The Cause of Procrastination

February 14, 2021

When you procrastinate, why is that?

Many people think the cause of procrastination is poor time management or a lack of discipline. That’s not the case.

Over the past weeks, I repeatedly found myself procrastinating on certain tasks. Specifically, I’ve been running the Big-Picture Productivity live course and, each week, I created a workbook for my students to go along with that week’s teaching material. While I got all the workbooks out on time, I couldn’t get ahead on creating them. I repeatedly found myself finishing the workbooks last minute, which was stressful.

Now, I’m a pretty disciplined person and I generally manage my time well. Still, I procrastinated. Why?

It turns out I was resisting the work because of a variety of worries. I worried that the workbooks wouldn’t be good enough, that I wouldn’t explain concepts well, that people would find the exercises a waste of time, and so on.

I procrastinated because, when I wasn’t working on the workbooks, I didn’t have to feel those negative emotions. And this is generally true: we procrastinate because we’re avoiding negative emotions.

Think of something you’ve been procrastinating on. It could be an email you haven’t sent yet, a project you haven’t started working on, or a habit you were building before you fell off the wagon. I bet that, if you think about it for a minute, you can identify a negative emotion that you think you’d feel if you started or resumed work on this thing.

If you see procrastination as a failure of time management or as a failure of discipline, it can be tempting to berate yourself. You don’t have what it takes, you’re lazy, your productivity situation is hopeless—blah, blah, blah.

When you instead view procrastination as a well-intentioned (but ultimately counterproductive) tactic you’ve learned for avoiding negative emotions, you regain agency. Now your job, in the short term, isn’t to magically become “a disciplined person”—it’s to figure out a way to do the thing you’ve been procrastinating on without experiencing that emotion. That’s actionable! For example, in my case, I read some student feedback about how useful other exercises were. Reading their words lessened my worries.

For the long term, you can learn to be okay in the face of negative emotions. You can practice doing your work even if you’re experiencing fear of failure, frustration, overwhelm, or whatever the negative emotion is in your case. I’ve found that a daily meditation practice and occasional journaling helps with this.

See if you can pinpoint which negative emotion you’re avoiding on that thing you’ve been procrastinating on. How can you do the thing without experiencing (as much of) that negative emotion?

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