Why Do People Procrastinate?

Just this week a couple of clients were suffering from procrastination. And just this week there was a study reported, on how to stay on task, that I believe can help us to get started on the tasks too.

Naturally, I am intrigued by what makes it so hard to get started in the first place. After all, she put it on her list, she said she would do it, she even said that she wanted to do whatever it was, and then she didn’t.

It can be puzzling, if not deeply frustrating because they have no idea why they would behave so irrationally. But is it irrational, or is there something more going on?

One of the first and best things I learned in business school was that people are rational.

Even if the reason is not conscious, still there is a reason ‘why not’ that is overpowering the ‘why’ they first wanted to do it at all.

And what might that be? What is the reason for this mighty resistance to getting things done?

Let’s talk about procrastination, something 94% of participants in one study said is ruining their happiness. From an earlier post on why so many people put off doing what they said they would:

What Causes Procrastination?

Go here if you want to read about the 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 types of Procrastinators. I’m more interested in general causes than types, and found this great list, which you can unpack more here:

    • Abstract goals.
    • Outcomes that are far in the future.
    • A disconnect from our future self.
    • Feeling overwhelmed.
    • Anxiety.
    • Task aversion.
    • Perfectionism.
    • Fear(e.g., of failure, evaluation, or negative feedback).
    • Perceived lack of control.
    • ADHD.
    • Depression.
    • Lack of motivation.
    • Lack of energy.
    • Sensation seeking.

The list above got me thinking about someone I talked with just this week. Let’s call her Sue. 

Sue got called on the rug big time, by her director, for putting off things her director really wanted her to do. Turns out, Sue said that it was not that she didn’t like the tasks per se. Sometimes, that is the reason, task aversion, on the list above. But not in Sue’s case.

And, it was not that she had too much else to do. She did have other things to do, which she enjoyed more so she did those, especially since these other activities gave her a more enhanced sense of herself.-

I get Sue. A lot of adults don’t particularly appreciate being told what to do. They are adults after all. And they especially don’t like having whatever it is hanging over their heads, even if the nagging about things undone is coming from inside their own heads.

It’s intrusive and stressful. And they want it to go away, so they put it off, as if that will make it go away only it doesn’t. What we resist persists and only comes back stronger.

And, it isn’t our most mature and effective shot to be digging our heels in like a 2-year-old when it comes to stuff we know we need to get done.

What can we do instead?

What to Do Instead of Procrastination

Not starting and not sticking with a task or commitment are 2 of the numerous types of procrastinating.

For both of these, instead of mindlessly (and/or willfully) procrastinating when we don’t feel like doing what we think we should—or said we would—what if we paused for a moment and asked ourselves what purpose would it serve to just get it done?

The University of Oregon study found that participants had a much easier time sticking with a task and with better performance when the task was associated with specific individual goals to pursue. Goal setting can knock out distractions that take us off task and motivate us in the direction of beginning tasks we have been putting off.

So, what about this? As only one example, what if a general purpose goal was that it simply feels terrific to get things done?

I pride myself on having the world’s shortest to-do list. I love how it feels to put my head on the pillow at night knowing I pretty much got it done, for not just myself but all the people counting on me too. Nobody is making me do anything. I am the adult, fully in charge.

And okay fine, sometimes I don’t get it all done, but it’s not like there is a big pile-up weighing me down and stealing my smile, because most things get done. And they get done because I want them to because it feels good.

Maybe you can try this, or come up with a guiding goal that works better for you.

Practice, practice, practice…see what happens and let us know.

With love,


Photo by Freepik

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About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

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