Procrastination and Self-Esteem: What’s the Connection?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Procrastination" by Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the connection between procrastination and self-esteem? How does unhealthy self-esteem prevent you from getting things done?

Everybody procrastinates, but some people do it more than others. According to psychologists Lenora Yuen and Jane Burka, self-esteem plays a key role in an individual’s tendency to procrastinate.

Keep reading to learn about the link between procrastination and self-esteem.

Is Procrastination a Self-Esteem Issue?

People with unhealthy self-esteem tend to procrastinate more than people with healthy self-esteem. To better understand the link between procrastination and self-esteem, let’s first contrast healthy and unhealthy self-esteem. When you have unhealthy self-esteem, you possess a distorted view of your strengths and shortcomings. Furthermore, your sense of self-worth heavily relies on others’ opinions of you. By contrast, people with healthy self-esteem have a realistic sense of their assets and weaknesses and they possess a stable, internal sense of self-worth independent of others’ opinions.

(Shortform note: People often equate high self-esteem with healthy self-esteem, but research reveals that some forms of high self-esteem are unhealthy. High self-esteem is as unhealthy as low self-esteem when it’s “fragile,” meaning it sinks when others doubt your abilities or worth. In such situations, people with high, fragile self-esteem easily become defensive. By contrast, high self-esteem is healthy when it’s “secure,” meaning it remains stable even when others doubt you. Given that people with unhealthy self-esteem tend to procrastinate more, these findings suggest that people with fragile, high self-esteem may be more likely to procrastinate than people with secure, high self-esteem.)

People with high, unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate because they set unreasonably high goals for themselves. They think these goals are the only ones worthy of their abilities, which they believe are extremely high. However, these lofty goals are difficult. They procrastinate on these goals because they’re afraid that if they don’t achieve them, it’ll reflect poorly on them. 

By contrast, people with low, unhealthy self-esteem procrastinate because they believe many tasks are too difficult for them. They procrastinate because they believe it’s not worth trying or finishing a goal they’re bound to fail.

(Shortform note: Research reveals that multiple factors influence your perception of a task’s difficulty, suggesting that changing these factors could make people with unhealthy self-esteem less likely to procrastinate. For example, research shows that when you’re tired, you perceive tasks to be more difficult. Therefore, a person with unhealthy self-esteem may be less likely to procrastinate if they’re well-rested. Furthermore, you’re more likely to think tasks are easier if you’re in an environment that aligns with your cultural norms—for example, if you’re going to college in your home country. Therefore, someone with unhealthy self-esteem may procrastinate less if they seek out an environment that matches their cultural values.)

Procrastination and Self-Esteem: What’s the Connection?

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Here's what you'll find in our full Procrastination summary:

  • How to identify the fears that lead you to procrastinate
  • How your biology, circumstances, and self-esteem affect your procrastination
  • How to better control how you manage your emotions and time

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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