Why Do We Procrastinate? Here’s the Liberating Truth…
Procrastination is a puzzling phenomenon.
We delay the very things we want to do. We postpone what we know is best for us.
It’s irrational. It’s harmful. It’s against our best intentions.
So why do we do it? Why do we procrastinate? Here’s my take on it…
The One Mechanism Underlying All Procrastination
There’s only one ultimate reason for why we procrastinate: negative emotions.
You see, human behavior is almost entirely driven by emotion. We approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.
When we expect a task, activity, or endeavor to feel good, we approach it – we feel the urge to watch television, play video games, have sex, or eat cookies.
When we expect a task, activity, or endeavor to feel bad, we avoid it – we feel resistance towards studying for exams, doing the taxes, washing the dishes, or hitting the gym.
We procrastinate on things that elicit painful (negative) feelings, things that are boring, uncomfortable, frustrating, or painful in some other way.
This isn’t just my opinion, it’s a scientific fact:
“Medical imaging studies have shown that mathphobes, for example, appear to avoid math because even just thinking about it seems to hurt,” explains Barbara Oakley in A Mind for Numbers. “The pain centers of their brains light up when they contemplate working on math.”
Procrastination is always the same story:
We want to do something that feels bad and brings up resistance. We sincerely want to follow through, but when thinking about the task we’re experiencing all these negative emotions. That feels uncomfortable, and so we feel the urge to run away – to pursue an activity that feels better.
If we can overcome the resistance and do the task anyway, that’s an act of willpower – we use the strength of our will to override our natural instincts. If we can’t overcome the resistance and give in to a tempting activity, that’s an act of procrastination.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, that’s always the underlying story.
At its core, procrastination is an emotion management issue. We can’t handle the discomfort of negative emotions and give in to feeling good. We put off the task and feel relief.
This also explains why we’re most likely to procrastinate when already in a bad mood. If your girlfriend just broke up with you, there’s no chance on earth you’re working on your dissertation. What do you do instead? Something that makes you feel better – alcohol, gaming, food, etcetera.
Why Do Some People Procrastinate More than Others?
To reiterate, here’s how procrastination works: You want to do some activity, but you’re experiencing negative emotions – either because of the activity itself or because your girlfriend broke up with you. One part of you wants to do the right thing. Another part of you wants some relief, wants to feel better.
You’re going through an internal struggle. Something within you is resisting the activity you want to do, while it’s urging you toward activities you’d rather not do but that feel good.
If you give in, that’s procrastination. If you stay strong and overcome the resistance, we call that an act of willpower.
This means there are two basic reasons why some people procrastinate more than others:
- Procrastinators experience higher resistance to certain tasks than others
- Procrastinators have less willpower than others
For most severe procrastinators, both are true. They experience greater resistance to uncomfortable activities, and they have too little willpower to overcome that resistance.
Now, the remaining questions are: Why do some people have more willpower than others? And why do some people experience greater resistance than others?
Why Do People Have More or Less Willpower?
There are three aspects that play into this: nature, nurture, and practice.
Willpower almost certainly has a genetic component, meaning some people are naturally gifted with greater willpower than others. Nothing we can do about that. It’s just the genetic lottery.
The next factor is your upbringing, the first sixteen to twenty years of your life. Through millions and millions of influences, you either grew up to have more or less willpower. For example, I was naturally smart and talented as a kid and never had to try hard for anything. The result? I ended up as a twenty-year-old with almost zero willpower. I see this pattern in many procrastinators.
The last aspect is practice as an adult. Whether you end up with much or little willpower as an adult is largely outside of your control. Whether you grow or shrink your willpower is not.
If you meditate regularly, you’ll grow your willpower muscle. If you exercise regularly, you’ll grow your willpower muscle. If you live a disciplined life, optimize your sleep, read the right books, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you’ll grow your willpower muscle.
Any gain in willpower reduces procrastination a little bit. The more willpower you have, the less you’ll procrastinate.
Why Do People Experience More or Less Resistance?
Mike wakes up, brushes his teeth, drinks a glass of water, sits down on his laptop, and immediately starts writing on his essay about butterflies.
Sandra wakes up, brushes her teeth, drinks a glass of water, and wants to start writing on her essay about snails. She has opened the word doc, but can’t seem to get going. She checks Facebook, then Instagram, then her emails. She just wasted 15 minutes for nothing. She should just begin writing, but she can’t. She gets up and gets a cup of coffee. While the coffee is brewing, she grabs her phone and checks her favorite news app. Back at the computer, she still can’t seem to get going. She sincerely wants to start writing, but something is urging her to get up. After struggling with herself for another twenty minutes, she finally begins writing.
What’s the difference between Mike and Sandra? Why is it that some people can do certain activities with ease, while others have to struggle?
The difference is resistance.
Sure, Sandra may suffer from low willpower as well, but in this case, she’s just unlucky to experience a massive amount of resistance toward the task. Mike, on the other hand, is lucky to experience almost no resistance. While Sandra has to summon a huge amount of willpower, Mike only needs a tiny amount and can just get going.
The greater the resistance, the more willpower is needed to overcome it.
So, why is it that some people experience more resistance than others?
There are countless reasons playing into this. Two obvious factors are fears and ingrained thinking patterns. Here are some possible explanations:
- Fear of failure. People who experience massive fear of failure have more resistance than people who don’t. If failure is unacceptable to you, you’ll feel anxious, nervous, and resisting toward the task.
- Fear of success. People who experience massive fear of success have more resistance than people who don’t. If your mind is producing horror scenarios about what might happen in the event of success, you’ll experience anxiety, nervousness, and resistance.
- Equating self-worth with the quality of work. You may – for whatever reason! – equate handing in a good essay with being a good person. No wonder you’re so nervous about writing the essay when your entire worth as a person is on the line.
- Focus on the outcome rather than the process. People who naturally focus on the outcome rather than the process will likely experience greater resistance. Writing for twenty minutes is easy; writing a 70-page essay is hard.
Hundreds of such factors exist, and they all play into the amount of resistance you experience.
The point is, some of us experience greater resistance than others. As a result, we require more willpower, and if we don’t have that, we fall into procrastination.
So, What Can Be Done About This?
Overcoming procrastination comes down to two things:
- Getting better at willpower (building the overall muscle and using it more wisely)
- Finding ways to reduce resistance
Some ways to get better at willpower are: meditation, mindfulness, self-compassion, energy management, time management, exercise, reducing decision fatigue, or using implementation intentions.
Some ways to reduce resistance are: process over outcome focus, setting timers, focus on getting started, the 5-second rule, lowering standards, breaking complex projects into small steps, focus on one thing at a time, scheduling, thinking concretely rather than abstractly, or in the long-run things like psychotherapy or trauma release.
For more details on all of these strategies, check out my book, Stop Procrastinating – A Simple Guide to Hacking Laziness, Building Self Discipline, and Overcoming Procrastination.
And now I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Does the explanation make sense? What are some of the reasons you can identify for procrastination?
Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading.
P.S. Want My Best Procrastination Tricks for Free?
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I love the way you breakdown the reasons we procrastinate and provide insight based on your own personal experiences and observations. I recently retired and told myself I am going to clean up and oranize my hobby room and begin building a few things. I have approached my project “the hobby room” in steps versus having it all done by end of day. This eliminates the perfectionist that sometimes stops me from starting. I never thought about fear of success until I read your article. I have a better insight to my procrastination now. I also noticed how uncomfortable I felt being in the messy room when I first started. Now I feel much more relaxed and feel calmer looking around at my organized room.
Thanks, Mike. That’s a great point. Enjoy your retirement! 🙂
Everytime something comes from your side, I get truly amazed by how much I can relate to it. I have always been a severe procrastinator but when we are children and in teens things work out great even with simplest efforts. But as you grow up, get out of college, responsibilities just double up. Now if you procrastinate, you lag behind others, become average and as the result lose motivation. This generates a lot of negative emotions and then cycle repeats. This is my story. I have to clear an entrance exam for postgrad but have failed twice, and everytime negativity doubles up,and procrastination doubles. Kindly put out something regarding how to get unstuck when life seems to have come at halt. Thanks
Hey Jk, thanks for sharing your experience. Here are a few pointers on how to get unstuck:
– For starters, please note that “failures” are inevitable and will always be part of the human experience. Successful and productive people don’t fail less than others… they, however, get up a lot faster. Whenever procrastination strikes… whenever guilt strikes… whenever self-criticism strikes… make it your goal to get back on track as soon as possible. Accept that you’re feeling disappointed/guilty/ashamed and forgive yourself.
– Choose self-compassion over self-criticism. While self-criticism keeps you stuck… self-compassion helps you get unstuck. Check out my articles on self-compassion for more on this.
– Keep in mind that life is a loooooong journey. Here at NJlifehacks, we play the long game. We’re lifelong learners. If you get a tiny bit better every single day… you’ll eventually arrive at a point where your life is in order and you feel in control of things. To get there, you must play the long game and commit to life-long learning.
– Remind yourself that most successful people have gone through hardship before “making it.” Edinson failed over a 10,000x before making the lightbulb work. This Napoleon Hill quote: “Those who have cultivated the HABIT of persistence seem to enjoy insurance against failure. No matter how many times they are defeated, they finally arrive up toward the top of the ladder.”
– Last but not least, keep the “Maybe” story in mind. It helps you get to a state of acceptance and forgiveness quickly… which then allows you to get back on track. Here’s a YT video explaining the story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMzEBM8vp2Q
Hope that helps 🙂
Even though procrastination has become a problem for me, I find I’m able to overcome this when I’m in a happy or positive state of mind. I am also conscious of thinking I’ve worked so long & hard in my life & despite the many sacrifices, I have lost so much & have so little to show that I just feel overwhelmed by lots of things in life that were once “no big deal” for me to get on with.
Totally agree with that, Lisa. When we’re in a good mood (experiencing positive emotions) we have a lot more willpower, energy, perspective, and many of those attributes that help us be more productive and disciplined. It’s always when we’re in a bad mood (experiencing negative emotions) that we run into trouble. That’s why emotion regulation is so big.
Excellent post, Nils.
Thank you, Heather.
You’re welcome, Miguel.
I just sat and read this and discussed with my 14 year old daughter. Very good information indeed. Thank you.
Oh, that’s great to hear! Your daughter can be happy to have a mother/father like you 🙂