Why Do You Procrastinate?

Procrastination is an interesting topic to work with in therapy. A client is usually quite self-aware when they seek therapy for procrastination. They have tried many different tools to try to keep themselves “in line,” “on task,” or focused. Sometimes they are genuinely confused as to where their time goes, or why they find themselves drifting to email or random web searches.

True, we are usually aware of when we are procrastinating. My college bedroom was completely clean every time I sat down to write a paper. I’ll do almost anything to avoid folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher. And these are fairly unimportant tasks without much repercussion. What happens when you are self-employed and need to be entirely internally motivated?

First consider a few reasons why you might be procrastinating, and see if any of the solutions might work for you:

You haven’t clearly defined what you’re doing. Do you avoid an item on your to-do list even though it’s been there for days or weeks? Try to break it down only to the very next step. For example, “get in shape” becomes “pack running shoes for work”. “Write econ paper” becomes “write down specific terms to query or articles to read.” “Fix bathtub” becomes “Look at Yelp and choose a plumber to call.”

You have no idea what you hope to accomplish when you begin. We usually procrastinate until we have just enough time to not attend to the undesirable task. Try estimating the amount of time for that first task that you’ve just defined. For example, I had a client once who routinely avoided doing the dishes until one time he decided to time it. Knowing that it took him 12 minutes start to finish even with a full sink made the task doable.

You have magical thinking. There is that little voice inside all of us that says, “You don’t really need to do that now. Just watch another episode on TV and then you can start it.” This voice will convince you that almost anything is possible in the future and that now is not the time. Try coming up with some challenges to this voice in advance. (Some people keep them on post-its on their computer; I also teach cognitive thought charts to control this voice once and for all). What can you say back to this voice that is determined to sabotage your time line, business goals, and final paper? Tell it to go away.

You are overworked. Your procrastination might be necessary down time that you are not allowing yourself! It is very difficult and possibly even inefficient to concentrate at a high level for more than 90 minutes. Many high achievers like college students and the self-employed think more is better. When you don’t build in some allowed diddling time, or make plans to leave your desk and meet a friend, your brain tries to make this happen and procrastination is one of its tools. Try allowing yourself some down time and scheduled breaks and see if it isn’t easier to focus afterwards.

For procrastination that doesn’t improve with dedicated techniques, you might consider looking at the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, which affects adults too.