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Why Do We Procrastinate? Lack of Motivation or Fear of Failure?

Credit: Matthew Henry

None of us are strangers to procrastination. It’s actually a rather common habit, especially when we have an infinite number of distractions available to us at the touch of a screen. What's wrong with scrolling through social media for another ten minutes, or watching one more episode of our latest Netflix show? We'll eventually get started on our homework pile, and whatever responsibility we have will still be waiting for us so where is the harm?

Well, frequent procrastination or procrastinating on the wrong things and at the wrong times can lead to big consequences. It can also start to negatively affect our daily lives and mental health.

Procrastination is defined as:

the action of unnecessarily and voluntarily delaying or postponing something despite knowing that there will be negative consequences for doing so.

This definition seems simple enough and, while accurate, it doesn’t highlight the complicated web of reasons and behavioral patterns of why people end up procrastinating. There's a bit of psychology to understand as we unravel the reasons behind our procrastination tendencies.

When we have something that needs to get done, we have to rely on our own self-control in order to actually do that task or job. We don’t rely on someone to watch over us at every second of our lives to make sure do everything.

Our self-control draws on motivation to support itself and fuel us as we accomplish tasks. Some things, like simple jobs and smaller actions, don’t require much motivation to get done.

More difficult or unappealing actions require more motivation and self-control to accomplish. A bump in this process appears when we come across demotivating factors. These are negative emotions like anxiety, fear of failure, boredom, or stress, which can take away from our motivation to do something and lead to procrastination.

Credit: Luis Villasmil

Other motivation-draining factors are called hindering factors, which are more physical factors like exhaustion, time and distance gaps, and lack of energy, all of which also hinder our ability to complete a task and make us much more likely to procrastinate.

Procrastinating helps us avoid these immediate negative emotions and unappealing obstacles, but it’s a momentary relief. Avoidance is a smaller but instantly attainable reward for our brain and that’s much more appealing than a distant accomplishment we need to work for. But avoidance and procrastination does little to actually help and can end up doing more harm in the long run.

To deal with procrastinating tendencies, it is important to know what procrastination is and what is fueling it. We need to think about the task we are trying to avoid and ask ourselves what about it, or ourselves, is keeping us from wanting to start it and then create a plan to resolve that.

Tips to Overcoming Procrastination

Attach meaning to the task: Find a way to make the task important or interesting to you. Finding connections can help spark motivation and make it more appealing and easy to start.

Break it Down: Defeat overwhelming tasks into smaller, and more manageable pieces that don’t require a lot of motivation to do. Accomplishing smaller tasks can put you in a better mood and set a momentum of productivity that is easier to follow.

Be Kind to Yourself: Procrastinators are also known to often be hard on themselves. They frequently feel guilt, distress, or frustration with their own habits. To counter that, it’s recommended that procrastinators be a bit more forgiving and understanding of themselves at times when they mess up, and instead, use the experience and feelings as motivation to do better next time.

Make Your Temptations More Inconvenient: Try a more productive self-sabotage by placing obstacles between yourself and your frequent forms of procrastination. A method can be as simple as putting my phone and other distracting devices in another room while working.

Reward Yourself: Set rewards to incentivize yourself to complete the task.


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