Five reasons why we procrastinate

and how we can get ourselves unstuck

Voltaire. Perfect Enemy of Good. Paul Claireaux

I’ve been meaning to write this Insight, on why we procrastinate, for some time.

Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist!

Joking aside, we will look at the five reasons why, according to a world-leading (mental health) Doctor, we so often delay on our most important work, but first let’s explore a linked idea on happiness.

Happiness starts with D

In his book ‘Happiness by Design’, Paul Dolan offers us three, easy to remember and essential lessons about happiness. And they all begin with the letter ‘D’

His research suggests that greater happiness is often found when we do more Deciding, Designing and Doing – which chimes perfectly with what the Greek philosopher, Aristotle said, over two thousand years ago.

Aristotle. Excellence. Paul Claireaux

It’s obvious, once you know the answer, isn’t it?

If we repeatedly do our work, in a well-directed way, higher quality outputs and more happiness are the likely results.

Let’s be clear, though, this does not work the other way round. We can’t just focus on our self-esteem and expect to become excellent at something

That dangerous myth was peddled by the positive psychology movement for decades, and is now being busted by leading psychologists like Susan David and Carol Dweck. Read this Insight, for more on that.

Consider options before deciding

While ‘deciding’ to take on a challenging life goal might remove the stress of procrastination, we have another decision to make before we get to that point.

We must choose which goals to consider before we decide on (and get stuck into the ‘design and do’ elements) on any one of them.

Of course, scanning and refining our options is not always easy, which is why I wrote this other Insight to help you consider what really matters to YOU in deciding about big changes in your life.

However, after we’ve done that (and I suggest you take your time on it) it’s still possible that we’ll procrastinate on the job we’ve ‘decided’ to do.

So, let’s get into the reasons for that now.

Apologies for the delay!

Why do we procrastinate on big goals?

According to Psychiatrist Dr David Burns (in his acclaimed and wonderful book, ‘Feeling Good’), we have at least 10 reasons for putting things off.

In this Insight, I’ve compressed his 10 reasons into five broad areas, and would argue it’s possible to distil these down to one reason, of perfectionism, as you’ll see:

For the expanded list of reasons and Burn’s thinking behind them, get his book – listed with some of my other favourites here.

Reason 1. We’re afraid of failure

Obviously, if we’re too afraid of failure, we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it, and one way to avoid being accused of failure on a life goal is to say we’re not really trying to achieve it.

Ever done that?

I know I have and I think most people do at some point. However, if we look upon the fear of failure, as a normal emotion – we can overcome this hurdle.

Fear of failure is not (as most motivational ‘gurus’ will tell you) a bad emotion to have.

So, embrace it, listen to it and don’t try to avoid it.

Reason 2. We’re a perfectionist

Perhaps we’ve somehow acquired a belief that any small imperfections in our work will make our entire goal a failure.

Recognise that?

Yes, I do too but you know what I’ve learned from Dr David Burns’ book is that this is a dangerous, flawed and depressing way of thinking.

There’s no happiness to be found in that kind of black and white thinking, we need to embrace life’s shades of grey

Of course, if we really believe that any small imperfection makes us a failure, we’re back to point 1. So, let’s think about how failures are just part of life and often a valuable part of it too.

Sometimes you win. Paul Claireaux

Reason 3. We’re too hard on ourselves

Some of us refuse to reward ourselves for our own small achievements.

When we do that, it can take all the fun out of working on our goals 🙁  which in turn results in us doing less work to achieve them.

Why would we refuse to reward ourselves?

Well, it might be because we’re perfectionists and we never quite feel satisfied enough, to feel worthy of having a reward.

See how this all comes back to perfectionism?

Reason 4. We’re resistant to being controlled

This ‘coercion sensitivity’, as Burns calls it, can make us rebel against instructions.

What’s interesting is that we don’t just resist being told what to do by others, we also resist instructions from ourselves!

Getting past this block isn’t easy.

However, there is one word we can change in our language that can help us to overcome this behaviour.

You can learn more about that (and other simple ways to achieve more of what matters to you) in this Insight

Reason 5. We don’t really want our goal at all!

Finally, on my short list of reasons why we procrastinate, is the realisation that we don’t really want this goal at all!

Now, this really is a tough issue to discover especially if you’ve already committed to (and possibly expended lots of effort and money on) a big life goal.

So, how do manage the risk of getting stuck here?

Well, take a bit more ‘time out’ to think carefully about your big future plans – and check your emotional engagement with them – before you commit.

In short… positively procrastinate for a time – to avoid the risk of years of procrastination down the line, and do this exercise to explore what really matters to you, too.

You want to properly assess if a particular goal is right for you.

Or, as I used to say to my team in my corporate product development days, you need to avoid wasting the energy you’ll need on your valuable projects. So, you need to quickly decide whether to ride with an idea or leave it in the stable for now.

So, use this process. You don’t want to get consumed by vague and muddled thinking.

Can this help us in business?

Yes, and in many ways; here’s just one.

Whatever your business is, and unless you have too many customers already, you’ll probably agree that powerful marketing messages are key.

In this brilliant video, Derek Muller of Veritasium reminds us of our tendency to procrastinate within our communications too.

So, even when we’ve got started with the task in hand (in this case, making a video) we delay getting to the point that we need to make!

Take a look and see what you think.

Notice how Derek talks about ‘leading with awesome’ to grab and hold people’s attention.

I love that idea and it’s a useful reminder for me, to do this in my own work too!

That said, this is easier to do if you’re writing or making videos for others than writing your own.

Most people (and especially the quietest and most talented) are reluctant to push themselves forward as much as they need, for the benefits of their work to be seen.

To be clear, this challenge doesn’t only apply to how we order our ideas in our videos.

We need to lead with awesome whether we’re writing an Insight (like this) or an approach letter, e-mail or LinkedIn message that reaches out to a potential client.

So, let’s stop procrastinating, and get to the point; hopefully, I’ve done so, on this point at least!

Can this help us guide our children?

We might expect (and we might even embrace the idea) that our children’s lives will change direction, perhaps several times, in the future.

However, this is no reason to avoid careful thought about the general direction they’d like to take, at least initially after College or Uni.

How else can they have any idea of the courses they need to take to get there?

Sure, it was easier in the old days, when we didn’t pay fees for higher education.

A lot of students simply drifted into University back then, and many of us said, ‘I haven’t a clue what I’ll do when I’m done here’

But we could afford to be vague and keep our options open; it didn’t cost much in our day.

Things are different now and our children don’t have the luxury of free higher education.

They need to engage in sharper thinking about the ‘value for money’ of their degree, or other higher education course and do so long before they head off on it.

Bottom line

We procrastinate for reasons that are not all bad.

So, let’s be kind to ourselves, face those reasons and deal with them one at a time.

By doing so, we equip ourselves to face bigger life challenges – and I wish you the best for achieving more of yours.

Need more help?

A good personal coach could help you to develop your own, personal (or business) life plan priority list – taking account of what really matters most to you.

If you’d like to explore getting my coaching help, you can reach out for a meeting here.

Thanks for dropping in


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