We all procrastinate. But we are not all the same.
We have all felt this at some point in our lives: You know you should do something — like go to work on time, or prepare for an important meeting, or just apply face cream before bed — but you just couldn’t do it. No matter how clear it would be in your head (‘I need to do XYZ, I will do it now’) – you simply cannot get started.
This article summarises the main reasons why people procrastinate, focuses on the costs that procrastination has for us (some of them are clear, the others a bit less so) and proposes simple steps to try and break the ‘freezing spell’ we may feel confined to.
3 Common Reasons For Procrastination plus One Bonus Super Reason
The fact that we ALL procrastinate sometimes is old news. The reasons for procrastination tend to stem from the three main cognitive issues:
- Vague goals or unclear direction
We tend to think that our goals are clear and well-defined. However, that is frequently not the case and not getting down to doing something we planned can be a sign of a goal that was set up without all the specific details our mind needs to act. If you think you should tidy up the storage room, you may find yourself NOT tidying it up for a long time. However, if you schedule the activity in a specific slot, day and mark it in your calendar – the chances of putting it off lower significantly and your motivation to get the ball rolling increases exponentially thanks to a clear, measurable and objective timeline.
It seems surreal that a desire to do something well, instead of contributing to our success, makes any action difficult or even impossible. See, if the subconscious is given a Zero Sum Target (‘Only perfect or excellent results are considered valid results’), it frequently opts for not even trying. And just like that, instead of inspiring ourselves to pursue true excellence, we stop before the start line, completely unable to get started.
- Fear of Criticism and Judgement
If our head projects catastrophic scenarios of what could happen if the results of our actions are rejected by our peers, superiors or loved ones, our ability to act will be depleted or even annihilated. The more important the acceptance and approval of others is to us, the more we may find ourselves postponing a task or an action, if deep down we’re afraid it may not be what the others want, expect or approve of.
Selective Uber Procrastinators
All the above is true and applies to the majority of procrastinators. However, we want to draw your attention to a less common but overwhelmingly powerful reason why some of us are Uber Procrastinators – in some areas of life we seem to be completely immune to all the little ‘anti-procrastination’ tips and tricks the Internet is crawling with, failing to adopt any of the standard advice that seems to be working for others. Selective Procrastination (we use this term to describe a case when an otherwise efficient individual finds it extremely hard to follow a healthy diet, exercise, sleep or implement self-care routines) can be particularly difficult to break if we suffer from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). This complex emotional structure is the heartbreaking fruit of verbal, emotional or physical abuse and neglect some of us experienced in childhood. You can read more about it here: What is C-PTSD.
For someone whose childhood was marked by parental neglect of any sort there are two additional factors that reinforce the common reasons for procrastination:
- Inner Critic: The Spokesperson for Perfectionism
A brain that suffers from C-PTSD takes perfectionism to a whole different level. To a certain degree, we all want to perform well at work and in our private lives, but the need for that performance to be perfect is as fundamental as oxygen for some C-PTSD Survivors. Their inner mantra could be summarised as: Be Perfect or Not At All.
A person with this mark of childhood suffering can hear a voice in their head, constantly asking why they can’t do better, why they aren’t more this or that, never happy with who they are, never fully content with what they do. C-PTSD has a name for that cruel voice – the Inner Critic and a trauma-informed coaching or therapy may prove to be the only way to fully understand and silence it.
Just like with Perfectionism is enhanced by C-PTSD, being afraid of criticism grows to gigantic proportions when in the past we suffered from conditional love or if we didn’t feel accepted or seen by our parents when we were little. When we face the vision of possible catastrophes, the lack of action is a protective measure of sorts – if trying to reach our goal may bring the Armageddon, doing nothing seems a much safer choice, wouldn’t you agree?
Costs of Procrastination – obvious and not-so-obvious
On the surface, it seems that the main cost of procrastination is NOT getting something done and the direct consequences of that missing action or behaviour. This can of course be true in many situations – if we procrastinate when we need to get up early, the cost will be being late to a meeting or missing a train. This cannot, however, be applicable to procrastinating things like: self care, daily exercise or routine medical checkups – skipping a day or a week of a healthy routine cannot possibly bring the same dire consequences as not getting to a meeting on time.
The real costs of procrastination aren’t therefore solely the consequences of our lack of action, but rather how it makes us feel and how it affects our internal monologue.
For people with C-PTSD, procrastinating can morph into a kind of paralysis precisely because they have a tendency to criticize themselves more than anyone else and to set the bar impossibly high to prove themselves worthy of the love, respect and acceptance they were deprived of when they were little.
The costs are therefore really high – we pay for procrastination with the most precious currency of all – our self-esteem. The satellite costs are equally worrying – procrastination breeds more procrastination. The more we put something off, the harder time we give ourselves about it, the more complicated any action becomes. In the most severe cases, loops of inactivity can last for weeks, sometimes months and in the past C-PTSD survivors were misdiagnosed with a plethora of mental issues to justify and explain why some of them cannot bring themselves to any action in certain aspects and areas of their lives
How to break the Procrastination Loop once and for all?
If you had a happy childhood, ‘good enough’ parents and your self esteem is not a weak point for you, you can try the anti-procrastination strategies described masterfully by James Clean in his great book ‘Atomic Habits’.
You can take a time-management course or consult a coach to get some more personalized techniques, make sure you have a positive mindset and are ready to switch on the mindful observation mood to identify and pinpoint all the new habits you want to implement or old habits you wish to break.
The three key components of breaking a procrastination loop are:
Mindfulness, Positive Mindset and New Behavioural Strategies or Experiments one is willing to put in practice in order to shortlist those that work best.
However, if the brain uses procrastination as a way to limit the attacks of a C-PTSD-based inner critic, we need to take a slightly different approach to spring to action. We should start by exploring why our neglected Ego may be using procrastination to protect us from criticism, rejection or our own imperfection. We need to open a path of compassion and self-acceptance so absolute and all-encompassing to break the fears that make us choose procrastination as our shield. A guidance from a trauma-informed coach or therapist might be a necessary element at first, but slowly we will find a more loving, less cruel inner monologue which will make ‘acting’ feel less dangerous for us, thus breaking the procrastination loop once and for all.
Want to learn more or talk about what you discovered?