The Hidden Causes of Procrastination

“Procrastination, my old friend.  I’ve come to talk with you again.”

~(Apologies to Simon and Garfunkel)


It happens to all of us.  For some of us it can be a way of life.  We have a project that needs to get done.  We make a plan.  We’re just about to start and–oh what was that?  A squirrel?  A shiny object?  No, it’s procrastination.  We know we should focus on something important but suddenly we are off on a tangent, putting out a fire or just picking some of the  low hanging fruit.  Meanwhile, the project needing our attention–the one that could make a positive impact on our situation–is pushed back to another a time.  Perhaps when we are fresher or have few distractions.  

We all procrastinate.  In fact, I would say it is human nature to do so.  Procrastination keeps us safe.  If we aren’t putting forth any effort to achieve something new, we are staying in the same place–and that is safe.  It feels good.  Our brains are hardwired to stay  within our comfort zone.  While staying safe is nice, it is also stagnating.  We cannot move forward.  We cannot grow, or develop new skills and talents.  

There has been a tremendous amount of research conducted and countless books written on how to conquer procrastination.  Now, I could provide a blueprint for overcoming procrastination.  A way to get more done on a daily basis and feel better about yourself.  And I will do that–in my next article.  However, before we talk about technique, it is crucial to understand why you procrastinate.  What is it that causes you to put something off, even when it is important to you?  After all, you can change a behavior temporarily, but if you don’t address the root cause of that behavior, the change will be just that–temporary.

shiny-objectsAs I mentioned earlier, many of us procrastinate to stay in our comfort zone.  We don’t really want to make any changes because change is scary.  So we find reasons to avoid that life-changing project.  We fill the day with mundane tasks that, while necessary, aren’t going to move the needle forward.  Sure, we’ll feel good about updating the weekly report or getting the laundry done,  but those things don’t get us any closer to our goals.  In fact, they keep us firmly planted in the same place.  

But why would we do that?  One reason is low self-efficacy.  Perhaps the task we are trying to accomplish requires skills we don’t have.  Or haven’t learned yet.  By nature, we don’t like to do something we aren’t good at so we tend to put it off.  If that is the case, you might reframe the situation as a learning opportunity.  For example, when I started my own business I had no marketing experience.  The entire idea of marketing myself and my skills terrified me.  But if I didn’t do it, no one else would so I  decided to learn all I could about marketing.  The result?  I realized I was very capable of launching a marketing campaign.

Perhaps one of the most common causes of procrastination boils down to one simple thing–anxiety.  We worry about what will happen.  What will happen if we try and fail?  What will people say about us?  Anxiety is one of the most common root causes of procrastination, and it always focuses on the negative possible outcomes.  What can you do if anxiety keeps you from starting–or worse yet, finishing–that amazing, life-changing project?  


One of the best ways to overcome this type of anxiety involves the Three Option View.  When you find yourself avoiding a project, look at three possible outcomes.  The first outcome is the worst that could possibly happen.  If everything goes wrong–what is the worst that could happen?  Would you lose your job?  Your reputation?  The universe would come to an end?

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the best possible outcome.  You could get promoted.  Get a huge raise.  Make a meaningful contribution to the organization and the world.  Create lasting world peace.

Now, how likely are either of those outcomes?  Not very.  The third choice is somewhere in the middle.  What is most likely to happen?  You will complete your project, get some good feedback, perhaps some constructive feedback, and be seen as an important part of the team.  The reality is that while our anxiety leads us to imagine the worst extremes, the most likely outcome lies somewhere between best and worst.   

Once you understand why you procrastinate, you can develop lasting skills to combat those tendencies.  

About Chris Griffin

Chris Griffin is a executive coach with a passion for wellness through mindfulness. He helps executives and senior management enhance their performance and their lives by pinpointing and changing self-defeating behaviors.
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