Why Do People Procrastinate?

by Nelly Uhlenkott on September 10, 2011

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Although most of us find ourselves procrastinating at some point, there are a lot of misconceptions about why people procrastinate. People are often very critical of themselves when they procrastinate, believing that they are lazy, incompetent, or somehow “defective”. However, that’s not what’s really behind procrastination. The tasks you’re expected to accomplish are likely to be causing you a lot of stress. They may be stirring up deep fears or other issues, even if you’re not fully aware of them. Procrastination serves an important purpose in our lives; it can be a way of managing those emotions.

Why do people procrastinate? The real reasons:

Everyone has a different experience of procrastination, but a few of the most common reasons are outlined here.

Procrastination starts with your inner critic

Many people equate the quality of their work with their value as a person. Often when we are faced with large, overwhelming, or stressful tasks, they can trigger our underlying fears and insecurities – our very sense of self-worth may feel threatened. The thought of failing at a task is terrifying. Our negative self judgements take over. You may believe on some level that if you don’t do a good job, your worth as a person will drop. It might feel like other people will judge you too. Any criticism of your work might feel like a criticism of you, especially if you demand “perfection” of yourself. Work can feel especially overwhelming if it seems as if there’s an endless list of tasks to be done; it could feel like pressure might never ease. These self-critical feelings and overwhelming sensations spark procrastination.

Procrastination offers temporary relief

It makes sense that you’d want a break from all of the distressing fears and anxieties discussed above. Procrastination offers a temporary oasis. You can avoid the task at hand and escape from some of those painful feelings and questions about your self-worth. It also postpones the time when your work – and you – will being judged. Even if you’re not demanding perfection of yourself, procrastination can help you escape a general sense of stress. The more you feel that work and pressure are invading your life, the more likely you are to procrastinate and seek out leisure activities instead of doing what you “should” be doing. Unfortunately, procrastinating doesn’t offer complete relief from those stressors, and the relief it does provide is fleeting.

Procrastination lets you express resentment

We’re often placed in situations where we’re told there are things we “have to do” or we will face punishment, whether it’s writing a report at work or paying a parking ticket. Saying “no” often isn’t a reasonable option, and that can make us feel powerless. Procrastinating lets us do the next best thing – we can rebel and secretly express our resentment without facing many direct consequences. Putting off a task as long as possible, and perhaps even doing a half-hearted last minute effort, is a way of getting “unstuck” and taking back some control over your own life. Procrastination may allow you to feel like you’re regaining some of the power that others have over you.

Procrastination combats fear of failure and fear of success

Perfectionism and self-criticism of lead to an intense fear of failure. That fear can be especially strong if your sense of identity or self-worth focuses on one area of your life, such as your work. Procrastination can be a way of disengaging your self-worth from the task at hand; if you start late, the result will be rushed and not necessarily your best work. That means that if you’re judged or criticised, it’s not as much a reflection on you than it would be if you tried your hardest.

Likewise, success can feel frightening. Success might lead to additional demands and pressure placed upon you in the future. In some cases, success could mean transitioning to a new and uncertain stage of life, such as graduating from university or getting a job promotion that results in major life changes. You might also be concerned that other people in your life may start to resent your success. Procrastination can be used as a self-defeating behaviour to avoid success, as it could lead to producing rushed and lower quality work. In other cases, procrastination may be a way of avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of fear of success, or to delay possible success.

The reasons for procrastination are complex. Overcoming procrastination isn’t just about time management or motivation; it involves learning to feel compassion for ourselves and trusting in our own self-worth. Counselling can provide the support you need to soften your inner critic and develop a sense of your own self-worth.

If you or someone you know is struggling with procrastination, the team at Paul the Counsellor can help. The Paul the Counsellor team offers supportive, confidential, non-judgemental counselling in the Melbourne CBD.

0458 090 687
paulthecounsellor@gmail.com
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon September 10, 2011 at 3:43 PM

I found this article on your Facebook page while I was procrastinating… The first reason rings true for me. Maybe I’ll try working on being nicer to myself and see what happens

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Paul Cullen Ph.D. September 10, 2011 at 4:51 PM

Hi Sharon. Thanks for stopping by. Take it easy on yourself. Sometimes letting go of perfect and striving for mediocre is a good way to approach the task.

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Vanessa @ Counselling Melbourne September 19, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Very Interesting read Paul. I think your absolutely right, in my experience i have found that people procrastinate due to fear of failure!

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. September 19, 2011 at 10:31 AM

Thanks for your comment Vanessa. Great to hear from another therapist. Another frequent reason I find for procrastination is resentment. If you really don’t want to do it, but you feel you have to. It can be a way to dig your heels in and protest.

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Steve October 11, 2011 at 3:00 AM

Useful website.
My life is “governed” by stress/illness and the “endless list of tasks” mentioned as a contributing factor for procrastination. It’s interesting to actually read about it in black and white. I definitely use procrastination as a management strategy in my life, as I am always “under the pump” and am constantly criticised no matter what I do. Apparently, I lack the ability to prioritise, although somehow I almost always manage to get the important things done with little or no help, despite my health problems.
So to anyone in a similar situation, I would say if you can’t eliminate any of your stressors, then procrastination is a valid behaviour if it does not add to your stress further down the track; e.g. cause trouble with the law, or cause physical harm to someone due to an inaction.

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Paul Cullen, Ph.D. October 11, 2011 at 11:50 AM

Hello Steve. Thanks for reading our blog. I like how you’ve also emphasised the upside or usefulness of procrastination. It does sound like you’re under a lot pressure. As you probably know stress isn’t great for physical health. It might be worth exploring either by yourself or with the help of a professional how you might be able to get to a better place where life is a little richer and more fulfilling. Please come back and visit the blog again. Your comments are most welcome.

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Jane January 9, 2013 at 11:40 AM

My husband struggles with procrastination. It affects our relationship and I suspect it affects his work. What do you suggest I do to help him with this issue?

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Nelly Cullen January 14, 2013 at 11:59 AM

Hi Jane, thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment. Showing your husband compassion and encouraging him to do the same for himself can make a big difference. Many times people who habitually procrastinate “beat themselves up” over it, which can compound the problem! Counselling and psychotherapy can also be a great support, both individually, and as a couple if it’s affecting your relationship.

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