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

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

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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 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.