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Why Do We Procrastinate? 12 Psychological Reasons Behind It

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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We all do it. Everyone procrastinates. It’s a universal behavior, and a surprising 20% of us, according to research by Dr. Joseph Ferrari,[1] even label ourselves as chronic procrastinators.

Procrastination isn’t just about laziness. It’s a speed bump to our aspirations, a force that slows down our dreams. It brings along unwanted pals like stress and frustration.

Think about it. At work, that lingering task that you keep shoving for “later”? It’s a classic sign. And let’s not even get started on how it can make any time management strategy crumble.

Yet, there’s this nagging question: why?

Throughout history, from scribbling cave artists to modern-day desk jockeys, we’ve pushed tasks aside. Even when we know it’s crucial, we often find reasons to delay.

Tapping into the psychology behind procrastination might just offer us some answers.

The Root Cause of Procrastination

Now, when you think of procrastination, you probably imagine the classic, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ mindset. That’s passive procrastination. But there’s another side to this coin: active procrastination.

Active vs Passive Procrastination

Active procrastinators? They’re an intriguing bunch.

Think of them as the ones who’ve made procrastination their friend. They choose to delay on purpose, well-aware that a looming deadline sharpens their focus. It’s like a sprinter who thrives when the clock is ticking.[2]


Picture this: Five reports to file before the weekend. An active procrastinator might tackle one on Monday, one on Wednesday, and then group the last three on Thursday, banking on that pressure to turbocharge their productivity.

But passive procrastinators? They’re a different story.

These are the folks most of us picture when we hear the word “procrastinate.” For them, hesitation often stems from self-doubt or sheer indifference.[3]

Using our earlier example, a passive procrastinator would delay all five reports till Thursday night, not because of some strategic plan, but perhaps out of fear they won’t get it right, or maybe the very idea of writing is just too mundane to bear.(source)

Our brain, with its intricate circuits, often pushes us to feel before we think, thanks to the limbic system. This is the part that holds the reins to our emotions and memories.

So, when a task looks like a giant mountain ready to overwhelm or simply inconvenience us, we’re instinctively set to sidestep it. This is to dodge those not-so-pleasant feelings. It’s a little like seeing a giant puddle ahead and deciding to walk around it rather than straight through.(source)

The magic key to breaking the chains of procrastination? Managing these feelings.

When a task seems menacing or too much to bear, it’s almost like an anchor weighing us down. It’s no surprise that so many of us link work with emotional turmoil.


Think of it this way: if a job looks too hard or intricate, it can stir up a storm of anxiety or even a sense of hopelessness.

It’s quite straightforward, really. The tougher the job appears, the more we back away. All these hesitations, all these negative vibes, stack up like bricks in a wall, making us dodge the task entirely.

Why face discomfort if we can avoid it?

So, the next time you delay, ask yourself: Are you being strategic, or are you just dragging your feet? Knowing the difference might just be the key to managing the holdups in our lives.

12 Reasons Why We Procrastinate

We’ve scratched the surface of the complex world of procrastination. But let’s dive deeper. Specifically, into passive procrastination. Why do we do it? Here are 12 reasons:

1. Wanting to Control Everything

Holding off on a task might feel like keeping the reins tight. The mindset is: if you haven’t started, you haven’t made mistakes.

However, control is an illusion. While initially empowering, as deadlines approach, you might find yourself cornered with less flexibility to maneuver, leading to rushed decisions and compromised work quality.


2. Seeing a Task as One Big Project

Facing a monumental task can be daunting. The sheer size and scale make it seem unapproachable.

But every big project is merely a sum of its parts. Breaking it down into manageable components not only makes it less intimidating but also provides a clear path forward, creating small wins that motivate you to push ahead.

3. Being a Perfectionist

Striving for excellence can be an asset, but when it morphs into perfectionism, it’s paralyzing. The fear that the outcome might not meet the very high standards set can delay even starting.

This vicious cycle of wanting perfection yet fearing imperfection hampers productivity. As supported by research, perfectionism often acts as a roadblock. A 2017 study confirmed that those with perfectionist tendencies were also more likely to engage in procrastination.[4]

4. Worrying About Failure

The shadow of potential failure can be heavy. By avoiding a task, there’s a false comfort in believing you’ve also sidestepped failure.

But in reality, by not starting or finishing, you’ve already let failure in through the back door. It’s a defense mechanism to protect one’s self-esteem and avoid facing potential criticism.


5. Lacking Self-Control

Willpower varies among individuals. Some can set their mind to a task and see it through without deviation, while others find their attention wandering.

Those naturally low in discipline might find it harder to resist immediate pleasures in favor of long-term benefits.

6. Not Making Lists

In our bustling lives, it’s easy to forget things. Without a tangible reminder, like a list, tasks can slip our mind.

Lists serve as a roadmap, laying out what needs to be done, helping to prioritize and keep track, ensuring nothing falls through the cracks.

7. Underestimating Time Commitments

Misjudging the time a task requires can lead to complacency. If you always feel there’s ‘plenty of time,’ you’re more likely to push things back.

But time has a way of sprinting by, leaving you playing catch-up, which can lead to stress and subpar work.

8. Relying on Pressure to Finish Work

The adrenaline rush of a ticking clock can sometimes boost performance. But consistently relying on this pressure-packed situation is a dangerous game.

Not every task done in the eleventh hour will yield great results, and over time, this can lead to burnout.


9. Overwhelmed by Tasks

Sometimes, the sheer volume or complexity of tasks can be stifling. This can trigger avoidance behavior, with the brain seeking simpler, more enjoyable tasks, leaving the tough ones for ‘later.’

This evasion only heightens anxiety as those postponed tasks linger in the backdrop.

10. Lacking Prioritization

Without clear priorities, everything seems equally important, leading to scatter-brained execution.

Constantly switching gears or indecisiveness saps energy and efficiency. Prioritization is a tool that gives direction, ensuring that energy is channeled where it’s most impactful.

11. Prone to Distraction

Our modern world is a maze of distractions. From notifications pinging every second to open-floor offices where there’s constant movement, distractions are everywhere.

For some, these distractions serve as an escape route from tedious tasks. But frequent diversions disrupt focus, prolonging task completion.

12. Being Lazy

At times, the inertia of doing nothing is too strong to fight. It’s a human trait to sometimes just want to relax and avoid exertion.

While occasional laziness is fine and even beneficial, habitual avoidance can lead to accumulating tasks and regrets.

Final Thoughts

The puzzle of procrastination isn’t solved overnight. It’s rooted in our behaviors, our fears, and sometimes, in the simple urge to take the easy route.

But here’s the deal: we’re all capable of change. Recognizing why we procrastinate is just the starting line. Ahead lies the real challenge – taking steps to push past it.


Every moment spent in delay is a moment lost. But every task tackled head-on, no matter how small, is a step toward building a habit of action.

The journey to overcoming procrastination doesn’t demand perfection. It just requires a little push to start. The magic often lies in simply beginning.

So, why wait? Start now. The future is shaped by what we do today.


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