Why Do We Procrastinate (and How to Avoid It)?

8 Aug ‘22
4 min
Work performance
Editorial Board OpenUp
Reviewed by psychologist Madelief Falkmann
Almost everyone (95 per cent of people) struggles with procrastination at some point. But what happens if it gets out of hand and starts to interfere with your life? “Just start” usually isn’t great advice for chronic procrastinators. Why doesn’t it work and what would actually help?


Procrastination is normal human behaviour


So, there’s that one task you’ve been putting off all week. You keep saying you’ll get round to it, tomorrow’s another day, right? Everyone puts things off sometimes; procrastination is normal human behaviour. 


And, truth is, letting things slip sometimes isn’t such a bad thing. However, twenty per cent of people are chronic procrastinators. The term procrastination is derived from the Latin verb “procrastinare”, which means “to put off until tomorrow”.


If you’re a chronic procrastinator, it’s important to take a closer look at these behaviours. They’ll show up in all areas of your life and can cause feelings of stress, guilt, failure, anxiety and depression. They can also affect your relationships with the people around you. 


Why do we procrastinate?


Psychological research shows that chronic procrastinators all have certain characteristics in common and that it’s not “just” a question of laziness or poor time management. That’s why “just do it” is usually easier said than done. If only it were that simple. 


In particular, impulsiveness is strongly linked to procrastination. If you’re an impulsive person, you’ll struggle to stick to a plan. And if you do manage to start a task, you’ll quickly get distracted. Pretty soon, you’ll have forgotten all about your to-do list.

Tip: Dr Piers Steel is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and procrastination. In his book, appropriately titled ‘The Procrastination Equation’, he uses lots of examples of human behaviour, a self-assessment test, and practical tips to show you how procrastination works, what role impulsiveness plays, and how you can manage procrastination better.

In addition, perfectionism and fear of failure play a major role. When you set the bar extremely high for yourself or you’re afraid of making mistakes or failing, then this can be a major barrier to getting started. 


After all, if you haven’t started, there’s no way you’ll be judged or rejected and you can’t do anything “wrong”. On the other hand, a fear of success can also play a role because what if it does work out? What then?


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Why time management alone doesn’t work


When you’re looking for a way to solve your procrastination problem, you’ll quickly stumble across tips targeted at the practical side of things: make a strict to-do list, shut out all distractions, break your tasks down into small chunks, make sure you’ve got all the right equipment before you start, and reward yourself when you accomplish a task. 


These are great tips, but it’s a good idea to take a deeper look at your procrastination behaviour so that you can really tackle it at the roots. 


As already mentioned, impulsiveness, anxiety and perfectionism play a major role. This means that – especially in the long term – you’ll benefit more from learning to regulate emotions such as frustration, insecurity and doubt than you will from good time management alone. 


Overcoming procrastination


Step one to overcoming procrastination is awareness. You want or need to do something, but you’re struggling to leap into action: Where do you experience this resistance? What is happening in your body, what does it feel like? 


The next step is to look for the cause of this resistance you’re experiencing. What exactly is holding you back? Is it a lack of self-confidence or a particular fear you’re experiencing? Then look and see if you can get some help here by delving into the topic, taking a class, or talking about it to a professional who can offer you insights, tips and tools. 


Motivation and procrastination


It might of course also be that you’re “simply” lacking motivation because you find the task unrewarding or it drains your energy. In this case, you might need to question why this task is on your to-do list in the first place. Is it something you really need to do? 


In this case, you might be able to transform your resistance and frustration into something positive: What is the benefit of completing this task, who will you be making happy and how does that feel? 


Is the task not something you really “need” to do? Resolve to say no more often in the future. Saying no to other people often means saying yes to yourself.


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