Why We Procrastinate (and How to Stop)

Man sleeping with a book on his face

When you’re looking down the barrel of a school midterm report or a major work project, finding inspiration should be easy. You’re on deadline, after all! But the urge to procrastinate strikes us all, and often at the worst times.

Procrastination takes many forms, and leans on avoidant traits that end up harming us in the long run.. Here are the main reasons we procrastinate — and how to stop.

1. The pursuit of perfection

A project left undone still has potential for perfection. An unwritten report has no typos. An uncoded program, no bugs. In a perfectionist mindset, when you do work, you risk screwing something up. And that’s a scary thought to some. By procrastinating, we hold ourselves to an impossible standard — and as a result, never achieve anything noteworthy.

Science backs this theory up: A study from York University indicated that students who scored highly in measures of perfectionism also had strong tendencies to procrastinate.

But how do you squash your perfectionist tendencies and get back to the grind? A therapist can help you work through the root causes of your perfectionism, like anxiety. Also, there are some exercises you can do yourself, like changing how you consider “success” and being kinder to yourself.

Once you learn to face the possibility of failure, starting projects becomes much simpler.

2. Low energy levels

Sometimes we procrastinate because we can’t do anything else: The thought of opening our laptop, sitting down at our desk, and writing 10 pages (10 pages!?) seems impossible. There can be a number of causes for low energy.

First, do a healthy-habits check. Are you eating junk food? Drinking too much? Sleeping less than eight hours a day? Not exercising? Any one of these problems could be your procrastination culprit. But if you’re generally doing right by your body, it’s time to call in a pro.

A doctor can check your blood: you may have anemia, a hypoactive thyroid, or low B-12. They can also go over your medical history for any other diagnoses that may lead to low energy.

Depression can also cause low energy. A therapist can help make that assessment and get you the help you need.

3. Inability to focus

You want to work on your paper. You really do. But every time you open your computer, you find yourself browsing to Facebook or Reddit — and suddenly eight hours of mindless “sugar-filled” entertainment have passed, and you’ve written maybe ten words.

Improving your focus isn’t impossible. A number of techniques help you hone in on the task at hand, like brief meditation beforehand, unplugging from technology, or listening to calming background music. But if mindfulness isn’t helping, consider checking in with your therapist. You might have ADHD.

While procrastination isn’t a direct symptom of ADHD, research has shown that there are correlations between procrastinators and other symptoms. A mental health professional can determine if you have related behaviors that indicate an ADHD diagnosis — and are causing your procrastination, too.

4. Believing a better you will do it later

“Future you” will totally get this done. Future you will have endless opportunities to succeed. For instance, it’s supposed to rain on Saturday, so hiking won’t tempt you. And by the weekend, you’ll know for sure if you got the promotion you were angling for, so you’ll be in a much better mood.

But we can’t hoist our problems onto our future selves. If we’re waiting for the perfect time and the ideal circumstances, we may not get anything done. Maybe the sun shines on Saturday — and maybe you get passed over for the job. Future you could be just as gloomy and sad as you are today, so why not just get started?

If the project looks too momentous for current you, break it into smaller pieces. Work for just ten minutes and then “treat yo self” with something small. Repeat this process enough times and the project will be done — before future you has a chance to muck it up.

5. The task is vague or uncertain

Sometimes, we avoid doing a project because we don’t know what the project really entails. Perhaps the instructions are vague, or the scope is enormous — leaving you flailing about.

To sort out the task and fix this pesky problem, get out your pen and paper (or whatever brainstorming tool works best for you). Write down everything that needs to get done, starting with the tiniest aspects. For a long research paper, “go to the library” or “do a Google search” are acceptable step ones.

Find an easy, manageable first task and go from there. Once you’ve completed that to-do, go back to your list. Have any new must-dos come up? Add them. Go down the list step by step until you’ve got the whole thing done. And if the procrastination monster rises again, feel free to go scorched-earth and repeat this process entirely. Getting lost in the woods of our to-do list is also an easy invitation for procrastination.

Seek Help if Procrastination is Affecting You

Procrastination is a frustrating desire. Of course we want to get the project done — it’s hanging over our head like Damocles’ sword. But sometimes we just can’t do it. Identifying the root cause of your hesitation is the key to get must-do work done.

A therapist or counselor can teach you methods to help work past whatever is holding you back from completing important tasks or projects. They also provide a safe level of accountability that can be followed up on weekly. Consider this type of help if procrastination is affecting your performance or happiness in critical areas like work or relationships.

Published by

Jamie Wiebe

Contributor