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  • Michael Philp

Why we procrastinate

Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday - Don Marquis

Procrastination as an avoidant coping skill

In this blog I want to take a deep dive into why we procrastinate. I want to take it further than just "putting things off" or "I'm lazy", but really look into some of the underlying contributing reasons for procrastinating. We've all done it at some point - putting things off that could have been done already; leaving things to the last minute; getting bogged down in unimportant details, while the main body of work is still to be done; doing other more interesting or simpler tasks and so on. The question remains - why?

What if I'm not good enough

Ultimately, procrastination is an avoidant coping mechanism. The task might be somewhat challenging, and therefore it is avoided. But it is done at an unconscious level. Not many people think "I might not do a good job at this task, so I'll fluff around for a few weeks doing other things until it is too late and then I really have to get onto this task, by which I will then feel like I don't have enough time to complete it properly and I will be disappointed in myself". But this is essentially what happens. To paraphrase a famous quote - we borrow time like we borrow money from a credit card, which is fine until it's time to pay. Instead, we tend to think that we'll get on to it tomorrow, or later on in the day. Or we just don't think about it at all, and preoccupy ourselves with other tasks.

Underlying all this avoidance, however, is a fear of not being good enough at the task, and a core belief around not being worthwhile, which becomes activated if we face difficult challenges. In a weird way, not giving ourselves enough time to complete a task, mediates the feeling of not being "successful" - however you define success.

Let's examine this avoidant behaviour even further. If we have a core belief of not being worthwhile, which when activated understandably makes us not feel very good about ourselves and probably activates some strong emotions; then it makes total sense to avoid tasks that may trigger these beliefs. These core beliefs have usually developed early in our lives - through interactions with our parents, teachers, siblings or friends - and they often drive the motivations of a lot of our behaviours. Perhaps in our early years at school, we were laughed at by the class when having to do an oral reading for not being able to pronounce a word correctly. We internalise this feeling as a belief - "I am incompetent" and "people will laugh at me". Perhaps other situations occurred in our development that reinforced this belief. In order to cope with this negative core belief, we develop strategies of overcompensation, avoidance, or surrendering to these beliefs. If we overcompensate to cope, we may drive ourselves relentlessly trying to make it perfect. In the case of procrastination, we are using an avoidant strategy - not just avoiding the task, but often by avoiding our thoughts about the task as well.

If you are to do a task that you find challenging, that would be pushing your skill set, and you combine that with a core belief of being incompetent, then there is a chance that you may engage in avoidant behaviour. Especially if the task is important to you. There are many things in this world that we are not good at, but it doesn't bother us too much. The context of the task is important here. For example, perhaps you agreed to do some home maintenance - nothing too major that you would need to get a tradesperson in, but somewhat challenging for your skill set. Your home is important to you, so you want it to look nice. Despite agreeing to do the maintenance, you never seem to find the time to do it on the weekend. Other things keep coming up or you schedule other activities in, or you are too tired. Eventually your partner confronts you about promising to do the task. You decide to do some research - several youtube videos in you think you can do this, but clearly you need more tools from the local hardware store. You try again next weekend. And so on....

It would be more confronting psychologically to admit "I don't know how to do this" because it is directly connected with your core beliefs of being incompetent and being ridiculed - even though your logical brain knows your partner would not ridicule you, your core beliefs are so entrenched, the emotional part of your brain kicks in automatically.

How to stop procrastinating

The first step is to become more aware of our behaviours and the thoughts and feelings that are associated with these behaviours. If you notice that you are putting something off, ask yourself why. When you come up with an answer, ask yourself again what does that mean to me or say about me. Now that you are dealing with the data of what you are thinking about, you can ask yourself if there is any truth to that statement, and if so, what do you plan to do about it. This technique is a form of meta-cognition: thinking about your thinking. We don't naturally do this - we don't naturally question why we think the way we think, we assume (unconsciously) our thoughts to be true. This is easier said than done - you may have to admit that you are not capable of completing the task and that you need help, which can be difficult. Of course, the opposite could be true - you realise that you are capable, that it doesn't have to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough.

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