Procrastination is a common issue among students and many adults. There are many who struggle with deadlines every day, with the feeling of impending doom as the exam or project date looms. It is one of the largest problems seen in college counseling centers, and it is something nearly everyone has had to deal with at some point in their lives.
This article describes the roots of procrastination.
There are many underlying root causes for procrastination, and the specific cause will vary according to the person. The causes are often related to one another, however, and many of them must be adequately addressed before you will defeat procrastination.
Thoughts and Cognitive Distortions
Research has shown that people who procrastinate typically make five cognitive distortions which promote procrastination. (What’s a cognitive distortion? It’s generally known as irrational thinking, or thinking in an illogical fashion.)
- A person overestimates the amount of time left to perform a task and underestimates the amount of time required to complete it
- A person overestimates the amount of motivation they’ll have in the future (often believing they will be more motivated to do the task in the future)
- A person believes that they need to be in the right mood to be successful in completing the task and that, if they’re not in the right mood, they won’t be very successful at the task
Most people procrastinate because they pursue perfectionism, are fearful of doing badly at the task, or are simply too disorganized with their time and resources. Procrastination can also more rarely be an indicator of something else going on with the person, such as a sign of attention deficit disorder.
Perfectionists engage in a great deal of irrational thinking but, like most such thoughts, they don’t realize they’re doing it. Perfectionism is defined by a fear of failure or of making mistakes, a fear of disapproval or letting someone else down, black and white thinking (it’s either all or nothing, there are no shades of gray), an emphasis on “shoulds” (“I should be able to do this!”), and a belief that other people’s success comes easily to them.
Perfectionistic attitudes set in motion a vicious cycle. First, perfectionists set unreachable goals. Second, they fail to meet these goals because the goals were impossible to begin with. Failure to reach them was thus inevitable. Third, the constant pressure to achieve perfection and the inevitable chronic failure reduce productivity and effectiveness. Fourth, this cycle leads perfectionists to be self-critical and self-blaming which results in lower self-esteem. It may also lead to anxiety and depression. At this point perfectionists may give up completely on their goals and set different goals thinking, “This time if only I try harder I will succeed.” Such thinking sets the entire cycle in motion again.
Fear is a big motivator, but it can also be a big reinforcement not to actually get much accomplished. Procrastinators who are driven by fear usually use avoidance and have an intense desire to delay performing a task or simply wait for its expiration so that it no longer has to be dealt with. As the number of tasks mount, the procrastinator can become depressed and resigned to failure. The fear is very self-reinforcing in that each time they fail a task because of procrastination, it reinforces their own belief of their abilities and self-worth: “I knew I was going to fail, so what’s the use of even starting work on the next assignment?” This cycle will repeat itself endlessly over a school semester or the course of a year, with the person simply paralyzed by the fear of failure or doing badly on the task.
Fear of failure or doing badly on a task is difficult to overcome, because the fear is usually based on an emotion rather than logic. Most tasks are logic-based, while most procrastination tends to be emotion-based (or disorganization, a form of illogic). Overcoming fear-based procrastination can be done using the same tools and focus as disorganization, however, because once a person accepts they can be successful, success always follows.
Disorganization is probably the largest cause of procrastination, especially among students. While everybody learns their ABCs and trig equations, nobody is ever taught organizational skills in school. The largest disorganization issue is properly prioritizing tasks. Most people who procrastinate tend to tackle the easiest tasks first, regardless of whether they are urgent. More urgent or difficult tasks, however, begin to pile up as they are put off. Eventually these urgent tasks must be attended to and the current task gets pushed aside to focus on the immediate urgent task. You can see how this quickly leads to a disorganized schedule and a misunderstanding of which tasks should be tackled in which order.
Disorganization is reinforced by a couple of irrational beliefs that have little basis in fact. One such belief is that tasks are all large chunks that cannot be subdivided. If the task cannot be tackled all at once, as a whole, then the task isn’t even worth working on.
Another irrational belief that leads to more disorganization is that every new task or opportunity that arises must be first dealt with before going back to work on the most urgent task. This distractibility means that the procrastinator is often unable to stay “on task” because something else has come up. The “something else” can be anything. The point is not what the something else is, but that it distracts the person from continuing work on their main task.
Last, many procrastinators suffer from the belief that they have a better memory than they do. We all like to think we can remember everything told to us, all important deadlines, exam dates, etc. The fact is, though, in this fast-paced, multi-tasking society, it’s easy to forget stuff (even important things!). Unfortunately, many procrastinators won’t admit to forgetting anything, compounding their procrastination and disorganization problems.