If you’re a living, breathing human, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve procrastinated on something at some point in time. Whether with little things, like doing chores and running errands, or bigger-deal personal checkpoints like hitting career goals, the inclination to put off your to-do list items has a tendency to show up at times in life when we most pressingly need to get stuff done—and there are a number of causes of procrastination that explain why it happens.
Although in the short-term, you may feel relieved to put things off, in the long-term, it can become a detrimental habit. “Procrastination turns into a deeper issue when it begins to shift how you see yourself,” says industrial-organizational psychologist and leadership coach Tianna Tye. “It’s too common that we adopt a ‘this is how I am’ or ‘I’ve always procrastinated’ mentality. It is damaging to our confidence and our belief that we are capable of achieving great things.”
When procrastination hits, you’ll either miraculously get a burst of energy at the 11th hour and accomplish the task, or you’ll run out of time, not get it done (or at least not to the best of your abilities), and end up feeling disappointed in yourself. But that disappointment is often tied to the belief that laziness is what propelled your choice to put off your tasks when in actuality, causes of procrastination are more vast and wide. “You can find a clue to your deeper issue in your thoughts and feelings immediately before you decide to procrastinate,” says Irena O’Brien, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and founder of The Neuroscience School. “It will tell you why you’re procrastinating.”
“You can find a clue to your deeper issue in your thoughts and feelings before you decide to procrastinate that will tell you why you’re procrastinating.” —neuroscientist Irena O’Brien, PhD
Below, Tye and Dr. O’Brien dive into six common causes of procrastination, and how to self-correct so you can get back into a productive flow.
1. Not feeling fulfilled
“Whether it’s in your personal life or your job, being unfulfilled is one of the most challenging root causes of procrastination,” Tye says. “When you’re not connected to your deeper meaning—your why behind any role you have in life—it damages your intrinsic motivation. This makes it incredibly difficult to muster up the energy to get things done.”
To remedy this, Tye suggests getting clarity around what would fulfill you. How does it feel? What does it look like? You can even write it down if helps you paint the full picture.
2. Lack of clarity
Another one of the non-laziness causes of procrastination is not being clear on what goals we want to achieve, therefore we either aimlessly work in ineffective ways or we do nothing at all. This concept applies to both macro concepts, like lack of clarity around your life purpose, as well on specific projects.
If this is the case for you, Tye suggests working backward by taking time to get clear on your goal, big or small, and then identifying what actions you need to take to achieve that goal.
Perfectionism is a trait many people wear as a badge of honor, and while being all about the details does have its pros, aiming for infallibility may be holding you back from accomplishing the greater ask. “To combat perfectionism, try giving yourself a deadline on tasks that you feel anxious or overwhelmed by,” Tye says. “Stick to that deadline, and remember, done is better than perfect.”
4. Fear of failure
“Fear of failure is one of the most common causes of procrastination, especially if the task is difficult or completely out of your comfort zone,” Tye says. “It may sound backwards, but don’t focus so heavily on being confident in your ability to do something that comes with practice and mastery. Focus on being confident enough to try, fail, and not let that failure turn into a negative narrative about your ability.”
Another strategy for overcoming the fear and anxiety that comes along with certain tasks is breaking down what it is you’re procrastinating into smaller to-dos know you can succeed. “The success, and it doesn’t matter how tiny it was, boosts dopamine in the brain and increases your likelihood of success on the next task,” says Dr. O’Brien. “This creates an upward spiral where success boosts motivation and leads to more progress.”
5. Needing rewards
Sometimes we have to do things we don’t necessarily love but still have to do. So if you’re procrastinating on chores like doing the dishes, and laundry, the easiest way to get yourself into action is to turn the situation into a game.
Tye recommends setting up rewards for yourself that you treat yourself to once you complete the tasks. That mountain of laundry will likely get folded much quicker when you know there’s a yummy smoothie and an episode of The Office waiting for you, for example.
For a new, fiber-rich smoothie recipe, try acacia blend:
6. Intuitive hits
At times, procrastination isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it can be a form of intuitive intel. “Sometimes, your thoughts and feelings immediately before you decide to procrastinate will tell you that something’s not right, that you shouldn’t have accepted this project, for example, or even that you need to take a break,” Dr. O’Brien says. “It’s important to listen to those thoughts and feelings and deal with the issue.”
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