Why Do I Procrastinate And What Can I Do About It?

In American, about 20% of the men and women are chronic procrastinators – a count that is higher than both people diagnosed with clinical depression and those diagnosed with phobias.

Procrastination isn’t “new.” It isn’t an advent of modern society and the constant need for mental stimulation. This behavior of putting an aspect of one’s life off to be done at a later time dates back to the dawn of civilization. In fact, ancient Greek philosophers even had a name for the phenomenon. They called it “Akrasia.”

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The Constant Struggle Between Doing And Waiting

Akrasia refers to a state of mind in which one acts against one’s better judgment as a result of lack of will. This state seems to be an inherently human problem – a decision that we make in moments of weakness, to not do something, anything, that we either planned to do or know we will inevitably have to do at some point.

We usually associate procrastination with putting off “work” tasks, but the term encapsulates much more than work. Professor of Psychology, Joseph Ferrari, after significant research into the reasons for and results of procrastination, found this:

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“Chronic procrastinators delay at home, work, school and in relationships. These 20% make procrastination their way of life. We are a nation of doers, but we are also a nation of waiters.”

This notion of “putting things off” permeates our lives constantly, whether we identify as procrastinators or not. Each of us has certain activities, tasks, or areas of our lives that we procrastinate with.

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The questions we all need to face – why? How can I stop?

According to James Surowiecki,

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“Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle.”

The Root Cause Of Procrastination

Personally, I don’t identify as a procrastinator, but I procrastinate as much as anyone else when it comes to certain things. I don’t usually put off significant work tasks or relationships, but I’m not the most proactive person when it comes to very ordinary things like dealing with a parking ticket or filing my taxes.

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I’ve been trying to use my own putting off of such simple, ordinary tasks as a basis for a little personal study about why we procrastinate, and here’s what I’ve come up with as the root cause of my own procrastination:

I project and associate a certain discomfort, fear, or unhappiness with and onto the task I’m putting off, which naturally causes me to want to avoid the pain that I imagine I will feel by doing it.

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These are some of the root causes of procrastination that objective research has found:

1. Fear Of Failure

This is the anxiety that you won’t be able to set out what you accomplish or that your performance will be unsatisfactory. It usually stems from a lack of self-esteem.

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2. Fear Of Success

The anxiety one feels when thinking that if they’re successful, the outside world’s evaluation and expectation of them increases.

3. Fear Of Being Imperfect

Perfectionists often become so overwhelmed with wanting to do something so well that they never get to doing it at all.

4. Absence Of Structure

The hardest part of any given task is starting it (more on this to come), and many people have trouble designating time toward tasks.

The present version of you thinks the future version of you will be more disciplined. This is the result of illogical thinking. When it comes to our future, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that you’ll “feel like” or “feel more like” doing something in a few days than you do in this moment.

Regardless of your personal reasons, the act of saving for later what can be done right now is destructive behavior and has been proven to lead to stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with oneself.

We don’t usually realize that the way we feel in this moment, our present self who doesn’t want to do the task will re-appear in the future moment. The desire for instant gratification and prolongation of pain is a constant, moment-to-moment struggle.

What Can I Do About My Procrastination?

“Every duty that is bidden to wait comes back with seven fresh duties at its back.” ― Charles Kingsley

What’s really comical about procrastination is that we know it doesn’t benefit us. We know we ultimately have to deal with whatever we’re putting off. We know it causes us needless anxiety and stress.

From this basic standpoint stems the very simple truth of just how illogical procrastination is when it comes to thinking about our overall happiness and well-being.

Learn To Front-Load Your Pain (The Band-Aid Approach)

The band-aid approach is about facing the discomfort, anxiety, stress, or uneasiness you’ll inevitably feel later in the present moment to minimize any negative feeling and foster a positive one.

We become illogical when thinking about tasks that we attribute some negative association to. How many times do I have to pay double the amount of a parking ticket before realizing that the “pain” of doing it right now is much less than the pain of paying extra and getting upset over it?

The key to actually being able to apply the band-aid approach in real time, in a moment of decision making, is to really ask yourself whether it’s worth it to procrastinate at the very moment you feel the desire to procrastinate on something.

These questions can help guide the thinking process:

  • How much pain, discomfort, stress or anxiety will I feel right now if I start or complete the action I know I need to take?
  • How much happiness will I feel if I get a part, or all of it done? How accomplished will I feel?
  • What is the activity I am thinking about procrastinating with?
  • How much value do I gain out of the activity I’m procrastinating with?

If you can apply this approach to moments in which you’re debating procrastinating (or find yourself procrastinating), you’ll quickly develop a more logical approach to whether or not it’s actually worth it to avoid the extra pain you’ll feel later by not getting something done right now.

Just Start & Re-Evaluate How You Feel

The hardest part of doing anything is starting it. Whether you want to find a new home, pay for that parking ticket, start to read more, start meditating, get fit, write a book, clean your bathroom, or study for school, the most difficult aspect of achieving what you either need to do or desire to accomplish is taking that first step.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. We mentally project a lot more discomfort and anxiety to activities than we actually feel when approaching a given task. Once we start, we almost always quickly find that it isn’t so bad and we’re unsure of why we were so reluctant to just get it done in the first place.
  2. Once you get started on something, momentum carries you along. The same way it’s way harder to start a fire than it is to throw an extra piece of wood on it, once we begin an activity, we’ve already taken the most difficult step and the force of momentum can help us along the way.

What’s The Best Part?

What’s most amazing about avoiding procrastination and just starting whatever it is you need to do is that it has the exact opposite effect of the anxiety that comes with procrastination. You feel accomplished, empowered, and able. You feel lighter. A load has been taken off, and you now have time to enjoy whatever it is you would have procrastinated with, stress-free.

Learn to fall in love with that.