One of the most common questions I hear as a therapist is, "Why do I keep procrastinating when I know it causes me so much anxiety?" You know what you need to do, but you don't do it, or you wait until the last minute. And, time and again, the pattern repeats itself. You feel caught, trapped in a vortex of anxiety, stress, and procrastination.
Many of my clients have been told, or have told themselves, that they procrastinate because they are disorganized, lazy, or, worse, because they just don't care enough! Most of the time, nothing could be further from the truth. Procrastinators are often smart, capable, hardworking people—they just can't get things done on time and can't seem to figure out why.
If you are wondering about the reasons behind your procrastination, take a look at the quiz below and see if anything sounds familiar.
- When faced with a task, do you think of all the ways it could go wrong?
- Do you picture how important people in your life might react if you failed?
- Do you believe it's better to not try at all than to try your best and fail?
- Are you overwhelmed by the possibility of new responsibilities if you are successful?
- Do you subscribe to the idea, "If I do well, then others will expect more of me"?
- Do you feel your success will lead to other people finding out the "real you"?
- Do you believe that if you're going to do something, you should try to do it perfectly?
- Do you find it difficult to persist when things aren't going just right?
- Would you rather avoid doing something than do it imperfectly?
How you answered may tell you a lot about why you procrastinate. A "yes" response to questions 1 through 3 may mean a fear of failure is behind your procrastination. The thought of putting in effort but still failing makes you anxious, so you choose avoiding and procrastinating instead. In this way, when your project fails you can rationalize that it wasn't a true test of your abilities anyway—if only you'd had more time.
On the flip side, a "yes" to questions 4 through 6 may mean you fear success, not failure. Procrastination protects you from the higher expectations and greater responsibilities that may come with succeeding. Like those who procrastinate because they fear failure, you keep yourself safe from facing your true limits by avoiding challenges and putting things off.
If you identified with questions 7 through 9, perfectionism may underlie your avoidance. Because you believe that things should be done perfectly, the result is that nothing gets done at all. When faced with a task, you become overwhelmed and frustrated-paralyzed by impossible standards.
While the reasons for procrastination may vary, the results are often the same—a seemingly endless cycle of anxiety, avoidance, and shame. Nothing gets done, and you can't enjoy anything with that guilt hanging over your head. Maybe you play golf instead of working on your presentation, but the image of your glowering boss nags at you during the entire game anyway. You can never really relax because there is always something else you should be doing. Procrastination doesn't work because avoidance doesn't erase anxiety—it just delays it.
But the good news: There are effective strategies to overcome anxiety and procrastination. By using methods drawn from cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn skills to decrease your avoidance and manage your anxiety. Look for my next post to learn more.