Procrastination Is Not Laziness

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

On the go? Listen to an audio version of the article here:

Many people blame themselves for being lazy or not having enough willpower to complete the important things they want to do.

Popular self-help messages further reinforce this perspective on procrastination, merely telling people to try harder, hustle, or get more willpower. Although these things might be necessary, this advice does not resolve the core issue.

Procrastination is the result of fear, not laziness. Persons procrastinate due to perfectionistic concerns, basing their self-worth on external validation of their performance. Tackling important tasks induces fear of inadequate performance and further potential damage to one’s self-worth and sense of competence. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors and how they contribute to procrastination.

What causes procrastination?

According to Temporal Motivation Theory, the root cause of procrastination includes:

  • Low expectations of your competence 
  • A low value placed on the task
  • Difficulties with impulse control
  • Lack of an immediate deadline 

In other words, procrastination results from perfectionistic concerns about one’s performance, low interest in a task, having several distractions, and no immediate deadline.

Saying someone is “lazy” is actually a lazy explanation of human behavior because it does not consider the various underlying factors driving it.

The word “lazy” implies the person just needs to use more willpower, but as I shared in my previous article, willpower is overrated.

Although willpower is a vital ingredient in behavior change, it is far from the only ingredient. Like baking a cake, you can’t simply throw flour in the oven and neglect all of the other parts of the recipe.

Like being a lazy baker, providing lazy explanations of human behavior only leads to disappointment. Therefore, let’s consider all of the elements involved in procrastination and how to overcome it.

How to overcome procrastination

To overcome procrastination, consider the following:

  • Focus on progress, not perfection 
  • Clarify your “why”
  • Reduce the need for willpower 
  • Set small goals 

By focusing on each of these areas, you increase the odds of completing a task rather than procrastinating.

Focusing on progress, not perfection, allows you to overcome the perfectionistic tendency to worry about not doing the task well. It’s easier not to start a task than to risk criticism for not doing it well enough. This is particularly relevant for persons who are highly driven and base their self-worth on their performance.

Clarifying your “why” allows you to gain a broader sense of purpose regarding the task. For example, my motivation to continue writing this article is based on the value-orientated drive to serve others through my work.

Reducing the need for willpower means removing any distractions from your environment and creating habits that make it easier to complete the task. I have a complete description of how to do this in my article here.

Setting small goals refers to creating several regular short-term goals rather than just relying on a long-term goal. For example, if you want to finish writing a paper in a week, you can break it into smaller goals and aim to write one section per day.

Is procrastination an addiction?

As an addiction counselor, human motivation has been a core focus in my work. Understanding someone’s motivation to use addictive substances allows me to work with these underlying motives and increase motivation to change.

Although procrastination is not technically considered an addiction, it shares many traits with addictions, including the following:

  • Short-term relief at a long-term cost
  • Loss of control
  • Craving distractions 
  • Compulsive behaviors

Procrastination can be like an addiction to not engaging in a specific task.

Short-term relief comes when a person procrastinating avoids fear by not engaging in a task that provokes perfectionistic fear. This comes at a long-term cost of not completing the task and may also result in harm to many areas of someone’s life.

Loss of control is experienced when procrastinating since a person begins to feel even less competent to engage in the task the longer they put it off.

Craving distractions may come in the form of immediately wanting to do something else when faced with the object of procrastination. For example, when sitting down to write, I seem to immediately feel hungry or want to check my emails.

Compulsive behaviors are things we feel compelled to do, despite their lack of relevance to our goal. For example, many people compulsively clean their environment rather than engage in an important task.

Procrastination has many overlaps with addiction. Even though procrastination is the absence of action, it involves several alternative actions that serve as distractions, providing short-term relief at a long-term cost to one’s work, relationships, or personal health.

Conclusion

Procrastination is not about laziness. Instead, it is about not having the right motivational ingredients. Throughout this article, I’ve summarized some key lessons from Temporal Motivation Theory, a leading theory of procrastination. I’ve also provided practical steps you can take to stop procrastinating.

If you want to learn more about motivation, I highly recommend my more in-depth article on the topic here: How to Find Motivation.

If you are trying to help someone else who is struggling with motivation, you can check out my article here: How to Motivate Someone.

If you’re curious why I’m not a big fan of willpower, you can check out my article here: Why Willpower is Overrated.

I hope this has been a helpful overview of procrastination. As always, feel free to leave a comment down below. You can also reach out to me directly here.

Interested in learning about motivation?

Check out my podcast! Here’s a recent episode: 

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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