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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Terranova

Why Do We Procrastinate?


Pad of paper with New Year's Resolutions written across the top.

There isn't a professional alive who hasn't succumbed to the lure of procrastination. We've all faced dreaded tasks and made the decision to avoid them, even though we know that decision comes at a significant cost to our stress levels, work quality, an sense of self-efficacy. So why do we procrastinate? What causes us to decide in favor of short-term comfort at the expense of the long-term consequences that come with chronic procrastination?


In this lesson, we explore the intricacies of the human tendency to procrastinate by understanding the psychological factors behind why we do it. We'll illuminate best practices to minimize the impulse to procrastinate (when it's better not to) and develop a leadership framework to empower those who chronically avoid certain tasks. We'll also consider those who seem to thrive when they put things off, and differentiate productive procrastination from the delay tactics we use to avoid unappealing work.


The Reasons Why We Procrastinate


To understand why we intentionally delay a task we know must be done, we have to evaluate the psychological threads that weave into the (seemingly) counterproductive decision to procrastinate.


👉🏻 We are avoiding discomfort

The majority of the time, we procrastinate when we associate discomfort with tending to the task at hand. Anxiety, stress, confusion, insecurity, dread, and other similar emotional states activate the limbic system in our brains and trigger a fight-or-flight response. Procrastination is a form of flight response that inspires us to turn away from the source of emotional discomfort in favor of activities that elicit a more positive emotional state. Yet, when we choose avoidance as a strategy to cope with discomfort, the price we pay is a steady rise in the emotion we are trying to avoid. Tasks do not become less unpleasant the more we avoid them. In fact, avoiding responsibilities by procrastinating only heightens the level of the very feeling that inspired avoidance in the first place.


Instead of procrastinating to deal with emotional discomfort, try this instead:


01 Be kind to yourself for having negative emotions and using procrastination to manage discomfort. We've all engaged in procrastination to avoid unpleasant tasks so give yourself a break, recognize that you are procrastinating for a reason, and open the door for a little self-compassion as you challenge yourself to try something new.

02 Specifically identify the discomfort you are experiencing. If your emotional vocabulary boils down to happy, mad or sad, here's a chart of 64 human emotions to choose from that. Naming the exact emotion you are experiencing lays the groundwork for addressing negative emotions with strategies that are more effective than procrastination.



03 Regulate your negative emotions instead of avoiding them. It can be as simple as going for a walk, journaling your frustrations, taking some deep breaths, listening to music, or calling a trusted friend to vent, but it's important to regulate your emotional state before compelling yourself to complete a task you'd rather avoid. If you give your nervous system a chance to calm down and return to baseline, you open access and problem-solving capabilities that evade us when we are under emotional duress.

04 Design a plan or strategy to get things done by not only buckling down and completing tasks, but also addressing the source of your discomfort. To do this, think about the advice you would give to someone you care about in a similar situation. When we shift focus from our struggles toward the inner wisdom we would use to help a loved one, we gain access to the part of us that usually knows the right thing to do. By placing yourself in an advice-giving and solutions-offering role, you are likely to gain the perspective you need to design more adaptive strategies beyond procrastination and avoidance.



👉🏻 We believe in flawed thinking

If we manage to somehow escape the emotional causes for procrastination, semi-conscious cognitive biases are there waiting in the wings. Faulty logic, mistaken assumptions, and incorrect conclusions about the process of the work itself can inspire deep motivation to avoid tasks associated with our own best interests. If we can challenge errant assumptions, we can leverage more adaptive strategies that have our cognitions working for us instead of against us.


Instead of this...

Remember this...

And do this instead...

Overestimating task complexity to justify task avoidance

When faced with unpleasant tasks, we tend to overestimate difficulty associated with completion.

Ask questions, research, and do your homework to know the key tasks associated with getting things done

Assuming there's plenty of time so no need to rush

When we have a long lead time, we often delay getting started later than we should.

Map the key actions associated with task completion on a timeline, give yourself more breathing room than you think you need, and plan for an early completion date.

Feeling entitled to do the bare minimum to call it done

When we feel unfairly responsible for an unpleasant task, we can procrastinate and/or do the bare minimum as a form of silent protest.

Address the source of your frustration proactively and think about alternative solutions instead of procrastination.

Confusing activity with productivity

Procrastination can cause us to engage in a flurry of activity that confuses goal-oriented tasks from distractions designed to avoid unpleasant work.

Think through the tasks associated with completion and resist the urge to distract with unnecessary activity.

 
👉🏻 We lack effective systems

To commit to a procrastination-free way of life at work, you must have established systems and processes that not only mitigate the impulse to avoid unpleasant tasks but also codify a more effective approach to getting work done. When we lack efficient and reliable processes to manage the flow of work, we make ourselves more susceptible to the pitfalls of procrastination.


We don’t schedule time for deep work. To manage complexity, deal with uncertainty, and create order in chaotic expectations, we must dedicate focused time for deep work. While it’s so easy to cannibalize the entire day with emails, meetings, and putting out fires, professionals hoping to avoid procrastination should schedule uninterrupted time for deep work.


Better Strategy: Commit to your priorities by scheduling them and be honest about the amount of deep working time required to produce quality results.


We don’t use impulses to procrastinate correctly. Procrastination can often be a sign of ineffective working conditions and unfair expectations that you have somehow become responsible for enabling. Instead of avoiding unpleasant tasks with procrastination, see it as a signal that more effective systemic solutions may be in order.


Better Strategy: Challenge yourself to understand exactly what bothers you about the task and see about recommending solutions to address the root causes of your discomfort. When you view procrastination as a signal to engage problem-solving, you turn counterproductive workplace behavior into an instrument of positive change.


We don’t leverage consistent, incremental progress. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed when it feels like there is a huge gap between where we are and where we want to be. In these situations, too many of us stand still and wait for either windfalls of energy and motivation or the pressure to mount so high that we have no choice but to get moving.


Better Strategy: recognize that a consistent and incremental approach to accomplishing small tasks steadily closes the expectations gap between us and our goal. Focus on what you can control, commit to consistent action in the right direction, and you will soon find that the gap that once inspired procrastination doesn’t feel so big after all.


We don’t remove temptations. We all have our favorite tools of distraction that represent our go-to activities when we have something we are trying to avoid. Diverted attention to other work, chit-chat with co-workers, and getting lost down rabbit holes on the internet are all examples of procrastination-enabling behaviors we have to nip in the bud if we want to overcome the impulse to procrastinate.


Better Strategy: The most effective professionals know their preferred procrastination behaviors, have strategies to avoid getting sucked into distractions, and often appoint accountability peers who are tasked with keeping them on track. Develop a plan to marginalize procrastination temptation and surround yourself with colleagues who know when it's time to get to work.

 


👉🏻 We believe it motivates strong performance

While it can be difficult to believe, there are certain professionals who benefit greatly from the decision to procrastinate. Some of us are at our best when we are under intense pressure to perform and possess an uncanny ability to create miraculous results when our feet are held to the fire. The gravity of high expectations, combined with a belief they can accomplish great things, can conspire them to rise to the occasion and produce results even they didn’t believe were possible.


To understand if you are one of the people who benefits from a decision to procrastinate, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions:


  1. Am I satisfied with the quality of my work after I make the decision to put things off until the last minute, or am I left with the feeling I could have done better?

  2. Do I regularly have to revisit work that I once believed was complete based on feedback from colleagues about quality or completeness?

  3. Do I often encounter unanticipated problems and complications due to hasty completion of tasks associated with my responsibility?

  4. What is the impact of the decision to procrastinate on my mental health? Do I experience elevated stress levels or torture myself with anxiety when I delay getting started?

 

Although the ability to reflect and answer honest questions is a prerequisite to understand if you are one of the few who benefits from increased pressure to perform, some of us do fall into a minority category of working professionals who use procrastination to the advantage. Effective leadership does require an ability to discern the difference between high performing procrastinators and the rest of us who limit our potential when we engage in the practice. If you have a master procrastinator on your team who knows how to use it to their advantage, my best advice is to take a stand back, avoid artificial deadlines designed for your comfort alone and keep in mind that that pressure can sometimes lead to spectacular results.



Some Final Words

As busy professionals who are required to manage ever-increasing performance expectations, we run the risk of falling prey to the allure of procrastination as a coping strategy, regardless of the toll it takes on our stress levels and mental health. While you may be one of the lucky few who thrives under pressure and gains an advantage from putting things off, the majority of us suffer with mounting workload that only furthers our sense of anxiety. This deep dive into the psychology of procrastination is an attempt to arm leaders with insight about the real motivation for this self-detrimental behavior and alternatives to avoidance that bring them closer to their goals. By acknowledging the source of the behavior and implementing more effective strategies, professionals can navigate the challenges of procrastination, transforming it from a hindrance into a catalyst for positive change and enhanced productivity.


Authors Note: The advice above for managing the urge to procrastinate is not intended for professionals with learning or attention deficit disorders. ADHD and other diagnosed attention deficits may require specific tools and practices to avoid consequences associated with procrastination.  




Headshot of Danielle Terranova

Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.

She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.

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