When you understand what causes procrastination, you can use these strategies to overcome it and reach your full potential.
Everyone puts things off from time to time, but procrastinators chronically avoid difficult tasks. They delay at home, at work, and in their relationships, which inevitably impacts the quality of their performance and overall well being.
Overcoming procrastination begins with realizing that you are doing it.
But instead of beating yourself up about this very common problem, look deeper at what’s causing it. When you understand the reasons behind your behavior, you can find the right strategy to manage and overcome it.
Just like everyone has different strengths, everyone has different reasons for putting things off. And even those living a successful life can struggle with tendencies to put off dealing with difficult problems.
Does procrastination get in the way of reaching your full potential? Stop making excuses and take charge of your life with these strategies for overcoming procrastination.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is the habit of avoiding urgent tasks despite negative consequences. When people procrastinate, they often delay priorities and instead focus on less important, more enjoyable, simpler tasks instead.
Contrary to popular belief, procrastination is more than just laziness or poor time management. When it comes to procrastination, telling someone to “just do it” doesn’t work. It would be like telling someone with clinical depression to “cheer up.”
So you can stop feeling bad about your tendency to put things off. It’s a deeper problem, but something you can definitely work on and overcome.
In a study of procrastination, Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD, the leading researcher, reveals how the behavior is more like a form of self-sabotage. Demotivating psychological factors, such as fear of failure or anxiety, outweigh self-control to get something done.
People would rather avoid a task altogether than risk the humiliation of getting it wrong or making mistakes.
When people procrastinate, they know they should work on a certain task but actively choose to do something else. It is different from laziness, which suggests apathy, inactivity, and an unwillingness to act.
Why do we procrastinate so much?
Although everyone can occasionally procrastinate, chronic procrastination is a different problem. And according to research, as many as 20% of Americans may be chronic procrastinators.
“The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort than lacking ability.”Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD
People procrastinate for different reasons. Sometimes it results from too much pressure from family, maybe while growing up in a rigid household. For example, expectations for high performance from parents can make people put off projects out of fear of failure or criticisms.
Others may avoid doing something as an act of rebellion. You fight back and reclaim your right to say, “No, you can’t make me do that right now!”
Whenever we resist doing something, there is a good reason, even if it isn’t logical or beneficial.
Some of the most common reasons for what causes procrastination include:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of criticism
- Low self-esteem
- A tendency to self-defeat
- Trouble focusing
- Waiting until the last minute
- Task aversion
- Resisting challenges
- Decision fatigue
- Difficulty defining goals
- A disconnect with the future self
- Lack of energy
Procrastination prevents you from reaching your full potential—in your relationships, career, and beyond. It impedes teamwork, decreases self-esteem, and even leads to depression and job loss. On top of that, people avoid important wellness habits like going to the doctor or regular exercise.
So, it’s critical to proactively develop strategies to prevent it.
7 Causes of procrastination and solutions to stop putting things off
When you pinpoint the root causes, you can develop solutions and strategies to overcome procrastination. Let’s look at the most common issues at the heart of chronic procrastination, so you can start to create the life you want.
Procrastination Cause #1: Perfectionism
Perfectionism might seem like a desirable characteristic. Perfectionists strive for high standards and to be the best at everything.
But perfection is impossible to achieve, and aiming for it sets unrealistic expectations. As a result, they develop a fear of failure. They wind up putting things off because they feel they won’t do something well enough or do it right. They wait until the right moment, that perfect time when they cannot fail—that “right moment” that never arrives.
The Solution: The All or Something Approach
Perfectionists tend to develop an “all or nothing” approach and think in extremes like:
- My performance is either great or terrible.
- I’m either smart or stupid.
- I’m either wrong or right.
This leaves you with no in between or gray area or middle ground. To move forward in overcoming perfectionism, you’ll need to replace the zero-sum “all or nothing” approach with “all or something.”
Making mistakes is far better than not doing something altogether. You might not get a 10/10, but by making an attempt, you still move past the point of doing nothing at all. Go for “enough” or what is “necessary” instead of the big, embellished vision.
When you approach a passion project, whether writing your book, taking a dance class, or starting your own business, expect to make mistakes. That process of trial and error will teach you important lessons. You’ll learn how to do things better over time. You can try new things and discover what you love to do, or outright don’t like at all!
Procrastination Cause #2: Avoidance
Find yourself wasting time — social media, email, video games, TV — even when you’re late on something important? (Statista reports that the average global internet user spends at least 2 hours on social media every day!)
Unpleasant or stressful tasks like finishing a large work project, preparing your taxes, or studying for a final exam cause unpleasant feelings like fear, stress, or inadequacy. Dragging your feet to do something and focusing on low-priority tasks is a form of unconscious avoidance.
Rather than working on an important task, you spend time “led astray by the ‘visceral’ rewards of the present,” George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, told The New Yorker.
Procrastinators tend to prefer pleasure over progress. They are task averse, putting off important tasks by doing something else that feels more productive, easier, and enjoyable. They have a disconnect with the future self and don’t seek rewards that seem far in the future.
For example, they might want to eat the cake right now because it tastes so good. They give up the long-term gain of getting our sugar levels into a regulated pattern and eating healthy foods that fuel the body.
When faced with difficult emotions, someone may engage in self-destructive patterns that feel good at the time, like drinking too much alcohol, instead of working through problems and feeling painful emotions which ultimately leads to healing.
So for many, procrastination results as a default defense mechanism in the form of avoidance. It acts as a coping mechanism, to protect yourself from unpleasant feelings like guilt or anxiety. You become demotivated and disillusioned, or in extreme cases, develop depression or anxiety.
The Solution: Recognizing patterns of procrastination
Like other types of defense mechanisms, procrastination happens in the unconscious mind, so you may not even realize that you do it. You must figure out what causes procrastination before you can start changing those habits.
For example, do you avoid a certain task because you find it boring or unpleasant? If so, focus and get it out of the way quickly. Then take a break or move on to tasks that you find more enjoyable.
You can also tackle the hardest tasks at your peak times. Identify when you’re most effective. Whether you’re at peak energy during the morning or the afternoon, do the tasks that you find most difficult at these times.
If you notice that you avoid tasks because you feel incompetent when you do them — get help, outsource, or find a workaround. Letting go of some hated tasks, you will not only stop feeling guilty, but the necessary work will get done. These are key leadership characteristics — collaboration and problem solving.
Procrastination Cause #3: Low Self-Esteem
The research shows that people who procrastinate suffer from lower well being and higher levels of stress and anxiety, which can reduce self-esteem and lead to depression.
People who chronically delay tasks engage in self-deprecating thought patterns about themselves and others compared to non-procrastinators. They may think things like:
What if I have the problem all wrong?
What if I make a mistake?
What if I’m not good enough?
For people with low self-esteem, their minds constantly wrestle with these limited thinking patterns like a machine. What causes procrastination for them is believing their negative self-talk. Being too hard on yourself gets in the way of motivation and leads to patterns of procrastination.
The Solution: Building Confidence
Many of us have struggled with self-esteem at some point. Building confidence in yourself is a lifelong process that can be done with careful attention.
To overcome this dilemma, start by looking at the root causes. Do you have a past trauma that you need to heal from in order to regain your self-worth? If so, consider speaking with a therapist who can help understand underlying causes for distress and low self-esteem.
Non-procrastinators tend to have a strong sense of personal identity and higher levels of self-esteem. That means they are less concerned with what other people think of them.
Procrastinators, on the other hand, put a strong emphasis on external validation. In other words, they worry a lot about what other people will say. They find value in themselves from the approval of other people, and avoid doing something out of fear of criticism.
Surrounding yourself with positive people can also help you stay motivated and avoid that self-critical loop. Like a cheerleader on the sidelines, having a coach or a mentor can help develop a positive mindset to train your brain to push through barriers.
Procrastination Cause #4: Waiting Until the Last Minute
Procrastinators often make the claim that they put off tasks because they “perform better under pressure.” They make a habit of waiting until the last minute to get that rush of euphoria at completing a task on time against the odds.
But this rarely works out as planned. People who have the “I’ll get around it” mentality don’t give themselves enough time to do something well. Putting off work until the last minute leads to mishaps and unnecessary errors that compromise the quality of their work.
The procrastinator usually has a poor understanding of how long the task will take. They fool themselves to forget about the task, hoping it will go away, or they make up excuses that they will perform better under pressure and put off the task until the last minute.
The Solution: The Pomodoro Technique
You can actually trick your brain into doing things on time. Substituting smaller units of time—10 days instead of 1 month or 48 hours instead of 2 days—can reduce procrastination by making future events seem more immediate.
A study of 162 participants asked each person to imagine themselves preparing for an upcoming event, like a project for work or studying for an exam. Those who broke down the time into smaller units (in this case days) perceived the event as arriving an average of 30 days sooner when imagined as days rather than months.
Is underestimating how long a project will take part of what causes procrastination for you? Try thinking about in terms of how many 25-minute blocks of time it will realistically take.
In the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo developed The Pomodoro Technique, a method that uses this type of logic and breaks down tasks into smaller time intervals. The name comes from the word pomodoro, Italian for tomato.
As a university student, Cirillo would use a tomato-shaped timer and set it for about 25 minutes. He would then focus on a task until the timer when off. Here’s how you can apply the same technique to stop procrastination:
- Choose the priority task according to your daily planning
- Set the timer for 25-60 minutes
- Concentrate on the task until the timer goes off
- Once the timer goes off, write down a checkmark on a piece of paper
- Take a short 5-minute break, then go back to repeat step 2
- After 4 checkmarks, take a longer break (about 30 minutes)
- Repeat until you complete your task
By following this technique, you develop the ability to focus during a shorter, more manageable chunks. Plus, you make a larger task feel less overwhelming. Over time, dedicating those smaller amounts of time to a task will lead to big results.
You also benefit from a type of biohacking. Each time you put down that checkmark and complete a task, your brain releases the dopamine neurotransmitter, also known as the feel good chemical. With each hit of dopamine, you actually train your brain to become more productive.
Procrastination Cause #5: Trouble Focusing
Psychologists have found a strong link between difficulty concentrating and procrastination. For example, people with attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often find it difficult to get a project started. Once they do, they have trouble knowing how to prioritize, plan, and stay on track.
If you are one of the estimated 4% of adults that meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, you may benefit from professional support. If you simply have trouble getting started on tedious and unpleasant tasks, or those that require a high degree of concentration, try these solutions.
The Solution: Managing Distractions
Fortunately, improving focus is a skill you can learn and practice. Consider these ideas:
- Set “do not disturb” or “silence” on your phone to reduce distractions and notifications that interrupt your work.
- Place anything distracting in a different room outside of your workspace.
- Set up a quiet workspace, alone and free from distractions.
- Take scheduled breaks to rest your brain.
- Task management apps, like Trello or Toggle, can help you stay on top of tasks and complete them on time.
Procrastination Cause #6: Decision Fatigue
Have you ever stared into a closet of clothing and said, “I don’t have anything to wear!”
We have so much available to us, that it can actually get in the way of getting things done. Think of the amount of time it takes to make a simple decision like what to wear when you have too many choices.
People often say they want options. But it takes mental energy to make decisions. As the saying goes, “Less is More”… and in this case more time and energy to focus on your core values.
Procrastination can occur when we have too many options. It takes mental energy to make decisions. We can put things off if they depend on our capacity to make a decision.
When you can’t figure out what to do, you’ll likely avoid taking action in case you make the wrong choice.
The Solution: Simplify your decisions
When you limit the number of decisions you have to make each day, you’ll find it much easier to get things done.
Simplifying your day-to-day life can cut back on the energy spent on less important choices so you can refocus on the things that actually matter. You’d be surprised how much extra time you’ll find in the day just by simplifying a few areas of your life.
Consider the following ideas:
- Remove the number of apps on your phone, or turn off app notifications, to reduce time wasted checking your device.
- Declutter your wardrobe to make it easier to decide what to wear, saving time on getting ready each day.
- Make a habit of daily planning, focusing on tasks one-by-one, by level of importance, so you don’t have to constantly think about what to do next.
- Prioritize your commitments, putting the most meaningful at the top of your To-Do list.
- Take inventory of the people in your life. Put time aside for the people who matter the most, and know when to walk away from toxic relationships.
Procrastination Cause #7: Resisting Challenges
Procrastination often happens when a challenge seems too difficult. A person avoids taking on a challenge out of fear that they won’t do a good enough job. They may not feel equal to the task and even carry anxiety or guilt, which makes them avoid the task even more.
To avoid doing something hard, people who procrastinate may say to themselves:
- I don’t feel like it
- I’ll get around to it
- What if I fail?
- I’ll do it when the time is right
Avoiding negative emotions might sound like a good idea. But real growth often feels unpleasant, sometimes downright painful. People stay trapped inside their comfort zones, like a prison. They stay paralyzed, not only procrastinating on pursuing their dreams but unable to face a challenge when they do.
As a result, you avoid seeking out challenges that help you grow, like building meaningful relationships or pursuing your passions, out of fear of failure or rejection.
The Solution: Daily Planning
If avoiding challenges is what causes procrastination for you, it helps to have preset plans. Start by identifying your most important long-term goals, and break them down into small steps.
Set aside a small portion of time each day or week toward working to work toward those heart dreams. As you complete each step, celebrate the small wins along the way.
Organized people successfully overcome procrastination because they manage tasks using To-Do lists and schedules. These tools help to prioritize your life and meet deadlines.
Sometimes I help my clients beat procrastination because we set up habits or routines. We have a path carved out. We’ve traveled it enough to lean into the pattern of things like going to the gym, practicing guitar, closing out email before turning off the lights at the office, and so forth.
Procrastination often occurs when you feel overwhelmed. When it comes to a big goal, many people get caught up in the how… and never actually get started on anything. The how is always a step later in the process of doing something.
Maybe you don’t know how to do something. Take your attention away from how you’ll do it, and dive into the question, “What is it I’m going for?”
THEN figure out the HOW with help.
- Why is this goal important to me?
- What would success look like?
- What skills can you bring or experience can you lean into for this project?
Break through overwhelm by taking the first few steps mentioned above and then get help figuring out how to get there. Ask for advice. Get input from others experienced in the task you are facing. Meet with a coach to gain a fuller perspective on how to actualize challenging tasks.
Ready to Stop Procrastinating and Focus on Your Goals?
Once you’ve identified your procrastination pattern, get the resources you need to start overcoming it. You can stop feeling bad about what you’ve put off — and start getting it done.
If you’re ready to take charge of your days, we’ve put together a course just for you. It provides some incredible tools and resources to help you clear space in your mind and your calendar.
Then it walks you through a simple, yet super-effective process for planning your days to achieve your long term goals.
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