Why do we procrastinate?

Julie Morse

Julie Morse,


12 November 20200 min read

Did dusting the top of your ceiling fan suddenly become a huge priority the night before your project launched? Sounds like our old friend—procrastination.

A presentation that has been on your calendar for months is due tomorrow. However, you’ve decided to dedicate your afternoon to reorganizing your Google spreadsheets.

You know better, but hey, this feels good. You’re making progress on something, right? Even if it’s something that has no deadline or impact on your work?

In another scenario, you’ve had all day to prepare for a big client meeting, but only start reviewing their milestones 15 minutes before you’re supposed to hop on the call. Whether you work alone or in a team, delaying responsibilities can make us look lazy and incompetent. Yet, procrastination isn’t what meets the eye, and in most cases, our inability to be productive stems from anxiety to complete the task at hand.

For most of us, procrastination has become part of our everyday lives, and working with a team that collectively suffers from chronic procrastination can be a stressful existence for everyone involved. However, there are ways to pinpoint the root of our procrastination tendencies so that we can dispose of our time-wasting habits for once and for all.

We’ve all been plagued with the feeling of a looming deadline. Whether your brand of procrastination is falling down a YouTube vortex, gazing into the Instagram’s Discovery feature, putting past events into your calendar, or searching for the perfect GIF for your team’s Slack channel, we all have our own unique ways of postponing obligations and goals. Sometimes we’re even able to trick ourselves into thinking our procrastination activities are necessary, like endorsing skills of our LinkedIn connections.

Procrastination doesn’t crop up from a single issue; it’s a layered struggle. There’s a psychological science to putting things off. As reported in the New York Times, procrastination is not a time management problem. It comes from inability to cope with emotions and moods tied into fear, self-esteem, anxiety, guilt, and our daily mood. We postpone projects and tasks that excite us but ultimately intimidate us. This explains why it’s so easy to complete boring but rudimentary responsibilities but utterly painstaking to tackle the projects that we’re actually emotionally invested in.

We tend to underestimate how our sense of self-worth impacts our motivation. Some researchers posit that our inability to meet deadlines has to do with our fear of not being “good enough.” We can spend hours staring at a screen, contemplating how to start off our first sentence, and as we sit there desperately waiting for inspiration to hit, the feelings of doubt and dread quickly begin to set in. Although, we may not be literally thinking, this is so scary, what if I screw up? It’s a subconscious worry that paralyzes us. When half a day has gone by and that empty spreadsheet is still staring us right in the face, the idea that we’ve wasted time just makes us feel guilty. Procrastination is a cyclical torture that only impedes our productivity and increases anxiety.

Other studies link procrastination to prioritizing our present needs over expectations for our futures. People give weight to their present tasks and assume they’ll manage their future needs when that moment arrives. “This seemingly plausible rule of thumb can lead people astray, in part because some future events require current action” write psychologists Dr. Neil A. Lewis Jr. and Dr. Daphna Oyserman in theirstudy published in Psychological Science. “In order for the future to energize and motivate current action, it must feel imminent.” Now it all makes sense as to why some of us started our college papers at 2 am the day they were due. It’s this inherent sense that nothing’s worth doing unless it absolutely needs to get done in that moment.

Yet, there are ways to manipulate the brain into placing more value on future responsibilities. Lewis and Oyserman found that by prompting people to look at deadlines and future events in days instead of months or years, they were more likely to prioritize them. The concept of months or years, can feel abstract and intangible. Days feel more immediate and real. For example, instead of envisioning the end of the sales quarter as being three months away, picture it as 92 days away. The anticipated pressure of days rather than months is likely to motivate your team to meet their quota.

Procrastination can also be tamed by implementing a basic but strict daily or weekly structure. In order to make a project feel less intimidating and overwhelming for your team, break it down into pieces. By dividing the project into sections and steps, the nature of the task will feel more manageable and realistic to accomplish. Maintain a routine conversation about deadlines with your team to make sure that everyone is on track with completing their goals. This way, they’ll feel encouraged and supported to keep a steady pace with their workflow, and won’t be inclined to fall back into their old procrastination habits.

Written by Julie Morse

Originally Published: 12 November 2020

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