Why We Procrastinate and 5 Ways to Stop

We all procrastinate, even at times we know better. How to stop? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers reasons we procrastinate, plus how to get back on task (right after this movie trailer on YouTube).

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #198

image of a girl procrastinating

Procrastination isn’t just universal among humans; the entire universe procrastinates: Newton’s First Law of Motion says a body at rest will stay at rest unless compelled to change state.

But just because something is universal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And sometimes we procrastinate even when we know we shouldn’t. We say, “I should really be working,” as we stalk our sophomore year homecoming date on Facebook, stand in front of the open fridge for the fourth time in an hour, or realize we’re watching banjo lessons on YouTube without owning a banjo.

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And procrastination doesn’t only happen around work. Procrastination over getting a symptom checked out can leave a disease untreated. Putting off a difficult conversation prolongs conflict. And delaying life decisions, like breaking up or making a commitment, going back to school, or changing jobs can lead to running in place for years.

In the end, we kick ourselves. We get frustrated when we run out of time, get stressed as a deadline looms, or feel regret as opportunity slips through our fingers.

Why do we do this to ourselves? It seems so simple: just do it already! But it’s actually quite complicated. Plus, it turns out it’s in our very genes. A tendency to procrastinate runs in families, and is linked on the genetic level to impulsivity, creating a one-two punch of difficulty regulating our own behavior. And, to make things worse, a study in the prestigious journal Psychological Science notes that procrastination is, unfortunately, a lifelong trait. 

Does that mean the procrastinators among us are doomed? Does a genetic predisposition mean we’re destined to fritter away our most productive years seeing if we can lick our nose? 

Luckily, no: just like the inhibited among us can practice loosening up and those of us prone to worry can learn to let go, those of us who procrastinate can find our own workarounds that help us focus and resist temptation in the moment.

Procrastination is a shape-shifter. Sometimes it’s simply choosing pleasure over discipline. Sometimes it’s an avoidance of negative emotion. And sometimes it’s getting paralyzed by high expectations. Therefore, this week, here are five different reasons we procrastinate, plus a customized approach for each.

5 Reasons Why We Procrastinate 

  1. The task isn’t urgent.
  2. We don’t know how to start or what comes next.
  3. Fear of failure.
  4. Some of us work better under pressure.
  5. We just don’t want to do our work.

Let's explore each a little further. 

1. The task isn’t urgent.

We pay attention to what’s in front of us, like a crying baby, a ringing phone, or a deadline on the calendar. 

But it’s a lot harder to prioritize things that aren’t urgent. We all have those tasks we really should do but just never get around to—safely disposing of that leftover paint in the garage, moving all your files from your laptop to the cloud, or organizing the basement.

But even really important things get put off if they’re not imminently urgent, like planning for retirement, going back to school, or breaking off a relationship that’s not working. As a result, tasks big and small sit neglected at the bottom of the to-do list for months, if not years.

Solution: Consider the Big Picture

There is a reason for all this dilly-dallying: humans are simply wired to consider the needs of the present much more strongly than the needs of the future, a phenomenon called temporal discounting. This makes sense: the present is in our face, so naturally we pay it more attention. 

The remedy, according to a study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyis to consider the big picture rather than the details. Looking at tasks through the lens of our overall goals, our life, or otherwise stepping back helps puts those big decisions and changes on the front burner rather than letting them fester for years. 

So if you’ve been wanting to go back to school but just never seem to get around to it, take a step back. What would this mean for your life? What are your values and goals around your education? What’s the big picture?

Once you’ve decided to take action, it’s time to battle a new kind of procrastination, which is....

2. We don’t know how to start or what comes next.

Sometimes we procrastinate because we’re not sure what to do. We feel overwhelmed, confused, or disorganized. We put off getting started because we’re not sure how to do it.

This kind of procrastination is less an avoidance of the task, and more an avoidance of negative emotion. No one likes to feel incompetent or clueless, so it’s no wonder we turn our attention to Netflix or even cleaning the bathroom. Indeed, when we put off the task at hand by doing other tasks, it’s called productive procrastination. Anyone who’s ever organized their desk or sorted the mail instead of doing work knows what I mean. At least sorting the mail makes us feel competent.

Solution: Build Confusion Into the Task

Remember it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed or stupid when you’re just starting out, especially if you’ve never done the task before.

Therefore, build confusion into the task. Make “figure out steps” the first step. Write “throw spaghetti at wall” on your to-do list if that gets you moving. 

Alternatively, sometimes people need a witness to help them think, so spitball with a colleague or talk it out with your partner to figure out where to start. 

Regardless, it’s okay for the beginning of the task to include a lot of pivots, do-overs, and plain old messing up. It only feels lousy if you think it shouldn’t be happening.

3. Fear of failure.

A dash of perfectionism isn’t all bad. After all, high standards lead to high-level work. Bruno Mars, Serena Williams, and Beyonce are all self-proclaimed perfectionists. But sometimes high standards are paralyzing. We blow off our projects, convinced there’s no way we can meet our own high standards.

Solution: Untangle Performance and Self-Worth

Perfectionism and procrastination are linked in a very specific way. Sky-high standards by themselves don’t slow you down, but sky-high standards mixed with a belief that your performance is tied to your self-worth grinds you to a halt.

So remember that there’s a difference between who you are and what you achieve. There’s so much more to your worth than your accomplishments—your identity, family, passions, experiences, travels, friends, politics, taste, knowledge, challenges you’ve overcome, and most importantly, how you treat other people. 

4. Some of us work better under pressure. 

We all knew (or maybe were) that kid in high school or college who could crack open the textbook for the first time a few days before the final exam and still come out at the top of the class. It didn’t seem fair to those of us who planned ahead.

Those of us who work better under pressure and prefer the adrenaline rush and intense focus that comes with a close deadline might choose to start later.

Solution: Know Thyself

Turns out those kids were planning ahead, just in a different way. There are two types of procrastination: passive and active. Passive procrastination is what we usually think of as procrastination: getting distracted by videos of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg making brownies to the detriment of our performance. 

But active procrastination is more strategic—those of us who work better under pressure and prefer the adrenaline rush and intense focus that comes with a close deadline might choose to start later. 

And, it turns out, the choice pays off. A 2017 study by three Swiss researchers found that passive procrastination negatively affects students’ GPAs, but active procrastinators’ grades turn out just fine. So know thyself. If the adrenaline of all-nighters works for you, go ahead and make that pot of coffee at midnight—just make sure you study the correct chapters.

5. We just don’t want to do our work.

What we’re supposed to be doing is boring. It’s hard. We hate the supervisor who assigned it. And it’s 3 PM on a beautiful Friday. 

Some things no one likes to do: taxes, ironing, getting off the couch to go to bed—I mean, why do we have to be horizontal in a different place?

Solution: Measure and Compensate

Here’s what to do if you just don’t want to do something. A study in the European Journal of Personality found that college students who procrastinate did so because the alternatives were just more fun. But in their minds, they weren’t blowing off their work—they fully intended to study, just not right now. 

And just like the active procrastinators from the previous study, these procrastinators also knew themselves well. The study found that they compensated for their tendency to procrastinate by intending to study more and earlier that non-procrastinators. In other words, they mentally built in compensation from the get-go. And in the end? They actually studied more than non-procrastinators—not a lot more, but still. 

So in a nutshell, to stop procrastinating, look at the big picture, know it’s okay to flail at the beginning, remember your worth doesn’t equal your achievement, and, most of all, know thyself. Work with your tendency to procrastinate as it is, not as you wish it to be. So get on that...right after you watch that video on how to escape quicksand.

For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.

Image of procrastinating girl © Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.