Why Do We Procrastinate and What Can I Do To Stop?

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

Most of us tend to procrastinate when faced with a task that we find distasteful, overwhelming, emotionally painful, or just annoying. We do this in spite of the fact that it results in some form of added suffering, especially increased stress. We will spend hours scrolling through Facebook, shopping online, playing computer games, or reading random blogs like this one for immediate gratification and to avoid our responsibilities. Why do we do this to ourselves? In this article, I discuss the ways we procrastinate, why we do it, and ways to overcome it, including mental health resources in St. Petersburg, Florida.

What is procrastination?

Despite it being a struggle for many people, procrastination is a concept that has not been entirely understood in research, especially regarding its underlying causes. In general, procrastination is defined as a voluntary delay in an intended action despite its apparent negative consequences. It’s often impulsive and unplanned and it’s commonly seen, not as a lack of motivation, but as a problem in self-regulation in which short-term benefits are chosen over longer-term gains. Some researchers say it may also involve poor time management skills and ineffective learning strategies that would allow the procrastinator to bridge the gap between intention and action. Regardless of how it is specifically defined, it typically results in unhappiness, dissatisfaction, self-shaming that leads to depression, or delays that result in increased anxiety.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Although there is some disagreement in answering this question, there are several factors that have been identified as contributing to procrastination behaviors, including problematic personality characteristics, cognitive functioning, and emotional coping strategies. We each have unique combinations of personality traits and some of us have tendencies toward procrastination due to inherent traits such as impulsivity, perfectionism, chronic anxiety or depression, low conscientiousness, passive-aggressive orientation, or low frustration tolerance. Although these traits may influence our tendency toward procrastination by affecting our beliefs, thinking processes, and emotional coping strategies, we can make efforts to successfully adapt our thinking and behaviors to prevent procrastination from controlling our lives.

Cognitive Processing

How we think about things, including ourselves, can also be a powerful driver of procrastination. One of the top reasons for procrastination has been identified as distractibility, when the mind is easily distracted by small and irrelevant stimuli, resulting in difficulty concentrating or paying attention. Deficits in executive functioning such as problems in working memory, task monitoring, decision-making, time management, and other organizational skills have also been linked to procrastinating behaviors. For instance, difficulty concentrating will result in slower performance and increased chance for errors, which can affect our self-esteem and belief in our ability to accomplish our goals. Regarding poor time management, it is common for procrastinators to underestimate the time it will take to get something done.

Although we often claim we “work better under pressure,” it’s interesting that chronic procrastinators have been found in several studies to control their performance, speed, and accuracy less effectively when compared to non-procrastinators. This belief can reinforce procrastination while also increasing our stress with potentially less than desirable results. Additionally, when avoiding a task by becoming absorbed in an activity (social media, computer games, etc.), the dissociative mindset of this escapism can impair the procrastinator’s already vulnerable self-regulatory ability through lapses in mental awareness and focus.

Our beliefs about ourselves are very influential on our decisions and behaviors and they are shaped by our positive and negative life experiences. For example, a person may have a tendency toward perfectionism based on their personality, but growing up in an environment of overly critical caregivers will reinforce this tendency and result in a belief that they are not and can never be “good enough.” Procrastinators often will tell themselves “I can’t handle it”, “I can’t do it by myself”, or “I messed it up last time, I probably will again.” With such beliefs, a person might feel it pointless to strive to accomplish something and then either put off a task and do it poorly or not do it at all. As a result they often experience disappointment, lowered self-confidence, shame, and uncertainty about their abilities, reinforcing the belief that they are not “good enough.” Other beliefs that can lead to procrastination include an external locus of control (“things are beyond my control”) or or that one cannot handle the pressure of completing the task.

Emotional Coping