Why you procrastinate so much (REAL reasons and practical solutions)

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, chances are you feel guilty and ashamed of your laziness, but did you know that procrastination is not laziness at all?

When you procrastinate, you know that not doing a task has negative consequences, but you still cannot do it. Instead, you open your Instagram account, munch on a bag of chips, or even do other chores around the house. Anything BUT the actual task that you have to do. 

Procrastinators endlessly delay tasks at work, home, school, and relationships. These delays have multiple consequences, from living with increased stress [1] and financial problems [2] to having dysfunctional relationships [3]. 

Procrastination has certain specific causative factors which I will cover in this article. Plus, I will also give you some practical tips that will help you break this vicious cycle to overcome procrastination.

The 5 causes of procrastination

Procrastination is a form of self-regulation failure. Our procrastination habit is shaped by our personal experiences, fears, and motivations

Procrastination is universally relatable because we all procrastinate; our brains are wired for that. 

Reason 1: The biology – limbic system vs prefrontal cortex

In his book, The Procrastination Equation, researcher Piers Steel suggests that procrastination is the result of conflict between two parts of our brain – the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system is the part of our brain involved in behavioural and emotional responses – it controls our emotions, impulses,  and drives. The prefrontal cortex is about cognitive control – logical reasoning, comprehension, solving problems, controlling impulses, persevering, and being creative.

Procrastination is the fight between these two systems. When you have to execute a task, the prefrontal cortex emerges as the planner, while the limbic system wants relief from the stress of having to complete the task. This conflict results in procrastinating the task. 

The limbic system is automatic and wants to protect you from anything unpleasant. It directs you for “immediate mood repair”. This system is always on and on the lookout to make you feel good, at any cost. It has no self control.

Prefrontal cortex, or the thinking brain, is a newer and weaker part of the brain. It is not automatic. You have to activate it for it to function, and consciously engage in the task.

When you’re not consciously engaged, the limbic system kicks in and makes you do “what feels good” – which is doing anything but the task that you have to do.

Reason 2: A maladaptive coping behaviour

For chronic procrastinators, procrastination is a form of maladaptive coping mechanism to avoid engaging with difficult tasks and relieve stress. 

We normally develop healthy coping strategies in early childhood. Difficult situations are part of life, so healthy coping behaviours help you overcome difficult situations faster and grow stronger.

Healthy coping strategies involve active problem solving, and includes applying cognitive, behavioural, and emotional control to navigate difficult tasks and situations. 

Maladaptive strategies are formed when the typical coping development sequence is disrupted. Maladaptive coping can also develop later in life in response to stressful life events.

Without adaptive or healthy coping skills, we continue with less mature and maladaptive coping techniques such as avoidance, denial etc. People procrastinate when it becomes an emotional coping mechanism [4] and they have not developed healthy coping behaviours.

A habitual procrastinator easily falls into the pattern of avoiding or perpetually deferring tasks that feel unpleasant or difficult . In other words, they procrastinate.

Reason 3: Fear of failure

If you do your very best and you don’t succeed, it could be a serious blow your self-esteem. 

It is natural to have some anxiety associated with the fear of failure when taking up a new job or starting a business. But pathological fear of failure can paralyze you into inaction, in an attempt to keep your self-esteem intact.

If you do not try hard enough and keep putting off a project, you will always have an excuse to fall back on. It was not that you were lacking in some way, it was just that there wasn’t enough time or circumstances weren’t right.

This strategy protects your self-esteem, even when you feel the associated guilt and stress of procrastination. The relief of task avoidance and elimination of potential failure trumps any guilt that procrastination brings.

Researchers at the Association for Psychological Science found that students procrastinated on practising on a puzzle only when it was described as a cognitive evaluation, and not when it was described as a fun activity [5].

They were trying to undermine their own best effort to be seen as “lacking effort” rather than “lacking ability.” Procrastination was a behavioural self-handicap that they used to achieve this.

Reason 4: Quest for instant gratification 

Procrastinators prioritize instant gratification or hedonic pleasure rather than focus on the long-term goal. Tim Urban, who runs the popular blog Wait But Why, describes a procrastinator’s life as being controlled by the Instant Gratification Monkey.

Most worthwhile goals demand perseverance, hard work, and long hours. When the results are slow to come in, some people switch to a simpler task that can deliver quick results that may have nothing to do with their goals or just stop doing everything. 

Even when you know that putting something off will cause problems later, you give in to the temptation of not doing something (which makes you feel good now, albeit temporarily). This happens due to poor emotional regulation.

You continue this pattern till things get really bad and some serious negative consequence looms in the horizon – maybe your career will end if you do not finish that project. That panic then spurs you into action.

Reason 5: Feeling disconnected from our future selves

We’re generally very bad at temporal thinking – we imagine our future self to be a completely different person and cannot accurately estimate when “future” is going to be.

In general, we struggle with tasks that require us to spend time and effort now, with the promise of a future upside. Think exercising, eating healthy, or saving for retirement. All these are activities that involve huge pain now, in return for a future gain. And so we avoid, or procrastinate.

Researchers found that when people saw digitally aged photographs of themselves, they were more likely to save for their retirement – this makes the future seem more real. [6]

When making long-term decisions, people feel a lack of emotional connection to their future selves, and therefore make current decisions that do not serve them well for the future.

The hassle of the immediate action is very tangible, whereas the future benefit is uncertain and not now. Behavioural scientists call this present bias. [7]

This lack of connection to our future selves results in procrastination of important life decisions and actions, with devastating consequences. 

How to stop procrastinating

So what can the procrastinator do to get things done and achieve their goals? 

The good news is that no matter what the reason is for your procrastination, there are actionable steps you can take to reverse this habit. 

Tip 1: Use mindfulness to lower the reward value of procrastinating

For many chronic procrastinators, procrastination is a deeply entrenched habit that follows a habit loop of Trigger > Action > Reward.

  • Trigger: The task you’re are supposed to work on
  • Action: Avoidance of the task, i.e., procrastination
  • Reward: Instant gratification from doing something else, albeit temporarily, which comes from having avoided the unpleasant task

Mindfulness can play a transformative role in breaking this habit loop in two ways.

Firstly, it helps you realize how unrewarding the old habit is. Start paying attention to how guilty, anxious, and overwhelmed you feel when you procrastinate. Acknowledge the unpleasantness of the feeling and soak it in – soon you will develop an aversion to feeling this way.

Secondly, mindfulness has the inherent attitude of curiosity. Curiously watching and really engaging in your emotions, reactions, and physical sensations can feel more rewarding than procrastinating. Train yourself to replace procrastination with curiosity to tap into this sense of reward.

Tip 2: Get started even if you’re not in the mood

You may feel that you need to be in just the right mood if you are to do something. But when your actions are dictated by your emotional state, you never take that first step unless you feel the spike of inspiration or motivation. 

But motivation is an unreliable emotion to bank your life on. You’re not always going to feel motivated. So what do you do?

Understand that you don’t have to be in the mood to do a certain task. For overcoming procrastination, ignore the emotional state and just start working on it. Even if you feel bad, just start.

This is the hardest bit – just starting. Because your instant gratification mechanism is going to strongly resist to avoid pain and do something fun instead. But if you can power through this tipping point, then you will lose the impulse to procrastinate. It helps to break large projects down into smaller actionable tasks that can be accomplished easily.

Once you get started, you will often find that you’re able to continue. You may even get into the state of flow, which makes you feel fantastic and continuing to work on the task feels so much more fun than anything else.

As you make progress, this behavior will build on itself if you do this consistently enough.

The hard thing though, is that you may have to do this powering through every time you want to start on a task. Even if you were successful yesterday, today feels like a brand new challenge.

And this is why persistence is such an important underlying component of success in beating procrastination.

At HabitStrong, our Extreme Focused Learning bootcamp runs on the principle of persistence and consistency. By showing up and powering through the initial resistance, you will find that you’re able to get into the flow and smash your learning goals.

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Tip 3: Smart precommitment strategies

Another approach is precommitment, which means blocking out some of our future choices, knowing that we may not have the willpower to resist them later. For example, you could use a browser extension that blocks out social media when you work. 

Precommitments can include both self-imposed blocks as well as externally imposed ones. Research shows self-imposed blocks or deadlines are not as effective as externally configured ones [8], but something is better than nothing.

A great externally imposed precommitment could be something like making a public commitment (to people that you respect) that you will finish a task before a certain deadline. This raises accountability and will spur you to work, because you don’t want to fall behind and lose face before these people.

An extreme form of external precommitment could be committing to give money to an organization you despise if you do not finish your task.

In our Deep Work & Flow bootcamp, we ask you to precommit by blocking out time for undisturbed deep work. You feel more accountable as this is an external precommitment.

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Tip 4: Set up your environment for success

Our physical environment brings with it several distractions. It is not wise to blame modern technology for procrastination, but smartphones, internet, and social media have made it very easy for people to choose mindless entertainment and distractions over working on some task that is unpleasant.

Set up your environment in such a way that distractions are minimal. Make a list of all possible distractions and eliminate them one by one.

For example, keep your phone switched off or away while you work. Even a 3 second distraction of hearing the phone ring and silencing it can disrupt the workflow and attention. 

I mentioned earlier in this article that poor emotional regulation is one of the core problems of chronic procrastinators. It makes sense to rid your environment of temptations that can pull you back into the land of procrastination.

Tip 5: Forgive yourself

Symptoms of procrastination include anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, low performance and productivity, and reduced emotional and physical well-being. Dwelling on these negative emotions and outcomes can be detrimental in the long term.

Research shows that those who forgave themselves for previous procrastinating behaviours were less likely to procrastinate in the future [9].

Procrastination makes us feel bad already, self-blame further aggravates and triggers adverse biological responses such as release of cortisol and stress hormones. This affects our cognitive flexibility and reduces our capacity to learn.

Forgiveness comes from having self compassion and empathy for ourselves and moving away from self-blame. Compassion to self reduces feelings of distress and puts us in a better position to learn from past mistakes.  

In conclusion

Even if you have been procrastinating for a long time, it does not have to be a part of your identity. Once you recognize the symptoms of procrastination and identify the causes of procrastination, you can work on building new habits.

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself along the way, even when you slip. And don’t forget to reward yourself when you complete an important task.

As you move away from the habit of procrastinating, you will see that your time management has improved. You are also able to confidently take up short term and long term projects.

There is no better feeling than being able to rely on your own behaviour and commitment, rather than wait for spikes of motivation that comes and goes.

Live with the confidence that you can create something of value, and have the determination to put your mind to it. I hope the tips I have shared in this article helps you achieve that.

Sources

[1] Khalid A, Zhang Q, Wang W, Ghaffari AS, Pan F. The relationship between procrastination, perceived stress, saliva alpha-amylase level and parenting styles in Chinese first year medical students. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2019 Jul 3;12:489-498. doi: 10.2147/PRBM.S207430. PMID: 31308770; PMCID: PMC6619418.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6619418/

[2] Procrastination and Personal Finances: Exploring the Roles of Planning and Financial Self-Efficacy

Front. Psychol., 05 April 2019, Sec. Personality and Social Psychology

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00775/full

[3] https://insights.vitalworklife.com/blog/2017/03/15/procrastination-and-its-effect-on-relationships#:~:text=The%20effect%20is%20the%20partner,change%20their%20behavior%20to%20decline.

[4] https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/procrastination-is-strong-emotional-coping-mechanism/

[5] Procrastination as a Self-Handicap for Men and Women: A Task-Avoidance Strategy in a Laboratory Setting, Ferrari and Tice https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222701514_Procrastination_as_a_Self-Handicap_for_Men_and_Women_A_Task-Avoidance_Strategy_in_a_Laboratory_Setting

[6] Ersner-Hershfield H, Garton MT, Ballard K, Samanez-Larkin GR, Knutson B. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2747683/

[7] https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty/keith.chen/negot.%20papers/ODonoghueRabin_DoingNowOrLatter99.pdf

[8] Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00441

[9] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886910000474

 

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