Why Do People Procrastinate? Find Out What's Holding You Back and How to Fix It

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
April 16, 2024 at 9:14PM UTC
Why do people procrastinate? Everyone has a different reason for avoiding the tasks on her to-do list. We all procrastinate from time to time, and most of us understand that putting off the work we need to do isn't helping us achieve our long-term goals; in fact, it's hurting us in ways we may not even realize.
It may sound counterintuitive, but chronic procrastinators are often anxious about the work they're avoiding, and putting it off longer only makes them feel worse. You may think procrastinating means you're lazy, but the truth is, many procrastinators are hardworking, capable people.
Here are six common reasons why people procrastinate and what you can do to change your behavior.
1. Fear of failure
You can think of many ways to do the tasks at hand, but you're worried that your approach is the wrong one. You wonder how people will react if you mess up. Instead of putting in the effort initially, you put off the task, so you know that if you do fail, it wasn't your best effort, anyway.
So how do you overcome a fear of failure? You may not be able to completely change your mindset on your own, but you can address your self-defeating behavior. Stop setting unrealistic expectations for yourself. Nobody is perfect, and it's possible that your first attempt at completing a task might not work out. However, it's still better than not doing it at all. Think about the worst-case scenarios. Chances are, trying will yield better results than putting of the project again and again.
2. Perfectionism
Perfectionism often goes hand in hand with a fear of failure. You're procrastinating because you don't just want to get the task done; you want it done perfectly. You worry that your attempt will be less than perfect, so you put it off for longer and longer.
Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dwick addresses this idea in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She notes that people with fixed mindset, as opposed to growth mindset, believe they can't change their behavior or abilities. In order to overcome your perfectionism, you need to develop growth mindset, the belief that you can learn and grow, finding new solutions and becoming better at your work over time. Recognizing that you will have to tackle projects without having a perfect end result may take you out of your comfort zone, but ultimately, you'll probably feel less anxiety knowing that you were able to complete something, rather than putting it off forever to make sure it's completely perfect.
It's also a good idea to think about times an action you took to make something perfect got in your way. Chances are, it's hurt you on more than one occasion, so remind yourself that missing a deadline is worse than putting something off because it's not perfect.
3. Fear of Success
For some, succeeding may feel even more dangerous than failing. When you succeed and do a great job, people will expect more of you. Then, if you don't do as well next time, you'll have failed.
This cause of procrastination may be connected to your sense of self-worth. You don't want people to expect too much of you, so you skate by doing the bare minimum. But chances are, you're not satisfied with this kind of behavior. You may believe you're not good enough, and that's why expectations are so low.
By keeping people's expectations low, you're really only hurting yourself. You're not meeting your short- or long-term goals, because nobody—least all of you—expects you to succeed. Nip this self-defeating behavior in the bud by reflecting on your goals. What do you need to do to reach them? How are the behaviors you're exhibiting now getting in your way? Like fear of failure, your fear of success is harming your ability to see the bigger picture. Consider the worst-possible outcomes. Let's say you do a project really well and can't top it next time. Does that mean you've failed? No, it doesn't. It means you're giving yourself more chances to do better.
4. Time management issues
Known as "planning fallacy," an inability to accurately gauge how long it will take to complete a project and failure to leave enough time to complete it is one habit that can hinder day-to-day work and cause someone to procrastinate.
While this does involve a behavior change, overcoming procrastination that's caused by time management issues is fairly simple. Start working on the project earlier than you think you need to. Give yourself more than enough time to meet a deadline. If you think the project will take you a week, try to leave two weeks. And once you've completed the task at hand, reward yourself.
5. Lack of skills
If you don't have the skills to complete a project or task, you may want to keep putting it off so you don't have to address your inability or deficient. While you probably know it isn't helping you, you may not know what else to do or just feel completely overwhelmed.
Figure out what the problem is. Once you're aware of what's holding you back, you'll be able to take measures to correct it. It might involve asking your manager or colleagues about how to approach it, looking online, or taking a course to improve your skills.
6. Underlying psychological issues
Depression, anxiety, and other types of psychological illnesses can greatly hinder someone's ability to complete their work. Often, this can become a vicious cycle: You're anxious about a project, so you keep putting it off longer and longer and become even more anxious, because you know you need to get it done.
If mental health problems are the root cause of your reasons for procrastination, you should seek the help of a mental health professional. These issues are probably holding you back and harming your life in other ways aside from procrastination, and you need to address them sooner rather than later. In therapy, you can learn how to make tasks that overwhelm you feel more manageable and develop other methods for overcoming procrastination, as well as prevent your disorder from overtaking your life.

People have many different reasons for procrastinating on fulfilling their responsibilities. Whatever is preventing you from doing what you need to do, you need to address the problem now and get back on track. You'll thank yourself later.

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