Understanding Procrastination

By Karalyn Violeta, LMSW

Putting off writing that report by scrolling through your newsfeed again? Have you planned to spend the afternoon sending out resumes and cover letters, and then found yourself deep cleaning your bathroom tiles? I myself was planning to write this blog post on procrastination, but decided to watch an episode of "Pitbulls and Parolees" and then take my dog for a walk.

Procrastination gets us all from time to time, so it’s important to keep things in perspective. In general, we tend to gravitate towards tasks we enjoy, that we feel competent in, or that have a more immediate pay off. These are the items that are often more easily checked off our to-do lists. I personally can’t say that I’ve ever procrastinated a barbecue, a day at the beach, or a vacation. If it makes us feel good, it’s less likely that we will avoid the task. When it comes to tasks like filing taxes, paying bills, writing papers, or returning phone calls, it’s harder to summon up the motivation to complete them without a looming deadline.

Why do we avoid certain tasks, even when delaying them brings worry and anxiety? These are issues I frequently speak about with my clients, and there is no single answer that fits for everyone. For many of us, the fear of failure may prevent us from even taking that first step towards completing a task. Perhaps the specific task evokes an emotional response that we’d rather not deal with? For example, some of us grew up in households where there was not enough money to pay all the bills, and we watched our parents worry as they struggled to make ends meet. As adults, we may feel anxiety or apprehension each month when our bills are due, or avoid even opening bills that are sent by mail. I once heard someone describe the cardboard box where he deposited unopened, unpaid bills as his “box of fear.”

Perfectionism and procrastination are interrelated, and we may feel paralyzed by tasks that put us in the position of having our abilities and competencies judged by others. The fear of failure can prevent us from ever clicking “submit” on those graduate school applications or applying for our dream jobs, and keeps us treading water. It may be that we have trouble trusting our own decision-making ability and so we either avoid making decisions altogether or vacillate between options, finding ourselves unable to settle on a single solution or choice. We may tell ourselves that we “work best under pressure,” but by waiting until the last possible moment to complete important tasks means that they will likely not be completed accurately and thoroughly… and then if we fail, we can always blame it on our lack of preparation, right?

While actively procrastinating, we may also engage in negative self-talk and worrying. This can affect our mood and further diminish our motivation.  For example, thoughts like “I can never finish anything,” or “I’ll only fail if I try, so why bother” only serve to make us feel depressed and demoralized. 

Some tips for avoiding procrastination:

  • Break down larger tasks into smaller steps. Once you’ve completed a step, find small ways to reward yourself
  • Reduce distractions and increase productivity when working on your computer by using an app like Freedom (https://freedom.to/) 
  • Make sure you’re getting the right things done – make a smart to-do list that focuses on the tasks that you are less motivated to complete, not the ones you are more likely to do
  • Ask someone for help or make your attentions known to others – sometimes it helps to be accountable to another person

So, how do we overcome procrastination? I think we need to start by accepting that failure happens. Failure is not necessarily a problem in itself because there will likely be other choices to make and opportunities to pursue. It’s what we are telling ourselves about WHY we failed that continues the cycle of disappointment and self-blame. In therapy, we can identify and examine the negative assumptions that are holding us back, and find strategies that help to overcome procrastination and perfectionism.

Karalyn Violeta is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy.  If you would like support with productivity and achieving your goals, visit www.cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more how therapy can help.