Why Can't I Get the Job Done on Time?

Am I passive-aggressive or just disorganized?

Posted Aug 10, 2011

lateness and procrastination cause stress

Why am i always late?

Dear Dr G,

I have a chronic problem with being on time, getting projects done by deadline, or keeping on top of the housework. I forget close relative's birthdays and have a hard time getting my daughter to school or getting dinner on the table on time. I am always losing my keys or papers and have wasted a ton of money by paying my bills and returning library books late. My husband, friends and bosses understand at first, but, after a while, they become irritated with me. I know my behavior inconveniences them and causes them stress. In my own mind, I genuinely want to follow through, but don't seem to be able to. I often have to stay up all night to catch up, then am too tired to function or think clearly for days afterward. After I was late to lunch for the umpteenth time, a friend accused me of being passive-aggressive. Do you think this is the reason or is it just because I'm a multitasking working mom and have too many balls to juggle?


"Sleepless in Seattle"

Dear "Sleepless,"

The problem you write about is something many people have experienced at some time in their lives, either in themselves or having been affected by another person who does this. I think lateness can be a sign of be passive-aggression, but can also be due to a variety of other causes, both in the person's current situation, or as a behavior developed to cope with childhood circumstances, that has become a dysfunctional pattern. As a psychologist, my ethics never permit me to provide a definitive diagnosis without a personal interview and more detailed assessment. However, I can suggest some possibilities based on my work with clients who seek help with these issues.

Possibility 1: Passive-Aggression

Passive-aggressive behaviors are those which involve thwarting another person's plans or causing chaos for them, without admitting that this was the intended goal. Making promises you don't keep, or failing to act to take care of a situation which then deteriorates due to the inaction are two classic passive-aggressive strategies. What makes it passive-aggression is that it is resentment-based. At some level, there is an intent to harm, frustrate, or retaliate. People may act passive-aggressively when they feel controlled, deceived, or unfairly treated. They may perceive the other person's expectations as unreasonable, given the circumstances, or feel they are not being compensated sufficiently or appreciated for their work. At the same time, they may be avoidant of conflict or not feel they have the power in the situation to express aggression directly. A common example is a teenager who wants greater independence and escape from parental control. They may deliberately disobey house rules and lie about the reason as a way of expressing resentment and trying to assert some power they feel entitled to.

Possibility Two: Entitlement

Jeffrey Young, Ph.D. is a  Psychologist who has developed one of the best therapies currently in use to treat dysfunctional personality patterns. He suggests that dysfunctional behaviors are the result of "life scripts," or deeply ingrained sets of beliefs about ourselves and the world. People are not necessarily consciously aware of these motivators, but a skilled therapist can pinpoint them in the course of longer-term therapy. One such life script is "entitlement," or the idea that we are entitled to special privilege and don't have to follow the same rules or put up with the same discomforts that other people do. Entitlement is a feature of narcissistic personality disorder but does not, in itself, mean you have the disorder. Its origins can lie in being part of a privileged group in the society, such as having wealthy parents. Kids who are in the popular group at school due to charm, good looks, or athletic abilities may feel they are special and get used to being treated this way. Similarly, if parents doted too much on a kid and did not set limits or require that they do their share of chores and contribute to the household, they can raise an entitled kid. Entitlement can lead to chronic lateness because at some level the person feels that their time or agenda is more important than yours.

work, relationships, stress

Passive-aggression has its origins in resentment

Possibility Three: Subjugation

work, relationships, stress

Passive-aggression has its origins in resentment

Another common life script is the exact opposite of entitlement in that people feel that their needs are not as important as pleasing or going along with the other person. Kids who are punished by parents or made to feel guilty when they naturally assert their own needs and opinions often become adults who do not feel entitled or know how to assert their own agenda. Kids raised in the emotional chaos caused by abuse, bullying, or addiction may become habitual rescuers of others, unaware of their own needs and feelings. A person with this schema may let the other person set the rules and expectations and just go along. Later, they may realize that they aren't getting their fair share, having their say, or are in some way being exploited in the situation. This can lead to seething resentment and failure to comply as an indirect way of asserting their needs, changing the rules, or expressing anger. They may feel that direct confrontation or even acknowledging their own angry feelings is dangerous because of past punishment. Subjugation can also result in a failure to organize one's life so as to prioritize the activities that are most related to one's own goals and rewards. Inability to say "no" and wanting to please other people all the time can produce overcommitment which makes it impossible to get the most important tasks done in a timely manner.

Possibility Four: Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

Lack of follow-through may not be due to passive-aggression but to a deficiency in the brain's executive functions which interferes with the ability to allocate attention appropriately. A person with this disorder may be unable to sustain focus on a task and instead, is chronically distracted by interfering stimuli such as the television and internet. They may take too long to grocery shop because they focus on all the other interesting foods on display or the magazine headlines at the checkout counter. Or they may have a hard time disengaging their attention from an interesting task such as reading or writing, and moving onto the more mundane stuff such as loading the dishwasher. This can result in not getting a project done or in making careless mistakes so the final product looks sloppy. Unlike the schemas discussed above, the behaviors here are not necessarily motivated by any interpersonal agenda. They are the result of genuinely limited capacities. Another facet of ADD is impulsivity, or being unable to resist acting on what you want to do in the moment, rather than delaying gratification to meet longer-term goals. If you suspect ADD, it is important to obtain a psychological assessment as there are medications and behavior strategies that can help you modify these interfering behaviors.

These are only some of the explanations for behaviors such as procrastination that get in the way of your own or other people's goals. Other possibilities are disorganization, perfectionism and overcommitment that result in insufficient time for the most important tasks. These habits can interfere with the ability to advance in your career and take care of your family. A good psychotherapist can assess all the factors in your situation, including your physiology, thoughts and feelings, life scripts, relationships, history and current circumstances to come up with a diagnosis and specific treatment plan. Dealing with these apparently passive-aggressive behaviors can result in improved focus, better performance at work, and more satisfying relationships.


Melanie Greenberg is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Mill Valley, Marin County, CA. She is also a researcher, author, and national speaker with expertise in mind-body health, & managing emotions &stress,.

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