The Real Reasons You Procrastinate

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Sometimes it's hard not to procrastinate. "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today" is certainly sage advice from Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, but, for many, it's not all that easy to accomplish. If you've noticed yourself subscribing to more of a "why do today what you can put off until tomorrow" philosophy, you're probably a procrastinator. Although procrastination is not an uncommon behavior — one study dubbed it a "universal phenomenon" — it's not a healthy habit. It's actually a very, very unhealthy one.

Those who nearly always wait until the last minute to get something done experience higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and fatigue, according to a 2016 study. Procrastinators also experience "reduced satisfaction" in their income and work. As the study highlighted at its outset, there are "many reasons" people procrastinate — and those reasons may be very different from what you would expect. According to researchers, psychologists, and overall procrastination experts, these are the real reasons you procrastinate.

No, you're not lazy because you procrastinate

If you don't get to gettin' until a deadline is looming over your head, you might worry that you're lazy. It doesn't help that people who procrastinate have long been labeled this way. But procrastination doesn't really have anything to do with laziness. In fact, some very successful people have battled procrastination. "From Socrates to Thomas Jefferson, from Jane Austen to Mark Twain, from Solon to Nancy Pelosi, most great women and men have been procrastinators," author John Perry wrote in his book The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing (via Elite Daily). Would you view any of those people as sloth-like? Likely not.

If you're a procrastinator, you've probably done a wide array of other tasks — from deep-cleaning your entire kitchen to organizing the nuts and bolts in your garage — while avoiding that (probably) smaller task. No, procrastination is definitely not caused by laziness. Rather, it's linked to your emotions — in a lot of different ways.

You may procrastinate because you're stressed out

"Procrastination is a form of stress relief," Mel Robbins, renowned motivational speaker, author, and legal and social commentator for CNN, explained in an audience Q&A. She continued, saying, "What happens when you struggle with procrastinating ... there's s*** that stresses you out." Robbins compared procrastination to taking a "smoking break." Those who find themselves procrastinating at the office are doing so to give themselves "a little break at work."

Because procrastination is a byproduct of stress, Robbins doesn't recommend addressing procrastination directly. Instead, she said it's important to first address the underlying problem: stress. According to the expert, a "starting ritual" — like a five-second countdown — can be useful. "You see, I want to break the connection between the trigger, which is stress, and the response, which is procrastination," Robbins explained. Taking a five-second pause to acknowledge your stress and tell yourself, "I'm just going to be okay with where I'm at and I'm just gonna get started," can help you break the cycle of stress-induced procrastination.

Could a lack of self-compassion be making you procrastinate?

Stress is a huge component of procrastination, but a lack of self-compassion is also a factor, as one 2014 study proved. According to the research, "self-compassion mediated the relationship between stress and procrastination." As such, those with lower levels of self-compassion tend to experience higher levels of stress and are thus more likely to procrastinate. 

It may sound counterintuitive, but being nice to yourself when you procrastinate is a good way to stop procrastinating. In an article for Psychology Today, Pamela D. Garcy, psychologist and author of The Power of Inner Guidance: Seven Steps to Tune In and Turn On, gave her advice for cultivating self-compassion. "Talk to yourself with kindness," she advised. "Accept that you're human, and be an optimistic coach rather than a negative critic." As the research demonstrates, the more you practice compassion for yourself, the less likely you will be to experience stress and the procrastination that often comes with it. 

Having trouble managing negative moods could lead you to procrastinate

By all accounts, procrastination doesn't make much sense. Delaying the inevitable obviously doesn't prevent the inevitable from coming. And, even if you know that pushing a task to the last minute is going to cause you to experience even more stress, you probably still do it. "This is why we say that procrastination is essentially irrational," Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, told The New York Times. She continued, saying, "People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task."

Tim Pychyl, psychology professor and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, agrees. He told the publication that procrastination is really "an emotion regulation problem." Although the negatives outweigh the positives when it comes to a person choosing to procrastinate, we want to feel better and, unfortunately, procrastination does feel good in the moment. 

Procrastinating is all you know

Can procrastination be learned? Procrastination experts Joseph Ferrari, an associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Illinois, and Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, think so. After consulting the experts, Hara Estroff Marano revealed their findings in an article for Psychology Today. "[Procrastination] is one response to an authoritarian parenting style," she wrote. "Having a harsh, controlling father keeps children from developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them."

Procrastination can also be picked up from other procrastinators, Pamela D. Garcy, psychologist and author of The Power of Inner Guidancerevealed. "Your parents, siblings, or other important role models may have demonstrated a 'put it off' attitude, which you've now adopted as your own," she penned in a Psychology Today article. All hope is not lost, though. Garcy recommended, "Talk to yourself about the negative consequences these role models faced when they procrastinated. Then find new role models to mimic, specifically those who take action and experience positive results because of it."

The reason you procrastinate may be genetic

Procrastination can be learned, yes, but science also points to a genetic disposition. A 2014 study found that the tendency to procrastinate may come down to our genes — at least in part. Interestingly, being a woman means having a greater tendency toward procrastination. "The relationship [between the TH gene and female procrastination] is not yet understood fully, but the female sex hormone estrogen seems to play a role," Erhan Genç, one of the authors behind the study, revealed to Medical Daily. "Women may, therefore, be more susceptible to genetic differences in dopamine levels due to estrogen, which, in turn, is reflected in behavior."

If you've noticed that you are both impulsive and a procrastinator, the researchers found a link there too. "The most interesting thing is that genetically they seem to be related, which suggests that they've sort of evolved together," Daniel Gustavson, the study's lead author, revealed to Slate.

Is your procrastinating because of the task at hand?

Like other destructive avoidance behaviors, procrastination is considered a coping mechanism. Tim Pychyl, psychology professor and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, told The Washington Post that people "give in to feel good." Although procrastination is emotion-based, the task we're facing also plays a role. Naturally, you'll find yourself especially inclined to procrastinate if you are — for one reason or another — dreading accomplishing a particular task. 

"Maybe you think you're bad at a task, or you've seen others have a hard time with a certain type of task," Pamela D. Garcy, psychologist and author of The Power of Inner Guidance, mused in an article for Psychology Today. Despite your aversion to the task at hand, Garcy advises challenging your feelings and proving yourself wrong about the task. "Use the task as an opportunity to combat your bias," she shared. Just remember to be kind to yourself in the process.

Do you procrastinate because you doubt yourself?

The next time you find yourself about to procrastinate about a particular task, you should consider if it is actually about the task in front of you or if it's about how you're feeling about the task. Are you, as psychologist Pamela D. Garcy touched on in her Psychology Today article, doubting your ability to accomplish the task successfully? Are you telling yourself you won't do a good job? This combination of self-doubt and anxiety can be paralyzing. In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Leon F. Seltzer dubbed it the "perfect recipe for underachievement."

It's also a recipe for procrastination. He continued, "The push-pull dynamic underlying such ambivalence invariably leads to hesitation and procrastination. It makes you apply the brakes with one foot even as the other is pressing on the accelerator." And, as a result, you stall. 

Seltzer revealed that there's no quick fix for this pattern of anxiety and self-doubt that breeds procrastination, but practicing self-acceptance will eventually help you conquer these feelings. It's also important to keep taking action in opposition to procrastination. "Remember, the only way to extend your safe-enough-to-do-it zone is to keep pushing it outwards," the psychologist added. 

You're trying to protect yourself by procrastinating

On the surface, organizing your desk instead of filing that time-sensitive report doesn't seem like a method of self-preservation. Nevertheless, that's exactly what it is. "By finding or creating impediments that make good performance less likely, the strategist nicely protects his (or her) sense of self-competence," researchers Steven Berglas and Edward Jones said of this method of "self-handicapping" in their research (via Time).

By choosing to procrastinate and not giving your all, you've found a way to guard yourself. Even those critical statements you tell yourself are a form of protection, according to psychologist Leon F. Seltzer. "If as a child your various (though really age-appropriate) failures were shamingly pointed out to you — if, that is, you weren't positively encouraged 'to try and try again' till you learned how to succeed — that dispiriting voice inside your head is simply trying to shield you from the almost unbearable emotional pain you experienced when, so many years ago, you tackled something you weren't yet prepared to handle and were then chastised or humiliated by harshly critical parents," wrote the expert for Psychology Today.

Procrastination is not necessarily a time management problem

Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, confirmed to The New York Times that procrastination is "not a time management problem." After consulting with Pychyl and Joseph Ferrari, Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today editor, revealed in an article for Psychology Today that procrastinators are just as capable of estimating their time as someone who does not procrastinate. People who procrastinate do tend to be more optimistic with regards to time, however. Still, procrastination really isn't about poor planning or the inability to schedule tasks effectively. As such, it can't be solved by simply sitting down and drafting a plan.

"Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up," Ferrari revealed to Psychology Today. It won't work — nor is it kind.

Procrastinating can be about time

As Hara Estroff Marano wrote in Psychology Today, people who procrastinate do tend to be more optimistic in how they schedule their time. Psychologist and author of The Power of Inner Guidance, Pamela D. Garcy said procrastinators often underestimate how long it will take them to accomplish their respective tasks. This phenomenon is referred to as "the planning fallacy", Garcy explained in an article for Psychology Today. While it is not unique to just procrastinators, people who procrastinate are often affected.

If you're constantly getting done with a task later than you think you should be, there are some things you can try while working on kicking the procrastination cycle. "...Make a habit of starting earlier than you think you'll need to and work on completing your task early. This might compensate for any deficiencies in time estimation," Garcy revealed. "Then, give yourself a reward for completing the task early or on time!" As far as our brains are concerned, procrastination is a temporary reward, which is what makes it so addictive. Replacing the mental high that comes with avoidance with a reward for completing a task is a great idea.

Procrastination has become a habit

Procrastination is a particularly hard habit to break. As previously highlighted, a procrastinator feels instant relief after putting off a task. This moment of relief is a reward — a "[reward] for procrastinating," Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, explained to The New York Times. Once you've been rewarded for something, you're going to want to do it again — and thus the procrastination habit is born. Not all habits are bad, of course, but "chronic procrastination" has been proven to be detrimental to a person's physical health — from high blood pressure to chronic illness — and mental health, potentially contributing to chronic stress and anxiety.

Thankfully, making procrastination a less attractive reward can help you stop procrastinating so much. Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits, told The New York Times that putting obstacles between you and your methods of procrastination can help. If you use your phone to procrastinate, Rubin suggested giving yourself "a really complicated password with not just five digits, but 12." The more you can complicate the road to procrastination, the less likely you'll be to travel down that path.

Focusing on the present and not the future could lead you to procrastinate

There's a reason your brain wants you to procrastinate, despite knowing how much worse things are going to get after you do. "We really weren't designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now," Hal Hershfield, a psychologist and marketing professor at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management, told The New York Times. Through Hershfield's research, the psychologist discovered that we view the future versions of ourselves like strangers. When we push off a task to a later time, it feels as if we're not delaying the inevitable, but handing over that task to someone else — someone we don't even know.

Our minds also don't deal well with future threats. Instead, they work to conquer the here-and-now problems. As far as your brain knows, that is the task ahead of you. Unfortunately, that provides the perfect breeding ground for procrastination: a very temporarily rewarding "solution." 

In a Psychology Today article, Pamela D. Garcy, psychologist and author of The Power of Inner Guidance, advised "[reminding] yourself about the gains of the future, and [de-emphasizing] the frustration of the present." 

Procrastinating could be a symptom of depression

One 2016 study found that procrastination can contribute to depression, but the reverse is also true: Depression can contribute to procrastination. "When you're depressed, you're more likely to put stuff off," Piers Steel, a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada and author of The Procrastination Equation, explained to U.S. News & World Report. "Many people who are depressed procrastinate," he continued. That said, not all those who procrastinate are battling depression.

Procrastination that accompanies depression is often times more severe and involves basic tasks — "like writing a check when the checkbook and pen are already out on the counter (and the money is in the bank)," the publication explained. "So even when it's right there in front of you, you still don't feel like doing it," Steel added. 

Procrastination can also be a symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to Steel. Thankfully, cognitive behavior therapy can be helpful for combatting procrastination. If you are concerned about your habit of procrastination, you should consider making an appointment with your primary care physician.