Procrastination: What Is It and Why Do We Do It?

by Joe Plemon on April 30, 2010

Fortune
Creative Commons License photo credit: Danielle Scott

“For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”  I Th 5:2-3

This passage begs this question, “If we know that certain events are going to happen, why do we fail to take preventive actions?”   This isn’t just about end times theology; it is about putting off what we know we need to do.  We know we are going to die, but 55% of American adults don’t have a will.   Money magazine says that 78% of us will have a major emergency within any given 10 year period, yet many never create an emergency fund.  How many of you (especially age 50 and above) get annual physical exams?   You understand that your body WILL break down if you don’t care for it…don’t you?

What exactly is procrastination?

A dictionary definition is “To postpone or delay needlessly.”  Our bible passage tells us that people lull themselves into inactivity by saying, “There is peace and security.”   The issue, as I see it, isn’t simply not taking immediate action – it is putting it off and putting it off more and continuing to put it off until it becomes so fuzzy on our radars that it is eventually forgotten.  Wojo at Fiscal Fizzle, in his post 5 Financial Items We Tend to Procrastinate, named budgeting, income planning,  home inventory, insurance and investment management as five such items.  Have you ever put any of these off till you simply forgot about them?   Uhhh…me too.

Why do people procrastinate?

It is not simply laziness; the experts tell us there are certain types of people who procrastinate and there are certain reasons why people procrastinate.  Read on to see if they are talking about you.  They were definitely talking about me.

Types of procrastinators

From Procrastination: 10 Things to Know, (an article in Psychology Today),  Dr Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago identifies three basic types of procrastinators:

1. Thrill seekers.

These are arousal types who wait for the last minute in order to get the euphoric rush.

2. Avoiders

This group is characterized by fear: fear of failure or even fear of success.  They are very concerned about what others think of them, and would prefer that others believe they lack effort than ability.

3. Decisional Procrastinators

As the name describes, these people cannot make decisions.  In their minds, not making a decision absolves them from responsibility for the outcome of events.

According to Dr. Ferrari, procrastinators tell lies to themselves, such as, “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” or “I work best under pressure”  or “time pressure makes me more creative”.  Reality is that they don’t get the urge to do it tomorrow nor do they work best or become more creative under pressure.

Reasons for procrastination

Greg Ford, founder of Stop Procrastination, sites three main reasons why people procrastinate:

1. Perfectionism

When people have unrealistically high standards and expectations, coupled with lack of confidence in their ability to complete a project, they find excuses (such as “I need to study this more” or “I need to acquire more information”) that will prevent them from attempting the project.

2. Anger

Feelings of anger and resentment toward a superior or authority figure can translate into unwillingness to do what has been assigned.  This would also include anger at having a task that one is unwilling or uninterested in thrust upon him…especially if he has previously expressed these views and been ignored.

3. Negative Thinking

When people harbor thoughts that they are not good enough, or that they always fail or that they are just stupid and incapable, they have a very difficult time attempting a project.   Important projects, for those with negative thinking, are the most difficult to undertake because they feel too inadequate to be handling something of this magnitude.

Summary

Procrastination is to postpone or delay needlessly.   Experts agree that it is more than simply laziness.  Certain personality types tend to procrastinate for certain reasons.  If we are going to start dealing with important issues in our lives, we need to better understand why we procrastinate.   I learned that I sometimes fail to start certain projects because I don’t have the confidence that I can do it adequately.  However, I have also learned by experience that once I plow in,  my feeling of inadequacy is usually replaced by ingenuity.

One issue all of us need to address is the one alluded to at the beginning of this post: dealing with your eternal destiny.  I hope that you won’t be like the people who lie to themselves, saying “peace and security” when destruction could come any moment.  This is one issue NOT to procrastinate about.

How about you?

Do you procrastinate?  About what?  Does this post help you better understand why?  In what ways?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Arthur @ FinancialBondage.org April 30, 2010 at 6:04 pm

I think its human nature to avoid things we dislike doing, like finding a new job, getting on a budget, saving money, etc. So we put it off.

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joeplemon April 30, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Arthur,
It may be human nature, but not everyone does it. Some people love attacking the things that are important while many put it off. The problem happens, as I see it, when people put off really important things for so long that they never get them done.

Why do you suppose some people readily deal with these issues, even if they dislike them, while others habitually put them on the back burner?

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LeanLifeCoach April 30, 2010 at 9:20 pm

“I spend all my time fighting fires.” If only I had a dollar for each time I have heard this. Admittedly I’ve been sucked into this mentality as well but life outside is so much more fun. A core concept to a Lean approach is Kaizen or continuous improvement in English. Adopting a mentality of eliminating unnecessary activities so that you can focus on the value added prevents procrastination in Lean businesses around the globe.

Thank you so much for the sources as well. This information can be put to good use in helping managers deal with employees and parents deal with kids.

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joeplemon May 1, 2010 at 8:00 am

Lean Life,
The “fighting fires” mentality is reactionary in nature…something happens and we respond, meaning we are letting life control us instead of us setting our own courses. I know it is easier said than done, but I appreciate your suggestion of eliminating unnecessary activities so that you can focus on those of value. Great words…essential, I am sure, for the lean life.

It seems to me that the first order of business is to decide exactly what our core values are so we can focus on those and eliminate activities that do not line up with those core values. Am I right? Any further tips?

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Financial Samurai May 1, 2010 at 10:51 am

Good topic! I procrastinate when things are impossible difficult, and I have no idea how to get it done until I find some help.

I do like to thrill seek i.e wait til the last minute for vacation admittedly.

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joeplemon May 1, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Sam,

Did you already realize that you were a thrill seeking procrastinator (almost sounds dirty) or did this post help you better understand yourself?

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