final project that’s due next week (you know, the one you were supposed to be working on all semester?). Before you can put pen to paper, you notice that your desk is a bit messy. “I’ll be much more efficient if my workspace is tidy,” you think to yourself. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but next thing you know, five hours have elapsed. You’ve organized your files, changed your bedsheets, and even vacuumed your room for the first time in three months. While your room may look great, your final project still hasn’t been started, and you tell yourself, “Well, it’s too late to get started now- I can’t get that much done before bed, so I might as well watch TV. I’ll start it tomorrow.” And on and on, day after day, until you are left with no other choice but to pull an all-nighter and turn in a not-so-great project.
It’s a frustrating cycle, but if this sounds familiar you aren’t alone. Procrastination doesn’t mean you are lazy or have poor time management skills; it’s actually a complex behavior with many possible root causes. Read on for twelve common causes of procrastination and some tips to help you get moving.
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This may not be the case for most things we struggle with, but if you simply don’t have any desire to achieve a certain end-game, you are going to struggle to stop procrastinating no matter what else you do. Yes, you may not be excited to get up at 5 AM to go to work every morning or to churn through difficult homework. But these challenges may still align with your long-term goals, like providing for your family or getting an education in preparation for a specific career. I’m talking about things that are way off base, things that you consistently struggle to find the motivation to do because they aren’t at all related to what you want in life.
I’ve seen this many times in college students who choose to be pre-law or pre-medical because it’s what their parents want or what society considers prestigious. But they aren’t interested in the subject, and their passions lie elsewhere. Of course it’s difficult for them to push through the many challenges and setbacks when they don’t feel particularly excited about where they are headed.
Take a step back and think about the tasks where you tend to procrastinate. Why are you doing these tasks? Are they truly in line with your goals in life? If you find that what you are doing is indeed in line with your goals, stepping back to consider this can be a powerful motivator on its own. If the task is not related to your dreams, you may find that it is time to let it go and move on in a way that allows you to honor what is important to you. Your procrastination will take care of itself.
Our brains are wired to survive. If you are here reading this now, that means your brain has succeeded in its goal of keeping you alive. So, from your brain’s perspective, to continue to survive, you should continue doing what you’ve always done. Mulling things over might be an effective survival strategy but quickly becomes a useless distraction if we start to think of every possible problem (no matter how unlikely).
For those things, we sometimes have to turn off the commentary in our minds and just go for it. It’s important to notice when the potential future problems you are considering are repetitive, extremely unlikely, impossible to prepare for, just not that big a deal. Then make the conscious decision to let them go and take action. Remind yourself that most steps you will take aren’t permanent: you can often change course even after taking action. And if/when problems do arise, chances are they will be much less terrible than we imagined, and we will be much more capable of coping with them than we imagined.
For example, I remember when I wanted to start going to a new gym, but I was nervous about making the call and signing up. I spent days trying to talk myself into it. I told myself they were probably all super fit and would judge me for letting my fitness wane during medical training and pregnancy. I imagined myself being socially awkward and saying something stupid. I even wondered if I would find a spot to keep my water bottle or if my workout clothes were too ugly to wear out in public. I started wondering how I could deal with the mom guilt that would surely arise from spending another hour a day away from home. The longer I thought about what should have been a relatively easy task, the more terrible possibilities my mind threw at me, and the longer I procrastinated.
When I finally noticed the cycle I was in, I decided it was time to take action immediately before I talked myself out of something I truly wanted to do. I brought to mind childhood summers on the neighborhood swim team. We would start early in the morning, and at the beginning of the season, the water was still quite cold. I would stand at the starting blocks and count “One…two…three…GO”, launching myself as far into the water as I could. The moment the cold water enveloped me was always shocking, but as I started swimming my laps, I warmed up quickly and would always feel thankful that I had taken the plunge.
With that image in mind, I counted “One…two…three…GO” and quickly dialed the number for the nearby gym. Of course, none of my fears came true. The coach was kind and encouraging, and by the end of the brief call, I had committed to a 5:30 AM workout the following day and have been working out regularly ever since.
Mel Robbins is a lawyer turned motivational speaker who teaches people to do something similar. She calls it the “5-Second Rule,” which involves counting backward from 5 and launching yourself into action like a rocket at takeoff. Check out her book on the concept.
Sometimes we procrastinate because we just don’t feel like it. We aren’t excited about doing the dishes, writing that paper, or starting a new workout routine, so we put those unpleasant tasks off, thinking that we will do them when we feel more motivated. So we procrastinate in hopes that we will get that spontaneous burst of energy, drive, and enthusiasm to tackle the task painlessly.
Spontaneous bursts of motivation are incredible, but they are about as reliable as the 1999 Ford Taurus I was driving 15 years past its prime. If you are waiting for inspiration to strike, you may be waiting a long time, especially if you try to get yourself to do something unpleasant. Instead, remind yourself that action precedes motivation. If you want to get motivated, you need to start moving in that direction. Motivation and inspiration will follow.
This blog post is a great example- I knew I wanted to write about procrastination but procrastinated on doing so! I didn’t feel particularly motivated or inspired, so I prioritized other tasks. When I remembered that “action precedes motivation,” I sat down and started writing, and soon enough, I felt inspired and energized and found it hard to break away from my writing.
The key to using action to drive motivation is to start small. It can be hard to convince yourself to clean the whole house when you aren’t feeling excited about it. Instead, just tell yourself that you will put away the stack of papers on the kitchen counter or throw on a load of laundry. Even though those tasks are small, they may motivate you to keep going so you can tackle bigger chores. Exercise can serve as another example. You may not feel like doing a whole workout routine, but you can start by putting on your workout shoes or even doing a few jumping jacks. Sometimes I find it helpful to set a timer for two minutes and tell myself that I need to work on what I’m avoiding during that time. If my two minutes elapses and I’m still not feeling it, I can stop and try again later. But chances are, once I’ve started the task, I’ll be motivated to continue.
There is no faster and easier way to procrastinate than to tell yourself you have to do something perfectly. Perfectionism underlies a lot of procrastination because we know deep down that it isn’t possible to achieve perfection. So we put off the task, thinking that our future selves will somehow be more capable of doing it perfectly. But, you guessed it, our future selves cannot do it perfectly either, and we find ourselves once again in the procrastination cycle.
Remind yourself of the well-known saying attributed to Voltaire, “Perfect is the enemy of good,” and variations of the saying such as “Perfect is the enemy of done.” These quotes have been so valuable to me that I have them written all over the place as constant reminders to stop demanding perfection and instead just start moving in the right direction. It can also help to remind yourself that most of the time, essential tasks do not need to be perfect from the beginning. For example, to get started on this blog post, I had to embrace the idea that my first draft (and second and third) would be imperfect. I had to remind myself that I just needed to get something written down and that there would be plenty of opportunities to improve my work later on. When you are creating something, it’s impossible to start with perfection, so remind yourself to embrace imperfection and just start moving.
The fear of failure is a common reason for procrastination, and it is more complicated than you may think. Of course, it makes sense that you would want to avoid something if there is a high likelihood that you will fail. Failure doesn’t feel good. But many of us use procrastination as a tool to self-sabotage when we think we might fall short. Yes, that’s right. You’re so scared of failure you choose to do something that will make you more likely to fail.
When we think of failure as a reflection of our innate abilities rather than as a natural part of growing as humans, we fear failure because it proves that we aren’t as talented or skilled as we thought. Procrastinating gives you something else to blame for falling short, aside from your innate skills and abilities.
For example, say you procrastinate on studying for a test because you are afraid that failing may mean you aren’t intelligent. If you fail after procrastinating, you can rationalize your failure due to procrastination rather than your intelligence. On the flip side, if you happen to do well on the test despite your procrastination, you can now use that as proof that you are so intelligent that even procrastination couldn’t sabotage you. If you’re afraid of failure because you interpret failure as a reflection of your worth, procrastination is a win-win solution. This is something that Carol Dweck and her colleagues have described as a “fixed mindset,” and it can be a significant driver of procrastination.
According to Dweck and colleagues, the antidote to a “fixed mindset” is a “growth mindset.” People with a “growth mindset” see failure as an inevitable part of life that helps us grow. As you can imagine, seeing failure in this way is much less intimidating and therefore much less likely to lead to procrastination. Work on reminding yourself that you cannot grow and without pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and going yourself out of your comfort zone means that you will fail from time to time. Embrace failure as a part of your process and a sign that you are making progress, and you’ll be more likely to start moving towards your goals without procrastination.
For more information on having a growth versus a fixed mindset, see Dr. Dweck’s book, Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential.
I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what? First I was afraid of failure, now success is a problem? What does my brain want from me?” It seems strange, but sometimes a hidden fear of success is what is holding you back. With success often comes a new set of responsibilities, changes, unknowns, and possible avenues for failure. And just like when we fear failure, the fear of success leads to self-sabotage, and procrastination can be a very effective way to self-sabotage.
Think about a young mom who is close to achieving a promotion at work. She knows that her next report will help her superiors decide whether she should get the promotion, but she keeps putting it off. With a lot of introspection, she may realize that she is afraid of doing well and securing the promotion. She worries that it may mean spending more time away from her children and may require some complex changes to how she and her partner divide their labor at home. So she puts off the report, part of her subconsciously hoping that she will be passed over for the promotion so she won’t have to face these challenges.
Spend some time thinking about what it might mean for you to successfully complete the task you’ve been putting off. If you succeed, are there things that might become more difficult for you? If so, think about what you might do to address these. Acknowledging your fears and coming up with a plan of attack ahead of time can not only help them seem less scary but can also be a vote of confidence in yourself!
Let’s imagine I ask you to drive from Washington, DC, across the country to Las Vegas, NV, as quickly as possible. If you are like most people, you probably wouldn’t just jump in the car and go, hoping for the best. You would likely develop a plan for the trip, mapping out directions, stops, and even an estimated timeline. Many of the tasks we procrastinate on could use that same level of forethought, but we often force ourselves to jump in without coming up with a plan first. Trying to jump in without a plan is intimidating, and that intimidation is going to drive you to put off the task.
If a task seems daunting, come up with a plan before you dive in. For example, decide how you will break up the chapters you need to review for your upcoming final and schedule time to tackle each one. Write your plan down somewhere you can see it, and check off tasks as you complete them. Doing so will help you stay on track and focused and make you less likely to procrastinate. If you are struggling to develop a plan, ask someone you trust to talk it out with you.
Let’s say you have a goal in mind to run a marathon. You’ve done your research and mapped out a great plan to go from couch potato to athlete. But you’re still having trouble going out for that first run. It may be that you are feeling overwhelmed by that first run or the intensity of the training program. Feeling overwhelmed can be a common trigger for procrastination. When overwhelmed, your brain tends to turn away from the task at hand and chooses instead to focus on something more manageable.
Ask yourself if there is a way that you can break down the task into smaller pieces. You may have to go much smaller than you think to make progress. If you find yourself procrastinating on running a mile, make it your goal to run a block. If you find yourself procrastinating on running a block, make it your goal to put your running shoes on. It may seem like each step is too small to make a difference, but they add up over time. Remind yourself that slowly taking tiny steps forward is more likely to be successful than constantly feeling so overwhelmed that you remain frozen.
Let’s say you were studying with a friend who proceeded to call you stupid or make fun of you every time you got an answer wrong or asked them a question. Chances are, you would probably make up an excuse to bail on the study session pretty fast. And you probably wouldn’t be racing to schedule the next study session anytime soon.
We react similarly to harsh internal criticism. If you’re mean and unforgiving with yourself every time you work on homework, you’re not going to be particularly excited to work on your homework in the future. If you constantly tell yourself you’re weak or slow when you workout, you’re not going to be rushing to the gym to start a new workout routine.
Start hyping yourself up. When you find yourself procrastinating on a task, try giving yourself a pep talk rather than beating yourself up. Turn on some of your favorite energizing music and yell into a mirror about how amazing you are (it’s okay if you don’t believe it yet- fake it till you make it). Notice when self-criticism pops up before, during, and after a task, and replace it with self-compassion.
Although many of us believe otherwise, research suggests that self-compassion is a more effective tool for motivation than self-criticism. Self-compassion, as researched by Kristin Neff and colleagues, involves:
You can start by forgiving yourself for procrastinating to this point, acknowledging that such procrastination is only human and that you are doing your best.
Procrastination is a normal response to knowing that a task is going to be unpleasant. Think back to being told you had to eat your broccoli as a kid. If you were like most kids and didn’t like the taste, what would you do? You probably didn’t dive in and devour it. You stalled. You ate everything else first. You arranged the broccoli like a forest of trees on your plate. You stacked your silverware, shifted in your chair, and watched everyone else leave the dinner table while looking for opportunities to sneak some of your broccoli to the dog. You procrastinated, hoping that somehow, someway, your parents would give in, and you could get out of assaulting your tastebuds.
Likewise, even as adults, when we have to do a task that we know will be unpleasant, we tend to procrastinate. Think of the last time you had to get out of your cozy bed on a cold winter morning or the last time you had to schedule a dentist appointment. I’m guessing you weren’t eagerly jumping into either situation.
The first and most obvious solution is to make the task you are avoiding more comfortable if possible. For example, I can’t stand writing notes. I love my job because I love talking to people and figuring out how to help them. But note-writing can be such a drag. I get bored and feel like I’m not making progress, and as a result, I tend to be plagued by procrastination. Making the process a little less painful helped a lot. I relocated to a comfy spot near a window and made sure to put on some good music. I even splurged on this under-the-desk treadmill to keep me occupied while I type (life-changing and totally worth it for me). Every one of those changes made a noticeable difference in my temptation to procrastinate. And while I am by no means perfect at tackling notes, I’m much better at it (and they are much less painful) than they used to be!
The second (maybe less palatable) option is to come to terms with the idea that discomfort and unpleasant feelings are a part of life. You can have those feelings, allow them to be there, and go about completing the task anyways. It sometimes helps to imagine putting those unpleasant emotions in a backpack, swinging that backpack over your shoulders, and taking it along with you to do the task. Is it ideal? No. But doable? Yes! Remind yourself that we can’t get rid of all our unpleasant emotions, but procrastinating usually worsens them.
Sometimes you need a break. It’s that simple. We aren’t machines; we are humans who need time to rest, relax, and recover. Procrastination can be a sign that you’ve pushed yourself to the point of burnout and some time off to recharge is in order. I try to remind myself that I am less focused and productive if I don’t take time off; exhaustion isn’t exactly a recipe for success. And you certainly aren’t going to feel motivated to do the things that matter to you if you are being worked to the bone.
You guessed it: take a break. Not a “break” where you feel guilty the whole time because you’re not productive. And not a “break” where you stop working on one task and switch to another one instead. I’m talking about an actual, soul-nourishing break that will leave you feeling refreshed. It could be as simple as a 5-minute walk outside during your lunch break or as extravagant as a week-long dream vacation. But either way, try and leave the difficult tasks behind you for a moment.
It’s normal to procrastinate sometimes, but people with mental health conditions may have more trouble with procrastination. It makes sense if you think about it- someone struggling with major depressive disorder may not have the motivation to take on challenging tasks. Someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have trouble organizing themselves to begin a project. There are many different ways that mental health problems can lead to procrastination, so if you struggle with procrastination, keep an eye out for other signs of mental illness. For example, see my blog posts on depression and ADHD for more signs and symptoms of those disorders.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help, even if you aren’t sure whether you are dealing with a mental illness. If something is bothering you, it is worth getting checked out! Remember, it’s our job as mental health professionals to figure out what is going on- you don’t have to know before you see us! Depending on your symptoms, you may be advised to try therapy, medications, specific lifestyle changes, or all of the above. In those cases, treating the underlying disorder can help a lot with procrastination.
Do any of these potential causes resonate with you? If you try some of these solutions, I would love to hear whether they help!