7 Surprising Reasons You Procrastinate

Halvor Gregusson

According to an article in Psychology Today, 20 percent of people chronically avoid putting their nose to the grindstone and actively look for distractions!  That seems incredible in a society that values efficiency and “multitasking” as much as ours does.  And yet, it’s true.  But the big question is, why?

Procrastinators are trained from birth… to some extent.  That’s the gist of psychological research into the art of stalling.  One increasingly popular theory is that procrastination has its roots in childhood, where it functioned as a sort of rebellion against authoritative parental figures or as a goalless apathy in the presence of an overwhelming pressure to perform.  But even that deep-seated basis can be reversed if you get to the heart of the matter.

Doctor Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, says that there are three types of procrastinators in the world:

  1. The arousal types, who get a thrill from rushing through projects at the last minute – whether they come out on top or not.
  2. The avoiders, who don’t want to get to the end of any given project because the fear of change keeps them paralyzed.
  3. The decisional procrastinators, who simply cannot make any decisive choices because they can’t bear the results of their actions.

Interestingly, these three types of procrastinators use multiple “tools” of the trade to work their mischievous magic.  Understanding which type you are and recognizing which of the following methods you and those around you use to procrastinate will help you overcome your personal roadblocks and get things done.

You’re Stunned by the Big Picture

If you’re overwhelmed by goals (either the ones you’ve set for yourself or the ones you’ve been given by others), you’re may find yourself feeling unable to disassemble them into constituent components.  As a result, you feel that you don’t know where to start – or even how to figure out where to start.

This feeling of helplessness usually feeds upon itself until it eats away at your resolve, making workplace distractions a welcome escape.  One symptom of this type of procrastination is filling hours with “busy work” that’s not essential but merely keeps the procrastinator active.

You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

On the other hand, if your project is a multi-stage affair, the individual steps may seem legion!  Instead of seeing the goal and going for it, you see all the steps that lead up to it and either get discouraged or lose focus.  One key to overcoming this type of procrastination is to create a to-do list that’s prioritized in order to break overwhelmingly-large projects into smaller, more actionable chunks.

Your Inability to Prioritize is Killing You

But what do you do if you simply can’t prioritize?  Chances are you’ll spend your hours working on non-essential tasks and fooling yourself into thinking that everything is okay.

Unlike those who get overwhelmed, those who can’t prioritize correctly don’t see anything wrong.  These are the folks that spend an hour deciding which font to use on the quarterly report – but don’t leave time to get the actual writing done.  Often the excuse of “time flying” is pulled out of the hat, but really, this is just another form of procrastination.

Fear of Failure (or Success)

Failure and success are big deals.  Either one can have far-reaching implications for a how individuals perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others.  For instance, if a person drops the ball on a big marketing project, he may worry about being blacklisted as the fellow who lost the company X amount of dollars.

On the other hand, if this same person knocks the ball out of the park, all future projects will be held to a much higher standard.  Some people are willing to do anything – including nothing – in order to avoid being jarred out of their comfort zones.

You’re Too Comfortable Lying to Yourself

Procrastinators are constantly lying to themselves.  They lie to justify their failures (“The dog ate my homework”).  They lie to justify their successes (“Bill did most of the work”).  They lie to justify their justifications (“It’s okay to blame the inventory debacle on the warehouse they screwed up last quarter”).

Some procrastinators just don’t know how to not lie.  Learning responsibility is the key to beating back the lies and overcoming procrastination.  Take ownership and live up to your actions.

You’ve Given In to Perfectionism

You don’t always have to do things exceptionally well – often, “good enough” is more than sufficient.  The ingrained desire to get everything 100% correct every time can lead to the paralyzing fear of failure and multiple revisions and delays that waste time.

As John Henry Newman, Anglican Deacon and noted author, once said, “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”  Let’s face it, good enough is always good enough.

Poorly Chosen Goals (Lack of Motivation)

Goals have to be worthwhile or you’re likely going to give up on them.  If the end result isn’t interesting enough, emotionally rewarding enough or simply challenging enough, your passion for the project is going to flag and you’ll find yourself looking for ways to get out of work.  Suddenly the sunshine pouring through the window becomes irresistible and you find yourself getting sucked into a vigorous round of Angry Birds.

If you find this happening a lot, restructure your goals so that they excite you or add a personal reward to the end of every project.  For example, give yourself the okay to have a sundae in the afternoon if you get the expense report finished by noon.

Just as procrastination is learned, so too can it be unlearned.  By recognizing procrastination while it’s happening, you can proactively combat it by restructuring your work habits, adding motivation and ignoring distractions.  But “insight alone does not cure.”  You have to work toward the cure to your unique type of procrastination!

But don’t expect to succeed overnight.  Lifelong habits are difficult to overcome, so cut yourself some slack – just not too much!  As Dr. Ferrari says in his book Still Procrastinating:  The No Regrets Guide to Getting Things Done, “Eliminating procrastination from our lives is like trying to stop a moving train; it’s not easy.”  Don’t worry.  Even if you fail to curb procrastination immediately, there will always be a next time to hone your skills and improve your ability to get things done.


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  • Arjen ter Hoeve says: 

    Great tips, I think most people will recognize themselves in one of the types.

    One thing that helped me a lot when dealing with procrastination was to set a timer for a specific task. This way I would be focused only on that single task and after that, I was allowed to procrastinate :)

    Thanks again!

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