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Why Do We Procrastinate? 9 Psychological Reasons Behind It

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Why Do We Procrastinate? 9 Psychological Reasons Behind It

Everyone procrastinates, but why do we procrastinate? Since the dawn of time, people have been putting things off, and we still seem to have trouble figuring out what makes us avoid things we know we need to get done. Procrastination psychology can help us figure it out.

Sometimes, procrastinating is harmless. Take, for instance, the laundry. No one likes doing the laundry, and as long as you’re not starting to re-wear clothes that have started to get a bit stinky, you’ll still be a functioning member of society if you put off the laundry for a few hours (or days).

Research has done a lot to help us understand procrastination psychology and why we continuously engage in this annoying behavior. We are going to take a look at the top reasons here, but first, let’s talk a little about active vs. passive procrastination.

Active Vs. Passive Procrastination

Passive procrastination is the type of procrastination we all think of. Most people don’t even realize there’s such a thing as active procrastination. Let’s discuss this first.

Active procrastinators are a sort of “positive” type of procrastinator. They deliberately decide to procrastinate because they know they work better under pressure[1].

For example, an active procrastinator may see that they have five reports to write before Friday. Instead of doing one each day, they decide to do one on Monday, one on Wednesday, and leave three for Thursday because they’re brain produces better results when there is an element of pressure.

Passive procrastinators, on the other hand, are the “negative” procrastinators we generally think about. These types of procrastinators fall into traps of indecision or lack of confidence that cause them to wait until the last minute to do something[2].

For example, an active procrastinator may be presented with those same five reports, but instead of waiting in order to increase a positive sense of pressure for themselves, they put off writing all five reports until Thursday night because they simply don’t feel confident in their ability to do them correctly, or the prospect of writing them sends them into a tailspin of boredom.

As you can see, the psychology of procrastination is complex, but there are some basic answers to the question, “Why do we procrastinate.” In the list below, we will be focusing on passive procrastination.

1. Wanting to Control Everything

If you put things off, they can’t go wrong, right? Unfortunately, you can’t put things off forever.

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By procrastinating, you hold the most control over whatever task you’re working on. However, this also means, obviously, that that particular task isn’t being done.

While you may originally feel like you have more power through procrastination, this often dissolves into feeling a lack of control as your time constraints begin restricting your ability to make good decisions.

What to Try

If you feel like you need to control everything, it’s time to take a step back and examine why. What makes you feel the need to seek out control?

If this is a problem for you, try learning to trust yourself and others. Meditation can also be a great tool when it comes to releasing control and creating focus if you want to overcome procrastination. Start with just five minutes in the morning and work your way up.

You can also check out this article for more tips: How to Learn to Let Go of What You Can’t Control

2. Seeing a Task as One Big Project

Imagine your boss gives you the task of creating a two hour presentation for a new client. If you look at this as one large task, you’ll feel overwhelmed immediately, which will likely lead you to avoid the task altogether.

What to Try

Break down a large project into many small tasks.

For the example above, you may break down that large project into the following tasks:

  1. Research information to include in the presentation
  2. Decide on number of slides
  3. Create half of the slides
  4. Create other half of the slides
  5. Add graphics and pictures
  6. Proofread and polish

This is only one example, and this can apply to a number of situations. By breaking things down into parts, you’ll find the task much more doable. This will also produce less stress and aversion to the work.

3. Being a Perfectionist

Sometimes, being a perfectionist works in your favor. However, it can be tempting to put things off or delay completing tasks simply because you’re worried about the outcome being less than perfect.

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A 2017 study[3] confirmed that those with perfectionist tendencies were also more likely to engage in procrastination.

This TED Talk, featuring Charly Haversat, helps explain why perfectionism can do more harm than good:

What to Try

Altering the negative feelings that come when you feel something is less than perfect requires a simple change in perspective. If you continuously seek out perfection, you will constantly be disappointed. Understand that everyone makes mistakes and that no one realistically expects perfection from you. Simply do the best you can.

Remember, a completed, albeit imperfect, task is better than an uncompleted task.

4. Worrying About Failure

It can be tempting to procrastinate tasks because of a fear of failing. Of course, you cannot fail at something when you don’t do it at all.

Unfortunately, this is an unproductive way of thinking.

In a 2011 study based on student questionnaires, the researchers discovered the following:

“Most reasons [for procrastination] were related to fear of failure in relation to performance anxiety, perfectionism and lack of self confidence.”[4]

What to Try

Facing your fear of failure will help you overcome that fear in the long run, or at least learn to manage it. Next time you think about putting something off simply to avoid potential failure, tackle it head on. Once you get it done, even if the outcome is less than ideal, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to complete tasks. Take this a day at a time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the fear of failure, you may enjoy this article.

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5. Lacking Self-Control

There are definitely varying levels of self-control. Everyone is different. However, there is a point in which your self-control can get in the way of productivity.

Procrastinating comes easier to people who naturally do not have the discipline to complete tasks in a timely and organized manner.

What to Try

One study[5] found that people were more likely to overcome issues with self-control and complete their tasks if they imposed deadlines for themselves. So, next time you have a big project to get done, break it down into smaller tasks and assign a time and date for each. This should help you stay focused and get more done.

6. Not Making Lists

Procrastination can come as a result of something falling through the cracks. If you put something off and then forget to write down that you need to do it later, it’s possible that you could completely forget about the first task.

What to Try

If you’re a forgetful person, make a to-do list with all your tasks on it, and only cross them off when they’re 100% complete. For an important task, put it at the top. This can work especially well in the short term.

For more information on how to make a good to-do list, check out this article: The Right Way to Make a To Do List and Get Things Done.

7. Underestimating Time Commitments

It can be discouraging when a project takes you two weeks to complete when you thought it would take one. This is also related to time management skills. The amount of time you set aside for a task doesn’t seem to be working well for you.

If you consistently estimate time commitments incorrectly, it might be causing you to procrastinate more than you would otherwise.

It’s tempting to put things off if you think you have the time, but realizing you don’t have as much time as you thought can cause serious scrambling to get things done.

What to Try

When you’re faced with a new task or project, it may help to talk with friends or coworkers who have been faced with similar tasks in the past. They will likely be able to give you some insight on how long you should expect the project to take.

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If you don’t know anyone who can help in this area, always overestimate. If you get it done faster than expected, you’ll be left with free time, which is always a good thing!

8. Relying on Pressure to Finish Work

Procrastinating a task does not always equate to worse work. Some people work very well under pressure and can produce very good work, while others are simply lucky. This relates to the idea of active procrastination discussed above.

However, some people don’t do this on purpose, even when procrastination does generally go well for them. Eventually, there will come a time when procrastinating doesn’t work if it isn’t being done on purpose. Be mindful of the quality of your work and make sure your last-minute rush doesn’t show.

What to Try

If you find you work better under pressure, try moving into the realm of active procrastination. Plan to put things off, but give yourself enough time to do it well. If you know a project will take at least an hour, don’t give yourself 30 minutes to complete it.

A 2016 study[6] suggested that this method could work particularly well for those with a high working memory capacity. If you fall into that group, added pressure may help you come out with a better product.

9. Being Lazy

This is a common reason that most of us procrastinate. We just don’t feel like doing whatever it is we’re putting off. This could also be translated as a lack of motivation

Being lazy doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. It’s totally okay for you to lounge around and watch TV rather than mow the lawn sometimes. Just don’t let that behavior become habitual.

What to Try

If you know you need to get something done but just simply feel lazy, try doing light exercise to get your brain working. This may stimulate the energy you need to tackle a task. This can be as easy as taking a walk around the block or doing ten jumping jacks. Find what works for you.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to passive procrastination, there are many reasons it can happen, but there are also things you can do to tackle those problems and start finishing tasks. If you can relate yourself to one of these reasons, it’s time to take action and stop procrastinating.

More on Why We Procrastinate

Featured photo credit: Kaylah Matthews via unsplash.com

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Reference

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Maggie Heath

Maggie is a passionate writer who blogs about communication and lifestyle on Lifehack.

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Published on November 3, 2021

Why You Should Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks (And How to Do So)

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Why You Should Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks (And How to Do So)

Buzzzzz! Buzzzzz! My alarm clock begins shaking on the nightstand. It’s beckoning to me as loud as it can, and I’m not ready to answer. Maybe it is because it is 5 am Monday, the time and day I dread the most. Perhaps it’s because I know I need to get up, so I’m not late to my 5:30 am CrossFit class, or I’ll hear it from my coach. Plus… I’ll have to do five burpees for each minute I’m late, and I hate burpees! Can you tell I’m only one week into my CrossFit membership, and I’m regretting my decision to sign up already?

Clearly, this is a difficult task I am trying to avoid, and rather unsuccessfully at that. I know, I know, we should challenge ourselves to do difficult things. “Doing difficult things is what will make you stronger!” I can hear my coach saying as I struggle to lift a weight over my head that a pregnant woman next to me is having no problem. I can say that the embarrassment motivates me to continue on, no matter how uncomfortable I am.

As I set my bar down to eat some humble pie and look around at all the bad-assesses in class, I pause to ask myself. “Why should I stop avoiding difficult tasks? And How can I do so?”

That’s the question we’ll examine deeper with answers that not only helped me with CrossFit but can help you in whatever you find difficult in your life.

Why Should You Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks?

Let’s face it. We are all human beings and enjoy being comfortable, period. We love all of our daily creature comforts that have made life simple. Whether navigating to a new destination or cooking a meal, we are always looking for a shortcut. We want faster, easier, better, and definitely not difficult. These things are almost synonymous with the American dream by today’s standards. This often sought-after dream used to be about hard work and grit but is now about getting there before anyone else with the least amount of effort.

Despite all this, easier is not always better, and here’s why:

When we take the easy way, we program our brains to be lazy. It no longer has to use critical thinking or creativity to develop a solution but only needs to seek the shortcut. This training actually re-wires the neural pathways of our brains in less-than-optimal ways.

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According to Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D. author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, we need to work our brain if we want it to be healthy.

“Your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you can use it. Every time you learn something new, your brain makes a new connection. Learning enhances blood flow and activity in the brain. If you go for long periods without learning something new, you start to lose some of the connections in the brain, and you begin to struggle more with memory and learning.”

Furthermore, research from Anatomist Marian Diamond, Ph.D., from the University of California at Berkeley showed that rats who were allowed an easy life without any new challenges or learning had less brain weight than those who were challenged and forced to learn new information in order to be fed. New learning actually caused increased brain density and weight, meaning a healthier overall brain.[1]

Before you jump to conclusions about the differences between human and rat brains, you should understand the following research:[2]

“Even though the rat brain is smaller and less complex than the human brain, research has shown that the two are remarkably similar in structure and function. Both consist of a vast amount of highly connected neurons that are constantly talking to each other.”

The bottom line is that it’s simply healthier to exercise our brain, just like it is beneficial to exercise most other parts of our body. The more you take care of your brain, the more it will take care of you.

Here are 7 ways to take care of your brain, according to Dr. Amen.[3]

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  1. Protect Your Brain – protect your brain from injury, pollution, sleep deprivation, and stress.
  2. Feed Your Brain – go on a diet with brain boosting foods.
  3. Kill the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) That Invade Your Brain stay happy, hopeful and positive.
  4. Work Your Brain – keep learning, learning is a brain workout.
  5. Make Love for Your Brain – regular sexual activity enhances overall brain activity and improves memory as it boosts estrogen levels.
  6. Develop a “Concert State” For Your Brain – only when you feel relaxed will you be able to concentrate easily, listening to music is a nice way to relax yourself while improving your concentration.
  7. Treat Brain Problems Early – mental health problems such as anxiety and depression need to be dealt with as early as possible.

Any one of these recommendations alone can help you out when it comes to not avoiding difficult tasks. Remember, whether it’s accomplishing difficult things or a related area, your life can only improve with an optimized brain, so put these into action today. You can learn more about each one here.

Even if none of this so-called “brain talk” is convincing you, then let’s look at the situation from a different vantage point, growth and confidence.

If you’re reading this article, then you are interested in learning in some capacity. Whether it’s basic curiosity, strict personal development, or anywhere in between, you are seeking knowledge in some way. The search for knowledge is a search for growth as an individual. Growth, by definition, is the opposite of stagnation. So, by this rationale, anyone who is growing is undergoing change.

To indeed undergo change and growth, we need to step outside of our comfort zone into the area of uncomfortability. This is where all the magic happens. This is where we do the difficult tasks that we don’t always want to do. As we do difficult things more and more, they become easier and more manageable.

Anything most worthwhile learning in life takes some difficulty and time to become proficient.

Take a moment to think back to when you were a young child. When you first learned to ride a bike, did you just hop on and take off down the road? My guess is no. It probably took many tries before you could become proficient and start riding all over the neighborhood. Did you try a couple times and then give up because it was too difficult? No. You continued on again and again until you figured it out. You probably did the same thing for any sport or hobby you enjoyed. I’ll bet that many of them you kept practicing until you became pretty good. This is part of our drive as human beings and is embedded in our DNA.

We have always done difficult things as individuals and as the human race. World history is littered with examples of people doing difficult tasks and choosing the hard path. This mentality is embodied in JFK’s famous NASA speech from 1962:

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“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Meaning, to accomplish greatness, you must do difficult tasks.To achieve the things you never have, you have to do the things you have never done.

How to Stop Avoiding Difficult Tasks

How great do you want to be?

If this question makes you uncomfortable, then your desire for growth may not be intrinsically motivating enough. You may need to build some confidence in your abilities to do the difficult tasks in the first place.

If you are going to build confidence, you first need to acknowledge the fear that is holding you back. Often, avoidance of a difficult task is related to fear. This could be related to the fear of getting started, fear of inability to complete the task, or simply a fear of a lack of knowledge around the task. In all cases, fear leads to inaction, which leads to a further lack of confidence.

According to Jen Gottlieb, Co-Founder and Chief Mindset Officer of Super Connector Media,

“Confidence comes from feeling the fear and doing it anyway consistently.…because every single time you do something difficult or scary, and still do it, you get to the other side. You then realize that you didn’t die, and nothing terrible happened, so you get a win and celebrate that win. With each win, you put another coin in the confidence bank and become a little bit more confident. If you do that consistently and trust yourself to be able to do those scary things, you’ll grow to where it will be less and less scary and become easy.”

Sounds like a recipe for success to me. The key is not to focus on the totality of the difficult task but only one small step at a time. This makes any task far more attainable. As the old saying goes, How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

With this theory in mind, here are 3 tips to help you stop avoiding difficult tasks

  1. Break it up – Dividing the task into smaller, feasible parts makes it seem easier while allowing you to celebrate the small wins.
  2. Manage limiting beliefs – Focus on what you can accomplish and avoid any negative self-talk. By staying positive, you will increase your likelihood of sticking with it.
  3. Seek Support – When others hold us accountable, we increase our chances of success by two-thirds.

Whether it’s brain health, growth, or confidence, the good news is that there is hope for you and me when it comes to completing difficult tasks.

I ended up sticking with the difficult CrossFit class I was enrolled in. That first week was over ten years ago, and even though it was challenging at the time, I’m glad I didn’t give up. I’ve been coaching others in CrossFit for six years now and have learned to do many, many difficult tasks along the way. Those successes rank near the top of my list when it comes to CrossFit. I’ll save the top spot for the fact that I’m now the one who gets to hand out the burpee penalties.

Featured photo credit: Daria Nepriakhina via unsplash.com

Reference

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