9 Reasons You Procrastinate (and 9 Ways to Stop)
Expert advice on a range of reasons we fail to get things done.
Posted Jun 16, 2015
It is estimated that one-fifth of adults and half of all students procrastinate.1 Negative impacts of procrastination include diminished performance, poorer mental and physical health, and increased stress, worry, and guilt. Longitudinal studies of procrastination have indicated that it “appears to be a self-defeating behavior pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs.”2
So why do we do it?
While more research remains to be done, researchers tend to agree that the reason any particular individual procrastinates can vary idiosyncratically, and that the “cure” is to respond to whatever reasons might be specific for the individual.
Here are 9 common reasons that you might procrastinate, along with suggestions to help you start taking action on each of these.
- You toss self-compassion to the wind. In the journal Self and Identity, researchers reported that individuals who demonstrated less self-compassion tended to feel more stressed during tasks, increasing the likelihood of procrastination.3
What to try: Talk to yourself with kindness. Accept that you’re human, and be an optimistic coach rather than a negative critic.
- You’ve learned to procrastinate from role models. Your parents, siblings, or other important role models may have demonstrated a “put it off” attitude, which you’ve now adopted as your own.
What to try: Talk to yourself about the negative consequences these role models faced when they procrastinated. Then find new role models to mimic, specifically those who take action and experience positive results because of it.
- You don’t think you’ll be effective at the task. You might think, “I don’t even know how to do this!”4
What to try: If you need a skill upgrade, get one. Ask for help if it is available. If not, use a new cognitive coping self-statement such as, “I can learn as I go,” or, “Extra time on this task will increase the odds of me being effective.” Dr. Bill Knaus also suggests that you adopt a "no-failure" mindset to reduce your self-doubt He suggests that you “experiment and see what happens,” rather than stopping yourself with unproven predictions.
- You have a bias against a particular type of task. Maybe you think you’re bad at a task, or you’ve seen others have a hard time with a certain type of task. You think, “I can do other things, but not this.”
What to try: Challenge yourself to open your mind and prove your bias wrong. Use the task as an opportunity to combat your bias.
- Your time estimates are...a little off! You tend to vastly underestimate how long it will take you to complete the task at hand, as you also underestimate how quickly you’ll get it done. (Known as the planning fallacy)
What to try: Make a habit of starting earlier than you think you’ll need to and work on completing your task early. This might compensate for any deficiencies in time estimation. Then, give yourself a reward for completing the task early or on time!
- You focus less on the gains of the future and more on the gains of the present. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) calls this "short-range hedonism." This focus on the gains of the present leads to low frustration tolerance, and you’re less likely to persevere when the going gets tough.5
What to try: Remind yourself about the gains of the future, and de-emphasize the frustration of the present.
- Your perfectionism gets in the way. You think, “It has to be perfect,” and this overly demanding standard keeps you from even getting started.6
What to try: Work on diminishing the importance of doing things perfectly and emphasize the importance of completing tasks in a timely fashion. Keep a list of examples of times when perfectionism has been unhelpful to you, and of times when task completion has been more helpful to you.
- Depression or anxiety (or other conditions) cause you to delay taking action. You might know or suspect that you suffer from a mental illness, and that the effects of it diminish your motivation, concentration, or perseverance.6,7
What to try: Get proper treatment, including individual therapy with a licensed therapist. In addition to ruling out physical causes for your mood or anxiety, proper treatment will usually include helping you to set achievable goals given your condition, and teaching you to break your tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.
- Discomfort intolerance leads you to disengage from the task. REBT theory teaches that procrastination often comes from a belief that discomfort should be avoided,8 and you practice procrastination whenever you feel physically or psychologically uncomfortable.
What to try: Challenge your beliefs about tolerating discomfort and revise what you say to encourage yourself to engage in a task, even if only for a little while. Focus on the longer-term rewards that you’ll experience while persevering with the task. Stick with it and start seeing discomfort as a prerequisite for growth, rather than as the enemy. Utilize the "Premack Principle," rewarding yourself for doing the uncomfortable (such as balancing your checkbook) with something that you like doing often (such as checking Facebook).
Pam Garcy, PhD is the author of How To Make Time When You Don’t Have Any: A New Approach to Reclaiming Your Schedule.
1. Rozental, Alexander; Carlbring, Per (2014). Understanding and Treating Procrastination: A Review of a Common Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychology 5.13, 1488-1502.
2. Tice, Dianne M ; Baumeister, Roy F (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science 8.6, 454-458.
3. Sirois, Fuschia M (2014). Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion. Self and Identity 13.2, 128.
4. Bandura, A. (1988). Self-efficacy conception of anxiety. Anxiety Research, 1(2): 77-98.
5. Sirois, Fuschia M et al (2014). Out of Sight, Out of Time? A Meta-analytic Investigation of Procrastination and Time Perspective. European Journal of Personality, 28.5, 511.
6. Ozer, B; O'Callaghan, J; Bokszczanin, A; Ederer, E; Essau, C (2014). Dynamic interplay of depression, perfectionism and self-regulation on procrastination. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling: 309.
7. Ederer, Elfriede; Essau, Cecilia (2014). Dynamic interplay of depression, perfectionism and self-regulation on procrastination. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling
8. McCown, B; Khambatta, I; Blake, R; Keiser, R (2012). Published online: 12 April 2012. Content Analyses of the Beliefs of Academic Procrastinators, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC