What Causes Procrastination? The 3 Most Common Causes

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 causes procrastination? Why do we sometimes choose short-term relief from fear over the long-term gains of persisting through daunting but important tasks?

Although procrastination harms us, we still do it because it provides us with relief. Procrastination is essentially a coping mechanism: We procrastinate to cope with the fear of working on certain tasks.

Here are the three most common fears behind procrastination.

Fear 1: Losing Love

According to the authors of Procrastination, some people procrastinate on tasks because they fear their performance will make others love them less. Let’s explore two different ways this fear manifests.

Fear of performing well: Some people fear that if they perform well on a task, others will envy or resent them for their success. For example, a gymnast might procrastinate on practicing because he’s afraid his sister (who’s also a gymnast) would envy him. Furthermore, he worries her envy could weaken their close bond. 

(Shortform note: People who are afraid of performing well often hide this fear because they’re ashamed of it. They’re aware that most people generally value success, so they worry others would dismiss their fear of success as silly.)

Fear of performing poorly: Some people equate their performance on a task with their lovability, so they procrastinate on tasks they could fail. For example, a doctor’s daughter might procrastinate on applying to medical school because she fears her mother will love her less if she doesn’t get in. By delaying her application, she delays facing her mother’s disappointment.

(Shortform note: People who equate their performance with their lovability may have particular trouble meeting their need for love—which could prevent them from achieving their full potential. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feeling loved is a basic human need, and you have to satisfy this need to achieve self-actualization. Self-actualization is when you reach your potential by pursuing and developing your interests and goals. People who think they will only be loved if they perform well may have trouble meeting this need for love and reaching self-actualization because it’s impossible to always perform well. When they inevitably fail, they may feel that they’ve lost others’ love—even if that’s not true.)

Fear 2: Imperfection

Second, some people procrastinate because they fear imperfection. People with this fear are perfectionists. They set high self-expectations because they believe their abilities are exceptional. However, these self-expectations are often higher than their actual abilities. The authors argue that perfectionists procrastinate because they fear learning that their abilities won’t actually meet their high expectations. Although procrastination makes them seem disorganized, they prefer to appear disorganized over revealing to themselves and others that they’re imperfect.

For example, imagine a perfectionist was praised for their above-average writing abilities throughout their high school years. When they go to college, they discover that college writing is harder than high school writing. They procrastinate on completing their writing assignments because they fear confronting the idea that they’re an average writer. They’d rather get a bad grade for failing to turn in an essay than for turning in completed, average-quality essays.

(Shortform note: Perfectionism leads to other serious issues beyond procrastination. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown claims that perfectionists experience chronic shame because they repeatedly fail to meet their impossibly high self-expectations. Research also reveals that perfectionism compromises your mental health, leading you to burn out at work or school.)

Fear 3: Restrictions

Finally, the authors claim that procrastination helps some people experience a sense of freedom. It’s a strategy for dealing with their fear of restrictions. Let’s explore two ways this fear manifests.

First, some procrastinators fear restrictive rules. They think others’ rules limit their freedom, so they procrastinate on tasks to reclaim their independence. For instance, imagine a child who thinks her parents have overly strict rules for how clean her room should be. She procrastinates on cleaning it to send the message that she gets to decide how her room looks.

(Shortform note: Communicating your fear or dislike of rules by procrastinating is an example of passive aggression. Passive aggression is when you express your anger by showing it rather than communicating it directly. People engage in passive aggression because they’re scared of communicating their anger and they feel more in control when they express their feelings indirectly. Research shows that over time, passive-aggressive communication harms your relationships because it leaves others feeling disrespected and confused.)

Second, some procrastinators fear time’s restrictions. They have trouble accepting that certain opportunities in life have deadlines. They procrastinate on committing to opportunities that have deadlines out of fear that this means giving up on other opportunities that also have deadlines. For example, someone may procrastinate on starting a family because they’re not ready to abandon their aspiration of someday becoming an actor.

(Shortform note: In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman warns that avoiding commitment eventually makes you unhappy. He argues that when people refrain from commitment to keep their possibilities open, they miss out on the pleasure commitment brings. For example, someone who dates multiple people at once may miss out on the pleasure of building a close relationship with just one other person.)

(Shortform note: In The Now Habit, Neil Fiore claims that when we feel guilty and shameful about procrastinating on work, those feelings propel us into a cycle that only makes us procrastinate more. According to Fiore, this happens because there’s a societal belief that work is tedious yet virtuous. Our belief that it’s tedious makes us avoid it, then our belief that it’s virtuous makes us feel guilty and shameful for avoiding it. This guilt and shame lead us to procrastinate further.)

How Perspectives on Procrastination Have Evolved Over Time

Over time, perspectives on what causes procrastination have shifted from associating it with laziness to seeing it as a strategy for handling emotions such as fear. Most of the earliest written uses of the word procrastination use it interchangeably with the word sloth: the sin of being lazy. Beginning in the early 20th century, writers for popular magazines began to discuss procrastination as a habit of being lazy that you can fix by exercising and by strengthening your productivity and time management skills.

Today, many experts’ views on procrastination align with Burka and Yuen’s idea that it’s a strategy for handling emotions, rather than a result of laziness. While Burka and Yuen emphasize how procrastination helps you cope with fear, other experts emphasize how procrastination helps you cope with other emotions. For instance, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, claims that we procrastinate when any heightened emotion (positive or negative) overrides our rational plans. For instance, someone who’s excited about impressing a crush may procrastinate on an assignment, even if they don’t fear that assignment. 
What Causes Procrastination? The 3 Most Common Causes

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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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