There are many different reasons and causes for procrastination. It is a complex behavior and cannot be easily boiled down into one or two causes. Despite that caveat, I do believe we can reduce procrastination to its core element. Ultimately, I think the cause for procrastination is quite simple, and it’s something that’s rooted deep within our biology: humans are much more motivated to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. This explains why we avoid negative and unpleasant tasks and activities so readily – we are well motivated after years of evolution to do so. This reasoning also explains why people will avoid a task that they know will yield some kind of pleasure or reward, especially if the reward is long-term: This avoidance occurs because people want to avoid the ‘pain’ and ‘discomfort’ associated with doing that activity much more than they want to acquire the benefits associated with doing it, though the balance between pain and reward may be irrational, if the perceived pain is not illusory altogether.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
Of course, biology is not the only reason – we can also point to certain facts and trends in psychology. For instance, many people procrastinate because they are perfectionists. They want to make sure every piece of the project is perfectly correct and perfectly done. Of course, they know, probably unconsciously, that this is simply impossible. Thus, they have trouble getting started because they know that they’ll never be able to meet their crazy standards. They are afraid of the energy that will be required to nitpick everything and get things done according to the exact standards.
Fear of Failure
In fact, this perfectionism folds into the next big reason for procrastination: fear of failure. Further, all of this can be folded into the basic fear: fear of pain and our great motivation to avoid it. We are afraid to fail because we believe that it’s some referendum on our character or our person. We fear being evaluated by an outside observer, as we believe that this one evaluation may be some sort of judgment on our character, skills, and even worth as a person. We fear the pain, real or imagined, that this failure will cause in our lives.
This fear hits home for many already successful or ambitious people – they care so much about success and about their (self-)image as successful people that they may not want to harm it, either in their eyes or in the eyes of their associates. Thus, they simply never get started, because not starting at least means that they’ll never have to try and fail. They can just not try and not do anything at all, which, when you think about it, is a loserific proposition.
These fears of failure also dovetail into feelings of low self-confidence or self-esteem. Some people may think they are not good enough to do something right; when coupled with insanely high standards, the recipe for entrenched procrastination is complete.
One of the biggest ways we can try to overcome our procrastination is to find out what exactly makes us tick – which of these causes or reasons resonates the most with us? For me, I’d say the fear of failure runs very deep. A part of me is afraid to fail, and it thinks that not trying or starting on a task will help me avoid that possibility. Of course, this is insane and illogical, because by not trying, starting, or putting my full effort into the task, I’ve already failed in the most miserable way possible.
Fear of failure and fear of pain are not the only two fears at play here – unbelievably, the fear of success may be a factor for some procrastinators. Some may be so afraid of success, and the expectations and changes that may come with it, that they may totally avoid doing an activity because of their fear of the negative consequences of actually succeeding!
Other Causes Underlying Procrastination
Fear is the big motivating factor here, but there may be other reasons that contribute to this complex puzzle. For some, the lack of skill or experience with the task may be partly to blame. Others may struggle with poor time management skills, so they are unable to properly budget their time and unwittingly procrastinate because they think they have more time than they really do to complete a task. Some may not be able to prioritize properly, thus leading them to do the wrong things at the wrong times. There may be organization issues at play as well – they don’t know how to break up large tasks into smaller, more manageable activities. Still others may not exactly know what they are supposed to do, as the task may be ill designed or difficult to understand. Finally, some people may exhibit ‘all-or-none’ thinking: they believe that if they don’t get it all done perfectly at once, it’s not worth it at all. (This is especially salient for those who procrastinate with writing and essays!)
Another potential reason for procrastination is a low threshold and tolerance for discomfort or frustration. All tasks will have their struggles and problems, and someone who procrastinates may not cope well with the inevitable setbacks. They may thus put off completing the task until they ‘figure out’ or ‘deal with’ these setbacks.
A final reason may be due to stubbornness or anger. The person says, “I’m doing it my way, not according to your schedule.” Or the individual is angry or upset at the person ordering the task; thus, as ‘revenge’ they put it off until the last possible minute.
Sometimes It’s Not Our Fault!
We should also be fair to ourselves – sometimes the reasons for procrastination lie more in the task than in faults of character. For instance, sometimes a task truly is pointless and annoying, something that will provide few benefits for us in the short or long term. Perhaps it’s something seemingly arbitrary that we ‘have’ to do. In that case, we are often well motivated to avoid this activity as much as possible, because it is something that we truly will get no benefit out of, aside from perhaps avoiding punishment or admonishment from an outside authority. Still, though, if we must truly do this task, putting it off will provide no real benefit, and in fact may cause a net negative by having all those damaging emotions hanging over us and clouding our other activities. Thus we’d want to get it done as quickly as possible anyway.
Breaking the Procrastination HABIT
Given all of these causes, how can procrastination be said to be a habit? Procrastination is a habit, a habit that’s learned like all other habits. Procrastination thus forms like any habit: it is reinforced. Avoiding the task does provide some ‘pleasure’ in that you avoid the negative activity and perhaps do something fun or enjoyable in its place. In addition, once you complete the task and don’t experience much negative feedback on the outcome (such as if you receive an adequate grade on a school assignment), you are thus encouraged to repeat the cycle in the future. This reinforces avoiding something rather than seeking something; you fail to build skills and instead waste time on physical, mental, or spiritual junk food; and you continue to entrench your fears and doubts in your head where they can effect your life in other ways. A great thing comes out of this realization, however: If it is learned, it can be unlearned.
The Truth Behind Procrastination
Now that we understand the beast, we can learn how to slay it. The next chapter will deal directly with how to overcome procrastination, offering you many practical tips and techniques, all designed with the above information in mind.