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The Childhood Roots of Procrastination

Trying to protect themselves by self-handicapping.

Key points

  • Everyone puts things off from time to time, but chronic procrastination can prevent people from thriving.
  • Procrastination sometimes develops due to a fear of failure and criticism in childhood.
  • Working with a therapist or asking reflective questions can help people understand why they procrastinate.
Photograph by Magnet me. Copyright free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Magnet me. Copyright free. Unsplash.

Research illuminates much about why people procrastinate—and most people do at one point or another, if not habitually. It’s estimated, for example, that, of college students, some 80 to 95 percent dillydally, with some 50 percent indulging “consistently and problematically,” according to a meta-analytic review conducted by Piers Steel.

It’s been suggested that the tendency to procrastinate is stable enough for it to be considered a trait for some people. Do you know someone—it might even be you—who is always struggling to get things done at all, much less done on time?

But putting off an aversive task—getting your tax numbers in order, answering the blistering email you got from a colleague, or cleaning out the attic—is one thing, and constantly procrastinating to your own detriment is another.

The Childhood Roots of Procrastination

We all drag our feet when a situation we have to deal with is dicey or unpleasant, a task is tedious, or there’s an obligation we don’t really want to fulfill, but there are people who habitually stall. Some of that connects to fear of failure and while no one likes failing, not everyone fears it.

Children who grew up having their emotional needs met and who were loved, supported, and encouraged to take risks, don’t fear failure. These securely attached people see the landscape of life as being dotted by potential failures and setbacks because it’s unrealistic to believe that anyone will succeed at everything. This doesn’t mean that a misstep doesn’t hurt, because it does, but the securely attached have the ability to regroup. And because they always entertained failure as a possibility, they’re not taken down. Some psychologists call these people “approach-oriented.”

In contrast, if you grew up in a family where love was earned and support in short supply, you’re more likely to assume that any failure reflects your flawed status as a human being, instead of a mistake or miscalculation. Your response to a setback is likely to echo what you were told growing up, including the idea that the world is divided into winners and losers and you never want to be labeled as the latter.

Studies suggest that fear of failure is transmitted from one generation to the next. These people are termed “avoidant-oriented” because not reaching for the heights seems way safer than failing on your face; they hug the guard rails and avoid challenges as a result, which has real-life consequences.

It’s not hard to see how procrastination is fed by fear of failure; after all, you can’t fail at something you haven’t done. This seems counterintuitive since you’re just swapping one variety of failure for another, but for those daughters and sons who’ve grown up around impossible-to-meet standards and hypercriticality, ducking the issue may be much easier than risking humiliation.

In a similar vein, it’s also been theorized that procrastination may be a form of “self-handicapping”—a way of protecting self-regard by putting obstacles in the way of a task, thus giving yourself an explanation or out instead of having to deal with potential failure as a reflection of you or your skills.

It’s Always “Later” for a Procrastinator

An interesting 2018 study conducted in Sweden looked at whether everyday behaviors could reveal whether someone was a chronic procrastinator. They observed people in various settings and then administered a questionnaire designed to measure procrastination. The settings included whether someone stood or walked up an escalator in a shopping mall, whether someone chose an early or late exercise class, whether students elected to take an early or late seminar, whether someone brought lunch from home or bought it last minute, and a self-report on bringing lunch and buying an expensive lunch.

What the researchers found was that lack of preparation and action—the hallmark of a procrastinator—revealed itself in both the behavior and the questionnaire. For the person who puts things off, “later” is always preferable to “sooner” even though there may be real benefits to not delaying. (And, yes, the procrastinators stood on the escalator.)

What to Do if You're a Chronic Procrastinator

If you constantly delay or end up ducking challenges by simply waiting until it’s too late to do anything about them, the best thing you can do is to plumb the personal reasons you procrastinate. The chances are good that procrastinating is getting in the way of your living your best life, so now’s the time to deal. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route but you can begin by asking yourself the following questions and answering as honestly as you can:

  • Are you more motivated by the fear of failure than the lure of achievement?
  • Are there specific tasks you put off, or does any task qualify?
  • Do you feel anxious when you procrastinate? Or does delaying a task induce a feeling of relief?
  • Why do you think you put off taking action?
  • How has procrastination affected you in the day-to-day? In your work life? In your relationships?
  • Are there times when you’re more likely to procrastinate than others? Do you see a pattern?
  • What’s your opinion of people who procrastinate? Do you lump yourself into the same category?

What's been learned can be unlearned.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

This post is adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019, 2021 by Peg Streep.

Facebook image: MarijaBazarova/Shutterstock


Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash,” Approach and avoidant temperament as basic dimensions of personality,” Journal of Personality, 2010, vol. 78 (3), pp. 865-906.

Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Fear of Failure,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2004, vol. 30(8), pp.957-971.

Steel, Piers. "The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self- Regulatory Failure,Psychological Bulletin,2007, vol.133 (1), 65-94.

Svartdal, Frode, Sjur Granmo, and Frederik S. Faerevaag, “On the Behavioral Side of Procrastination: Exploring Behavioral Delay in Real-Life Settings,” Frontiers in Psychology, 2018,vol.9, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00746

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