4 Reasons You Procrastinate and How to Break the Cycle

4 Reasons You Procrastinate and How to Break the Cycle

It’s the night before I have to submit an article. I’m typing away as fast as I can in my “hunt and peck” finger style just to hit the deadline.

Or it’s the night before that report is due. The one I’ve known about for, at least, two weeks. And, again, here I am, working my fingers to the bone, exhausted because I’ve stayed up far too long.

Why do I do this to myself?  When I put things off, I know I never do my best work. And while I may appease my client by getting the work in on time (at the last minute), it’s doing nothing for my confidence… or my health.

There are (usually) four simple reasons why people procrastinate on getting the work done – and sometimes I qualify for all four:

  1. The task is difficult and requires a lot of work or energy to complete.  I’m too tired and it’ll take me far more energy than I have to put into it right now. I want to do my best… so if I want to do my best, then I need to put the task off until I have more energy to do the work.
  2. The task is time-consuming, and it may take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to complete.  I have other things to do that I’d rather spend my time on right now, so I set the task aside for a couple of days. Just a couple…
  3. The task requires skills we don’t have, or we don’t know how to perform the task.  So that means not only is the task difficult and will be time-consuming, but I’m also going to have to develop new skills to get the work done as well. Yeah, let me jump right on that…NOT.
  4. Some aspect of the task scares us.  Maybe I’m afraid of the work the task involves (like that new skill I need to learn). Or I’m afraid I won’t complete the task as well as it needs to be completed. Or I might even be afraid it won’t be perfect straightaway – which means more work to get it right.

You see where all this leads.

If you think about it, each of the outcomes for those 4 reasons we procrastinate stems from a singular emotion: a lack of confidence. If everyone felt very confident they could do the work well, in a reasonable amount of time and to satisfaction… well, there’d be a lot less procrastination happening in the world.

So, one could say that a lack of confidence causes people to procrastinate – and that means that if we all stopped procrastinating and completed the tasks we’d originally set aside, we’d all increase our confidence.

Instead, we procrastinate… and feed our lack of self-confidence to higher heights. We create situations where we can’t do our best work, which in turn causes us to think ill of the result, which perpetuates the problem.

Our lack of confidence is completely justified: we put ourselves in situations where we do crap work and then feel bad about it.

It’s a vicious cycle – and it’s a cycle that needs to be broken.

So I’m making a commitment: I’m going to stop putting work off – even if I’m not feeling like doing the task, even if I think I can’t do my best work, even if I have to learn something new, and even if I’m scared I won’t get it right.

It’s the only way I’ll start realizing I can do more than I believe I can – and it’s the only way I’ll start fostering healthy self-confidence that lets me achieve more every day.

Will you join me?

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Post by Kari

Kari is a full-time content manager, editor and in-house blogger at Men With Pens. In her spare time, she writes fiction and is working on her first novel.

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  1. You are so right. The longer you procrastinate, the bigger the task becomes and the lower your confidence falls. It is a viscous circle.
    I am with you. I will make also make the commitment to NOT procrastinate…Starting tomorrow.

    • Ha! Lisa, you had me going until those last two words. That is SO me! :)

      Before I commented, I reread the post — I’m definitely on board… this time ;) How about you? :)

  2. Interesting take on procrastination. I can see how it ties into self-confidence. I wouldn’t say that it’s always that way though, as people can procrastinate on things that they know how to do well but perhaps don’t enjoy doing. I would agree that some negative emotion usually provides that perception, such as anxiety.

    Thanks for getting us thinking :-)

    • Thanks Jack. And, sure, I can see the source of procrastination being just some negative emotion. My question for you is: if the person can do the activity well, but just doesn’t enjoy doing it, why not go ahead and get it done instead of leaving it til later? Why not go ahead and get it over with so they don’t have to do it later? :)

      • What comes to mind immediately is obligation. The activity might be unpleasant. For instance, I’ve put off writing papers due to overwhelm with all that I have to do, but knew I would do them well in the end, once I put my mind to actually work on them.

        • Sure, that makes sense. When I was in college, I tended to do that as well. My problem was always that I never felt like I did anything the best that I could do because I would never have enough time — I would always put them off TOO long. :) Sounds like you have better time management skills or a clearer understanding of how long it takes for you to do certain things than I do :) I have a tendency to give myself LESS time than I really need if I deem the activity is something I actually think is easy or something I can do well strangely enough and then, well, it’s a downward spiral from there :)

  3. Good list, but I concur with Jack that there is a fifth category, being things you just don’t enjoy doing and thus put off. As to your question, that’s a good question indeed, but prob. ties into not having the energy to do it – albeit the mental energy, perhaps.

    • Thanks for your comment! I usually rank things I just don’t enjoy doing and thus put off into not having the energy to do them myself. And energy is energy to me, doesn’t matter if it’s physical or mental.

      However, now that you mention it… taking the example of doing the dishes… I HATE doing dishes and usually will put them off indefinitely (which is why my husband does the dishes and not me).

      So, are there any suggestions out there for not procrastinating on doing the activities you absolutely HATE doing? :)

    • I think the “just don’t enjoy doing it” is one of those great reasons… that hides a TRUE reason behind it. If you feel confident, have the skills, and have the time, only motivation is missing.

      Which is all fine and well, but there are tons of tasks we all undertake every day without procrastinating even though we dislike them. (Cleaning toilets, for example.)

      Motivation comes when you find a good payoff for doing the work. “Cleaning toilets sucks! But man, this is gross, and I loves me a shiny, sparkly bowl. And I’ll stick on my favorite tune and play it loud, and as soon as I’m done, I’m going to go kick back on the deck in the sun for 30 minutes.”

      Suddenly, Mr. Bowl’s all sparkly clean again… and it wasn’t that bad. :)

      • A mantra that’s been helping me with procrastination lately is: “Motivation follows action”. Rather than waiting until I feel like it, if I commit to doing just a little bit of what I’m putting off, I find the energy to complete the task invariably shows up.

  4. sky sanchez-fischer says:

    WOW…this really taught me something new about why I do what I do, and more importantly, why I don’t. Lack of self-confidence, it makes perfect sense and now I can see how the ghastly cycle prevails. Thank you for this post. I am certainly trying to climb out of this horrible pit. Thank you.

    • Sky, fantastic! I’m glad that you liked the post and that it helped you. If you have any questions or anything, drop us a line!

  5. Hey Kari,

    I’m always working on this one! Thanks for getting me thinking about it. I think I’ve experienced everything you’ve listed plus a few others. There have been a few times I was just uncomfortable doing the task (remembering a gig that required calling lots of people who didn’t want to be bothered, though of course I could look at that as a skill–in getting over my discomfort! Or saying no to some kinds of gigs). Other times I was asked by a client to do this or that and I said yes but should have said no…then I procrastinated (then I fired him :).

    Probably everything can go in your list, though. But I’ve also learned that there are certain types of work I like doing and I’m good at, but I don’t always *feel* like doing it–for many reasons, even because I’m overloaded with other stuff. But once I settle into it, I’m fine. So it’s a matter of putting it on the schedule and just doing it rather than waiting for a magical time to arrive when I “feel” like doing it, which inevitably happens at the last minute due to panic :) I have a big thing going on right now, and I’ve resolved to chip away at it for a few hours every day rather than plow through for 5 days straight and drop everything else, which is crazy though I like the focus…(where’s my maid and personal chef? :).

    • I agree, Leah – sometimes we imagine the task as actually being worse than it is, and we haven’t even started yet. I’ve done that a few times myself, putting off something I *thought* I’d hate and that would take hours… and ended up doing it in 15 minutes and actually having fun with it.

      Doh. Stupid brain, eh?

      • Yea, that brain! Sheesh. It conjures up all sorts of stuff: fears, worry, dread…I have to tell myself “it’s just a task. It won’t kill me. Just do it…” (just did one of those and feel sooo much better!)

  6. Leah,

    First of all, when you find your maid and personal chef, if they’re with mine, send them back — I need them! ;)

    I’m happy you enjoyed the post :) And it sounds like you’ve got procrastination whipped when it comes to things that you like but that you don’t want to do at that moment. You schedule time for the activity — you don’t procrastinate :)

  7. Great list Kari. I’m guilty of all of them.

    I do think there is a flip side to this. Sometimes I do my best work when I’m in a crunch. i.e. My mom is coming to visit and I can clean the house in a half-hour; the football team is down to the last 3 minutes and they are in the red zone…

    I procrastinate all the time for all the reasons you listed, but sometimes, I just like the adrenaline rush.

    • Thanks, Mary! Glad the adrenaline helps you out — I tend to find myself cutting corners when it comes down to those last few minutes :)

      But there can be those times like the football team winning the game with that lucky touchdown too :)

  8. The last reason we procrastinate really rang true for me – some aspect of the task scares us. I couldn’t put my finger on it before now, but that is almost always the reason I procrastinate. I think I need to just write that crap first draft and let myself be okay with it :)

    • Yeah, I completely understand — my internal editor is the same way. I’m always having to push him out and reminding myself I can edit later. After all, it’s not like we’re writing all this in stone, right? :)

  9. I can relate to all 4 reasons, but the last one really hit home. The writing projects that I procrastinate on are usually the ones that intimidate me. Glad to see that I’m not alone in this. And yes, you pretty much nailed the root cause of my procrastination (lack of self-confidence).

    • Francesca, you’re definitely NOT alone in this. At all. I’m in the process of procrastinating on a project that should have been done LONG before this — I only have part of a section and a conclusion to write — and my client who is extremely patient and understanding continues to be so. But I’m asking myself WHY am I procrastinating on this one (and I’m sure so is my client). Now that we have the ROOT cause, we have to figure out how everything else stems from it, don’t we? :)

  10. Hi Kari,
    I totally agree.
    My most effective way to deal with procrastination is to plan the next few actions – using a checklist.

    • Hi Rohi! Checklists can be good — sometimes that sense of accomplishment of being able to look back at all the DONE things is great. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out what to do first :) Do you have any suggestions for that?

  11. I’ll join Kari!

    I’m also going to second Rohi’s comment above – the best way to deal with procrastination is to have a structured to do list – don’t move on to the more “fun” tasks until you’ve completed the boring/painful/difficult ones!

    Also, give yourself a “reward” for every difficult task that you have completed – that positive reinforcement goes a long way!

    • Hi Daryl!

      Sometimes, if I can’t move on to the fun things without doing the ones I don’t want to do, I’ll not get anything done! :) But a reward for the difficult tasks… that sounds reasonable. What kinds of rewards have worked for you so far?

  12. I think that fear itself is what makes most of us procrastinate. we always try to avoid bad feelings that come with failure. who wants to get of his comfort zone? the successful do.

  13. Kari – I will join you for sure. Procrastination linked to low confidence, and high affinity to the comfort zone!

    The only method I have found to work is to push through by just starting. With just 5 minutes. And that sets me off and the work is on its way to being done.

    This takes A LOT of effort, though. Isn’t there a pill or a drink that we can down to get motivated??!

    - Razwana

  14. I agree, the longer you put something off, the harder it will be to do it later. That’s why I try to develop the habit of doing things now instead of later (not always easy, but pretty much always worth it)

  15. Hey Kari,

    I like your reasons–I’m fighting the exact same demons as we speak…need to design a new capability assessment model for my employer, which I’ve been delaying for several *cough* months because there’s simply so much to do to deliver the daily business. And I have a major presentation on it this Thursday, lol. So I’ll have a few intense days this week, haha.

    I have 3 inputs, though.

    1. Some of us with a preference for getting inputs vs. making fast decisions (like me) simply tend to work in a way which may look like procrastination from the outside. When I start a project, I do a ton of activity in the beginning and a ton of activity in the end just before the deadline, but the middle may appear dead. In fact, it’s not dead – I’m thinking, trying out models and angles, and so on.

    2. Speaking of dead… one thing which really helped me fight procrastination is the good old “memento mori”. Every morning as I wake up, I remind myself that I may die today, and that motivates me to do things that I’d otherwise delay. This leads to a more active, fulfilling and creative life where “I’ll do it tomorrow” can’t exist, simply because there may be no tomorrow.

    Some folks see my approach as dark… but I actually see it as massively optimistic. It enabled me to complete 5 books over the last 4 months and get to 50% in 2 other books, on top of a very full-time job and a family with 3 kids. Just one example.

    3. It could be worth making separate time for “downstream” work (like selling existing products) and “upstream” work (like thinking up the new frontiers for your business). I usually procrastinate on the upstream work. These 2 use different parts of the brain, and at least in my case, I need to forcefully put myself into the “upstream” mode to work on the future.

    • so true. thanks for reminding me of this.

      getting input is passive and thus you can’t fail, that’s why you rather read something instead of writing that article you put of for weeks now. “increase output and decrease input” is the mantra here.

      your 2nd point is not dark, it is just a reminder that every second is a gift and that it should not be wasted.

      lastly, i have somewhere in my notes: seperate planning from creating. which comes pretty close to your last point.

      great article.

  16. This is so true. I am especially hit by 1, 2 and 4. Man, this writing thing takes up a lot of time and the subject matter is complex very often. Thanks for the post and I am going to hit your link that you list at the end of your post for better writing and related tips.

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  1. […] you struggle with putting stuff off, Kari, over at Men With Pens, suggests four reasons we procrastinate and throws out a challenge to join with her to stop procrastinating and start […]

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