Common Procrastination Causes and How to Break the Cycle

Man procrastinates at his desk at work.Many people who frequently procrastinate don’t endorse their own behavior or speak about it proudly. Many who experience repeated procrastination want to change. This desire and motivation to change is most acute when time is running out and the person procrastinating is in the throes of an emotional storm of anxiety.

The procrastinator often repents during his or her peak time of displeasure. For example, the academic or executive preparing for a big meeting, after staying up past 4 a.m., vows never again to put himself or herself through this self-inflicted, sleep-deprived, caffeine-infused pain. “Next time, I won’t wait until the last minute,” he or she says. However, when the next time comes, the vow is broken and boundaries of time are again played with dangerously.

It’s estimated that about 50% of college students and 20% of older adults procrastinate chronically (Harriet and Ferrari, 1996; Day, Mesnick, and O’Sullivan, 2000). But if it’s so painful, why do so many procrastinate? Are they masochistic or lazy? Let’s take a look at different reasons why people procrastinate and identify some tips to help those who do.

1. The Masochistic Procrastinator

Bringing yourself to despair and surviving it can create a feeling of triumph and exhilaration. “I did it,” says the masochistic procrastinator. The excitement of just making it to class or to a plane in the nick of time can be a joyous rush or regressive return to adolescent rebellion. For others, the joy or pleasure of procrastination is less apparent (or more disguised). Unresolved Oedipal issues leading to guilt or ambivalence about success may drive these procrastinators to get in the way of themselves.

A tip for breaking the cycle: A deep dive with a psychodynamically informed therapist may help the masochistic procrastinator examine unconscious self-sabotaging behaviors. Understanding the motivations behind taking risks and how to sublimate this desire can help. Letting go of feelings of guilt about success or other similar feelings can help a person become more comfortable with assertiveness and embrace healthy aggression to move toward goals.

2. The Hedonistic/Self-Regulation Procrastinator

The hedonistic type of procrastinator, who often experiences self-regulation issues, may not have low self-esteem or confusion about goals. Instead, this procrastinator may struggle because he or she cannot delay gratification. Recent research suggests that this may be the most influential variable contributing to procrastination (Sirois, 2014).

People who experience self-regulation procrastination are drawn to what interests them in the moment. Facebook, fantasy football, Instagram, or Twitter may simply feel a better than working on a paper, prepping for a meeting, or calling back a client.People who experience self-regulation procrastination are drawn to what interests them in the moment. Facebook, fantasy football, Instagram, or Twitter may simply feel better than working on a paper, prepping for a meeting, or calling back a client. The hedonistic type of procrastinator often pushes away the negative feelings and consequences by instead indulging their immediate desires.

A tip for breaking the cycle: Think about your desired future self. Focus on the consequences that will result if you engage right now in what your priorities are. For example, fill in the blanks in this statement:

If I start now, the benefit will be _______ and I will feel _______. If I wait and procrastinate, I will feel _______ and the consequences will be _______.

3. The Sense of Self Procrastinator

Research (Shanahan and Pychl, 2007) indicates when you have an unstable sense of self, you may be more prone to procrastinate. In other words, if you do not feel connected to who you are, it often makes it difficult to feel connected to a task. For example, taking the steps to apply for a job in computer programming is less motivating and something you may avoid if you are unsure this is a career you want. Having a good sense of self can make tasks more meaningful and increase your motivation to engage in them. If you are passionate and have a sense of who you are, it may be easier to harness energy to complete tasks with more fervor and dedication.

A tip for breaking the cycle: Spend more time on thorough self-exploration to determine what you really want rather than what other people expect from you. Some individuals out of desperation pick a path or tasks in an attempt to free themselves from the existential anxiety of not knowing where to go in life. Being able to tolerate the unknown and discover what ultimately matches your personality and life goals, although time consuming, can help foster passion and success.

4. The Fear and Self-Esteem Procrastinator

Self-doubt and low self-esteem can sometimes make ordinary tasks appear daunting. When you doubt yourself, tasks at hand may be more difficult as you imagine trying to conquer an unbeatable opponent. This may lead you to engage in more pleasurable activities that have a short-term payoff. Unfortunately, avoidance of important tasks can also lead to self-loathing and feelings of guilt.

A tip for breaking the cycle: When climbing a mountain, it’s helpful not to look up. Instead, focus on what is in front of you. Focusing on subcomponents of a task rather than the end result can help people who feel overwhelmed or experience self-doubt.

5. The Self-Handicapping Procrastinator

By putting things off until the last minute and performing below their capabilities, many self-handicapping procrastinators protect themselves against negative feelings by saying, “I could have done better if I worked harder.” Living in a world of “what they could potentially accomplish if they worked hard” may be more comfortable than discovering strengths and weaknesses.

A tip for breaking the cycle: Reframing failure or success can be helpful. Try to view success as confronting a task and putting effort in regardless of whether you obtain the goal. Facing struggles in this way and learning from mistakes throughout the process will also help build strengths.

6. The Successful Rationalizing Procrastinator

This type of procrastinator has been doing it for years and, on the surface, has gotten away with it. A major rationalization such a person may rely on for his or her behavior is his or her success. Despite procrastinating, this individual may have received promotions at work, obtained excellent grades, and may be perceived by others as competent.

Relative success often leads this person to continue procrastinating, since he or she is able to function and achieve despite the behavior. Although successful, this type of procrastinator may not be living up to his or her true potential. Furthermore, the ghosts of uncompleted assignments often haunt the rationalizer. Although they may be confident they can get things done at the last minute, doing so has a psychological cost. Anxiety and feelings of emptiness can result from this type of procrastination.

A tip for breaking the cycle: Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, advocates making meaning regardless of your situation. Engaging tasks with all your energy and in a way that is meaningful to your environment makes life richer and fills it with purpose.

References:

  1. Day, V., Mensink, D., & O’Sullivan, M. (2000). Patterns of academic procrastination. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 30, 120-134.
  2. Harriott, J., & Ferrari, J. R. (1996). Prevalence of procrastination among samples of adults. Psychological Reports, 78, 611-616.
  3. Shanahan, J.M., & Pychl, A.T. (2007). An ego identity perspective on volition action: status, agency and procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 43 901-911.
  4. Sirois, F (2014). Out of sight, out of time? A meta-analytic investigation of procrastination and time perspective. European Journal of Personality, 511-520.

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  • Ari

    Ari

    October 12th, 2015 at 8:17 AM

    I have to admit that I am the person who does get quite the rush form doing something just in the nick of time.

  • jacquie R

    jacquie R

    October 12th, 2015 at 9:03 AM

    great article!! I know a couple of people that fit several of these “types”

  • Sienna

    Sienna

    October 13th, 2015 at 5:16 AM

    I am not that sure that I am one type or another, but I know that I definitely put things off until the last second. Somehow there is always this sense that I am much more successful when I pout things off til the last possible second. I have always done well when I do things this way and there always seems to be something else that will capture my attention until I just really have to buckle down and get a job done. Not the most desirable trait, but

  • Cathy Y

    Cathy Y

    October 14th, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    So I am pretty certain that I work with a whole bunch of lazy people who work under the assumption that if they just continue to put off doing the job then they know that that will drive me crazy and I will swoop in and save the day.

    I will admit that this is the old me. It drives me pretty crazy to sit aorund and have nothing get done so I would come in and clean up the messes and the drops that they would leave behind. I understand that this is unfair to me but I know that it would also reflect poorly on me too because we are all part of a team.

    Their theory just happens to be that they know I will come behind them and fix it all up so why bother?

  • yolanda

    yolanda

    October 15th, 2015 at 10:22 AM

    How to break the cycle in one step:
    Stop procrastinating!

  • carrie

    carrie

    October 16th, 2015 at 11:14 AM

    Well #3 is definitely me. I do not know a whole lot yet about who or what I want to be so I guess it’s that I keep putting off doing a whole lot because of that. I am thinking that I probably spend a whole lot of time (maybe too much?) thinking that eventually this will just come to me when I know deep down inside that I have got to begin the process of figuring it all myself. Things have always come pretty easy for me but this has just really slowed me down and the more I think about it then the more depressed I get about being there. I think that if I could find one great thing to commit to then I could get past that obstacle, but I haven’t found it (or looked for it?) yet.

  • Jimmy

    Jimmy

    October 19th, 2015 at 11:24 AM

    I don’t get the relationship at all between being a masochist and then experiencing some kind of exhilaration after the pain of getting through it and getting it done. There would be no rush for me- only the remaining feelings of how bad it felt waiting that long to get something done!

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