Why We Procrastinate Despite Knowing That It’s Self-Sabotage

You’d probably be lying if you said you’ve never procrastinated before. The fact of the matter is that all of us procrastinate despite knowing the harm it can do to our progress and growth in real life. By now, we all know that procrastination only postpones the inevitable last-minute mayhem. The more we procrastinate, the more we panic at the last minute.


Somehow, despite knowing this, we persist in procrastinating. Why?

It isn’t a simple matter of ingrained bad habits. While it’s most commonly associated with laziness and being unmotivated, the underlying causes for procrastination are far more profound than mere behavioural explanations.

To understand why we procrastinate, we must first realise that it is not just a characteristic of apathetic under-achievement; we don’t procrastinate just because we can’t be bothered to do well. Ironically, most of us procrastinate because we want to do well but are simultaneously afraid of falling in short despite putting in the effort. Here’s a more in-depth look at the reasons procrastinating is such a hard habit to kick.

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1. The illusion of time

The most apparent cause of procrastination is also the simplest: we often let ourselves think we all have the time in the world. The illusion of having ample time is directly related to the frequency and persistence with which we procrastinate. In other words, we tend to put things off unnecessarily because:

  • There’s no definite deadline to keep to
  • The given deadline is far away


Studies have shown that people tend to perceive tasks with shorter deadlines as more important. Thus, they put more effort into them compared to tasks with longer deadlines, regardless of the actual complexity of these tasks.

Longer deadlines are often given because the task at hand requires complex manoeuvres and all kinds of mental gymnastics. At the same time, these are also the ones we tend to procrastinate the most on since we keep thinking we have lots of time to get it done.


2. The addiction to distraction

Combine a relative lack of self-direction, 24/7 connectivity, and the ubiquitous smartphone, and you have a recipe for constant distraction that often slips under the radar. Ultimately, we end up procrastinating without even realising it.


The demands that technology has placed on our time are increasingly difficult to ignore. Every day, we’re also presented with an endless stream of options with which to fill our time. Before you know it, a 5-minute break to watch a Youtube Recommends video turns into an hour-long binge.

Even if you’ve come up with a comprehensive, prioritised task list of everything you need to get done by the end of the day, you might end up procrastinating by checking and replying emails instead of getting any essential work done.


3. The nature of the task itself

According to Tim Pychyl, psychologist and author of “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle,” we tend to put off doing things we don’t want to do. The more we dread and dislike working on a particular task, the more we procrastinate. Pychyl has identified 7 different characteristics of tasks that are unpleasant in this way:*

  • Boring
  • Difficult
  • Frustrating
  • Ambiguous
  • Unstructured
  • Ambiguous
  • Not intrinsically rewarding
  • Lacking in personal meaning


The more boxes your task checks, the higher the probability that you’ll procrastinate. This has less to do with the logic of productivity and urgency than with the sheer desire to avoid the onslaught of negativity brought on by working on a task that you perceive to be so unpleasant.

*As reported in the Harvard Business Review.


4. Negative self-perception

At the heart of procrastination lies an entirely more deep-seated (and thus harder to eradicate) motive for continually putting things off: the human desire to see ourselves and be seen by others as competent.

In essence, serial procrastination is a deliberate act of self-preservation borne of the need to maintain a positive self-regard. It’s what happens when you want success and fear failure at the same time. If you procrastinate doing something when the stakes are high and where you’re personally invested in the outcome, you’re reducing the likelihood of negative self-appraisal if things don’t turn out the way you liked. Instead of having to face the fact that your shortcomings are what effected your failure, you can blame it on your procrastination.


The problem here, according to Princeton’s Nic Voge, is that you’ve equated your performance with your ability and your self-worth. The worse you do, the worse you think of your skills, and the harder the blow to your self-esteem. This is why procrastination remains so alluring despite our best efforts; the fear of failure trumps logic so that you’d rather risk deliberately sacrificing your performance than have to face the fact that, in your eyes, you’re just not good enough.


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