Why We Really Procrastinate (& How to Overcome It)

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As moms, procrastination is all too familiar to most of us. This is because we often have a list of things we’d rather not do! Piles of laundry or dishes, homework assignments, exercise, and handling finances are common tasks that we procrastinate. Add the allure of a smartphone and it’s easy to suddenly find yourself off track. (I’m all too guilty of this!)

But the truth is, we also procrastinate things we do want to do, like starting a business, writing a book, adopting a positive habit, etc.

Procrastination isn’t as simple as not wanting to do things we don’t feel like doing — it goes much deeper. In this post, I’ll explain why you’re really procrastinating (and what you can do).

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Contrary to what many people believe, procrastination is not about being lazy. I used to believe that procrastination was simply about not wanting to do something. And this makes sense. The things we most often put off are boring tasks like laundry or difficult tasks like writing a college paper.

Research published in 2000 points to a list of 7 triggers that cause procrastination:

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Ambiguous
  • Unstructured
  • Not intrinsically rewarding
  • Lacking in personal meaning

These triggers seem to make sense. But at the same time, I can name plenty of tasks that I don’t procrastinate that fall under these same trigger categories. And what about the tasks we really want to do (like finally write that book) but we keep putting it off (and scroll through social media instead)? We have to look a little deeper. What I discovered was that procrastination is much more linked to an inner conflict.

Fear of failure, fear of success, and feeling unworthy of success, are all inner conflicts that can make you put off doing the thing you should (or want!) to do.

The reason that these inner conflicts cause procrastination is that our subconscious mind is always trying to protect us from harm (real or perceived). Procrastination is one way of doing that. If a task presents a situation that could be “dangerous” according to the subconscious mind, it will stop you from proceeding. Anything that is unpleasant is perceived as a danger in the subconscious mind.

Inner Conflicts That Cause Procrastination

According to a Psychology Today article written by Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, there are four main inner conflicts that cause procrastination:

Self-Handicapping

This is where a person creates a situation that guarantees they won’t be able to succeed. This is usually done subconsciously. For example, someone who is afraid of failing will put off writing their book and then they will run out of time. The reason for not writing then becomes lack of time which is easier to deal with than lack of ability.

Another example of this is the fear of success. If a person has a great idea for a business, but their entire family is blue-collar workers, they might feel guilty for creating a business that makes lots of money. Putting tasks off can make sure they don’t make more money than their family members.

Tapping is one method that’s really helped me overcome those ingrained thoughts.

Low Self Efficacy

Another inner conflict is low self-efficacy. Similar to self-confidence, self-efficacy is your self-confidence for a particular task. For example, you may have lots of confidence in your ability to bake a cake, but very low confidence in your ability to grow a tomato.

If you don’t think you have the ability to do something, you might put off attempting it. This is not just a fear of failure. Low self-efficacy is also about the stress that is caused while you’re trying to do a task you don’t believe you are capable of. Your subconscious mind wants to avoid this stress too.

Thrill Seeking

For some people, the pressure of a tight deadline can give them a thrill. Research suggests that this is more typical in extroverts.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the fourth cause of procrastination. Whitbourne argues that some people are so fearful of imperfection that they may finish a task, like writing a paper, but put off submitting it.

But some research suggests that perfectionism is actually a symptom of low self-esteem. A 2011 study found that at least some perfectionism is the product of low self-esteem and self-criticism.

How to Overcome Procrastination (& Become a Productivity Machine)

If you tend to procrastinate and want to finally stop, here are some tips that can help:

Recognize Procrastination

The first thing you need to do is recognize when you are procrastinating. This can be difficult to recognize, especially when the task you use to distract yourself is also something that needs to be done (like cleaning). It’s easy to make the excuse that the cleaning was a priority.

As mentioned above, perfectionism is another way that people procrastinate. If you’re putting off finishing something because you don’t believe that it’s good enough yet, you may be procrastinating.

If you create obstacles for yourself you may also be procrastinating. For example, If you spend $1,000 on clothing instead of the new computer you need to write your book, you’re self-sabotaging.

Figure Out the Underlying Cause

Once you recognize that you’ve been procrastinating you can start to dig deeper and figure out what the underlying cause is. Here are some possibilities:

  •  fear of failure
  •  fear of success
  •  feeling unworthy
  •  feeling guilty

Figuring out the mindset issue that is causing your procrastination can help you get back on task.

Procrastination is often a mindset problem but sometimes it’s more about the task itself. Are you procrastinating doing something because it’s really not something you should be doing?

We all procrastinate at certain times, like putting the laundry away, or paying a bill. But those things usually get done eventually because we see the benefit of them. When I don’t put laundry away it makes my life a lot more difficult!

If there’s a task or goal that you’re putting off indefinitely, maybe that goal is not part of your life path and that’s something that needs to be considered, too.

Forgive Yourself

Research published in 2010 discovered that forgiving yourself for past procrastination can help reduce future procrastination. If you feel guilt or shame about procrastinating in the past now’s the time to let it go so you can make a real change.

Use Productivity Hacks

Once you uncover any mindset issues that are causing your procrastination you can use productivity hacks to help you stay on task and reach your goals.

Break Large Tasks Into Small Chunks

If you procrastinate because of overwhelm, breaking your tasks into manageable pieces is a great way to be productive. I like to backward plan by starting with my goal and then figuring out what needs to be done just before the goal is reached, what needs to be done before that task, etc.

Prioritize

When my to-do list is out of control I tend to want to avoid it altogether! But if I spend 10-15 minutes in the morning prioritizing what needs to get done I feel much more in control. It even makes me feel more capable! I choose 3 main tasks that need to get finished and anything else I can do is a bonus. Time management also can affect self-confidence, so getting control of it is a huge help.

Eat the Frog

Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog teaches many productivity hacks, but the most important is to eat a frog every morning. He says that if you have to eat a frog every day, get it over during the morning and the rest of your day will be easy.

He (of course) doesn’t mean actually eating frogs. Instead, he’s referring to those important tasks that are boring, frustrating, difficult, etc. If you get that done first thing in the morning, you’ll have gotten the most important thing out of the way so that if it’s the only thing you accomplish that day, it was a successful day.

Use the 5 Second Rule

If eating the frog is too difficult, try this: the 5 second rule. Mel Robbins, author of The 5 Second Rule, explains that “if you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea.” She recommends counting down — 5-4-3-2-1-GO and then move toward whatever action you need to do (even if it’s small).

Use the 80/20 Rule

This my personal favorite.

Doing unimportant tasks is a form of procrastinating. Instead of doing everything, stick with the 20 percent of tasks that give you 80 percent of your rewards. For example, meal planning or spending the time to make sure kids hang up barely used clothes (instead of tossing them in the laundry) are great ways to save lots of struggle later.

Get Accountability

Having someone besides yourself to be accountable to is a great way to stay on task. Ask a friend or colleague to have a weekly or monthly check-in on your progress. This always helps me because I hate to disappoint someone else or have to admit to them that I didn’t do what I said I would.

Use the Pomodoro Method

This method comes from Francesco Cirillo and his tomato kitchen timer. The pomodoro method is simple:

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes and work on your task
  • Then set the timer for 5 or 10 minutes and take a break
  • Repeat the cycle for 4 pomodoros, then take a longer break; 15-30 minutes.

This technique gives a small period of time to get work done and also promises the reward of a break. If 25 minutes is too long, choose an amount of time that works for you. You can always increase the time as you get used to the system.

Focus Long-Term

Procrastinators tend to focus on the short-term benefits of putting a task off. When you notice that you’re procrastinating, remind yourself of the long-term benefits like more money, a clean home to enjoy, a degree, a calmer household, etc.

Take Care of Yourself

Make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep and you’re eating healthy food to fuel your brain and give yourself the best chance of reaching your goals.

Overcoming Procrastination: Is it Possible?

Procrastination can sometimes feel like it’s taken hold of you and you have no control. But there are lots of things you can do to beat procrastination and reach your goals. Always evaluate the underlying cause first. No productivity hacks are going to help you until you find the source of self-sabotage and use some of these strategies to keep moving forward!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.

Are you a procrastinator? What cause do you most identify with?

Sources:

  1. Blunt, A. K., & Pychyl, T. A. (2000). Task aversiveness and procrastination: a multi-dimensional approach to task aversiveness across stages of personal projects. Personality and Individual Differences, 28(1), 153–167. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(99)00091-4 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886999000914
  2. The Paradox of Procrastination. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201204/the-paradox-procrastination
  3. Dunkley, D. M., Berg, J.-L., & Zuroff, D. C. (2012). The Role of Perfectionism in Daily Self-Esteem, Attachment, and Negative Affect. Journal of Personality, 80(3), 633–663. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00741.x https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00741.x
  4. Wohl, M. J., Pychyl, T. A., & Bennett, S. H. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(7), 803–808. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886910000474