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Why Do We Procrastinate, Really?

But the truth is, laziness isn’t always (or even often!) the driving force behind procrastination. Plus, believing that putting off a task means you’re lazy can take a toll on your self-esteem and mental health.

“Procrastination often takes a toll on our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth because of the societal message about procrastination being a character flaw,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, founder of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Service. “Therefore, we tend to beat ourselves up when we put off a task and might start to label ourselves as lazy, unproductive, [or] incapable.”

So the question is, what’s really going on when you procrastinate—and what can you do about it? Let’s take a look at five common causes of procrastination, as well as tips to overcome them and get your productivity back on track. 

Overwhelm at the task at hand

Have you ever put off a task because it seems so big, so monumental, that there’s just no way you could get it done?

That kind of procrastination is a direct result of overwhelm—feeling like there’s so much to do, you don’t know where to start, so you don’t start at all. In those situations, the way to beat procrastination is to “break the task up into smaller goals,” says Fedrick.

For example, “if your goal is to clean your whole house, make a list of each room, and then start with one room at a time and cross it off the list as you go,” says Fedrick. “This helps to reduce the feelings of overwhelm and increases the feelings of productivity and accomplishment.”

Feeling incompetent

It can be hard to get things done when you feel like you can’t get things done. Or, in other words, if you struggle with feelings of incompetence, it can make you feel like you don’t have the skills, drive, or capabilities to tackle a task—which can make you prone to procrastination.

If you struggle with feelings of self-doubt or incompetence, in order to change your relationship to procrastination, you need to change your narrative. (“When we don’t feel successful and always feel behind others, whether we are or not, we begin self-talk that is harmful to our self-esteem,” says Hornstein.)

And the best way to do that? Gathering evidence of all the ways you are capable and competent. “Keep a daily evidence log where you write down what you accomplished at the end of each day for 30 days,” says Fedrick. “You can then look back at this log in the future when you are struggling to complete a task…to see that you are not lazy, unproductive, or incompetent—but rather that you have the ability, willingness, and skills needed to do these things.”

Perfectionism

Perfectionists generally perform at a high-level. But the need to keep that high level of performance can actually lead to procrastination. “Another common reason individuals might procrastinate is if they struggle with perfectionism,” says Fedrick. “For a perfectionist, the thought of not completing the task ‘perfectly’ can feel really worrisome and overwhelming. Therefore, in an attempt to protect themselves from this, they will continue to put off the task as long as they can.”

If your procrastination comes from your need to do things perfectly, it’s time to shift your perspective from “this needs to be perfect” to “this needs to be good enough.” 

Try setting firm deadlines for your tasks—and then commit to moving on from those tasks at the set deadline, even if it doesn’t measure up to your standards. Over time, the satisfaction of getting things done will (hopefully!) override the need to get those things done perfectly—and your procrastination issue will be a thing of the past.

Mental health issues

Sometimes, procrastination can be a symptom of a larger issue—particularly when it comes to mental health. “Symptoms of anxiety and depression can…exacerbate someone’s tendency to procrastinate due to a lack of energy, motivation, trying to manage mood states, or feeling worried about the outcome,” says Fedrick.

If you suspect that your tendency to procrastinate stems from depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, talk to a mental health professional. They can help you identify what’s really going on and help you get the treatment you need to feel better (and overcome your procrastination challenges).

Lack of interest

Sometimes, the reason you keep putting off a task is simple—you’re just not interested in doing it. “[Sometimes procrastination happens when] we are not even interested in the plan or project, and maybe should not have said yes,” says Hornstein.

Luckily, the solution for this procrastination driver is simple. If you find yourself chronically putting off certain tasks, you’ll want to ask yourself if those tasks are actually aligned with your strengths and interests—and, if not, to look for a way to get those tasks off your plate.

How easy this process is will depend on the task. If the task is something you volunteered for, and not an obligation, a simple conversation could be all it takes to resolve the issue and get the task off of your plate. For example, if you volunteered to coordinate a networking event from your colleagues—but can’t get motivated to start planning—you could talk to a colleague and see if there’s anyone else that can take over coordination duties.

If it’s a task that you’re actually obligated to do, the best thing you can do is ask for help getting it done—ideally with someone with the skills or desire necessary to accomplish the task. For example, let’s say you’re the maid of honor in your sister’s wedding and you’re responsible for throwing the bridal shower—but you hate or are terrible at party planning. In that situation, you might assign tasks to the bridesmaids so you have less to get done, which can make it easier to work through the things you do have to handle yourself.

The point is, sometimes you procrastinate because the task is just something you don’t want to do—and if you find yourself in that situation, you’ll want to either offload that task or enlist some help to get it done.

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