause analysis to determine what prompts the procrastinating behavior. Frequently, the fundamental cause of procrastination is attributed to the perception of task anxiety and the fear of failure based on self-doubt concerning one’s competency and abilities to complete a task effectively (De Castella, Byrne, & Covington, 2013; Ferrari & Tice, 2000; Pychyl, & Flett, 2012). The perception of doubt concerning requisite skill triggers task deferral and work avoidance. However, you may have quickly detected a logical fallacy here: Putting things off often results in missing deadlines and the submission of shoddy work, thereby enhancing the likelihood of a mediocre performance or failed outcome instead of potentially avoiding envisioned failure. To clearly understand the underlying reasons for procrastination it is crucial to evaluate what drives an individual’s competency perceptions, as well as how a person wants to be perceived by others—collectively described as the evaluation of one’s overall self-worth.
The importance of self-worth
Globally, individuals strive to be viewed as competent and capable. People want to believe they are able to execute courses of action to meet their desired work or academic goals. Individuals tend to appraise their degree of competence not entirely based upon actual ability and knowledge, but instead make personal evaluations based upon self-assessed competency, as well as how they believe they are seen by others. When we feel capable our self-worth increases, and when we have self-doubts or believe that others evaluate us unfavorably, self-worth retreats. As a personal motive, the perception of positive self-worth alone can be the catalyst toward selecting performance tasks we believe can be completed with a high probability of success, while steering clear of those targets deemed overly challenging or having a strong likelihood of failure.
When evaluating self-worth, individuals often stake their personal reputations based not upon what they specifically achieve, but on subjective reactions to their accomplishments. Feasibly, two individuals can attain identical results but reach entirely different conclusions about the suitability of the outcomes. One person may react positively resulting in enhancements to self-worth, while the other person may view the identical achievement as frustrating and defeating, leading to negative feelings and deteriorating self-evaluations. By example, when a novice writer successfully publishes a book, self-evaluations of ability and corresponding positive evaluations of personal worth follow. In comparison, the self-worth of the established writer would likely remain unchanged or even decrease based upon publication alone, because different criteria such as book sales or comparison to previous work may not live up to expectations. Perceptions of worthiness change, not because of ability differences but because the seasoned author’s elevated expectations stake self-perceptions on more rigorous criteria. Individuals falling short of their own expectations will experience feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation, especially in highly vulnerable situations where substantial effort was expended but anticipated results were not achieved (Hoffman, 2015).
The mask of self-protection
You may be wondering how evaluations of self-worth have anything to do with the practice of procrastination. Actually, the connection between self-worth and putting things off is not as murky as you might imagine because people will go to great lengths to insulate themselves from negative self-evaluations that may infringe on self-worth. When individuals become anxious about a task, they often begin to scrutinize their abilities to complete the task successfully and threats to positive self-worth may follow. Subsequently, some individuals will tend to engage in a series of self-protective, failure-avoiding strategies, including procrastination. Collectively these strategies alter the person’s personal meaning of failure by deflecting inferences concerning poor performance away from the self to the strategy being used.
Procrastination acts as a psychological mask, insulating the individual from self-worth repercussions because failure is defined as a poor strategy choice, not by a lack of ability. The strategy allows the individual to “save face” by shifting blame for outcomes to factors external to the personal self. If the individual fails at the task or misses the deadline, the person rationalizes the disappointment as being caused by the procrastination and thinks “if I didn’t wait until the last minute I would have done much better.” If the individual succeeds, feelings of self-worth are elevated because desired results were achieved despite putting off the task. Regardless of the outcome, elevated self-worth remains largely intact.
Self-protective strategies are not limited to procrastination, but also include setting unattainable goals, adapting boundary targets that can be reached with minimal effort, defensive pessimism that involves having low personal expectations, and the use of a “wooden leg,” whereby individuals use one specific excuse as a crutch to justify their overall lack of accomplishment. In sum, all self-protective strategies serve the identical purpose, which is to shift attention away from the self while maintaining positive self-worth based upon perceptions of competence. People vastly prefer to be seen as using ineffective strategies than to be perceived by the self or others as incompetent. In the words of Martin Covington, the architect of self-worth theory, “the mere possession of ability signifies worthiness.” Covington further explained that when individuals must choose between avoidable failure and deteriorating self-worth, they are willing to “endure the pangs of guilt rather than the humiliation of incompetency” (1984, pp. 8-11).
Knowing the source of procrastination and why self-protective strategies are engaged, what tools can we use to fix the problem? Our primary focus should be on taking steps to boost or restore elevated competency beliefs and specifically to modify how people see themselves in relation to others. The first step is creating greater self-awareness about what undermines the use of the self-protective strategies, and awareness of when the strategies are being used. In order for an individual to consider alternate approaches, personal bias must be suspended and the individual must acknowledge that external forces are rarely to blame for a failed performance. Visioning techniques such as asking the person to describe successful outcomes when procrastination was not used often promotes enhanced self-awareness.
Second, the individual must seek or be provided with opportunities that allow for success based upon existing skill. The person must learn and believe that specific actions and strategies are highly correlated with positive results. Negative perceptions of self-worth are often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation. When tasks are completed successfully, positive emotions usually follow and people experience feelings of pride, optimism, and joy. Orchestrating opportunities that are accompanied by objective feedback assists the individual in making causal connections between their behaviors and the attainment of specific results. While many individuals can generate self-feedback, it is more likely that a coach or advisor can help the person make the strategy-outcome connection.
Third, and often the most challenging aspect of mediation, the person must be convinced that strategies other than procrastination are more effective to achieve positive results. Individuals are frequently resistive and become defensive when their fallibilities or weaknesses are realized. Thus, effective strategy retraining also involves restructuring the thinking process. Individuals must acknowledge that perfectionism on all tasks, at all times, is illogical and unrealistic. Once a person accepts that obstacles are part of the learning and performance process for everyone, self-worth can remain intact, even when desired results occasionally fall short of expectations.
If you are interested in enhancing your learning and performance and taming the procrastination beast, be sure to check out my online course or my book “Motivation for Learning and Performance,” which describes scores of strategies to spark motivation in the self and others. Also, follow me on Twitter @ifoundmo for daily updates on ways to improve thinking, performance, learning, and teaching.
Covington, M. V. (1984). The self-worth theory of achievement motivation: Findings and implications. The Elementary School Journal, 85(1), 5–20.
De Castella, K., Byrne, D., & Covington, M. (2013). Unmotivated or motivated to fail? A cross-cultural study of achievement motivation, fear of failure, and student disengagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(3), 861-880.
Ferrari, J., & Tice, D. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in Personality, 34, 73–83.
Hoffman, B. (2015). Motivation for Learning and Performance. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Kim, K. R., & Seo, E. H. (2015). The relationship between procrastination and academic performance: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 26-33.
Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007). Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 12-25.