Dysfunctional Procrastination

The problem of procrastination was recently brought to my attention by some people I know who told me that they had failed to file their income taxes for several years. They live in deadly fear that they owe the IRS a lot of money in back taxes and interest charges and penalties for not having filed. In at least one case the individual did so poorly in his business over the last few years that if he did file he would have been (and still could be) entitled to a hefty refund. It is not that these people did not pay taxes but that they did not file with the IRS.

Most people occasionally procrastinate but not enough to interfere with their functioning at home or school or work. However, for some people procrastination becomes a major impediment to their success in school and to their ability to earn a living. For these people life is fraught with the fear of being fired from work or of failing out of school.

Why do people procrastinate even in the face of huge anxiety and fear? That is the topic of this log entry. First, some famous quotations about this topic that reveal what a universal problem this is:

1. "I'm going to stop putting things off.....starting tomorrow!"
Sam Levenson

Sam Levenson was a school teacher who became a famous standup comedian during the 1940's and fifties. He was not one of my teachers but he could have been. He had a unique way of capturing what our classroom experiences were like at the time and, consequently, made us laugh. One of his topics was procrastination as exemplified in the subtitle to this article. There are other famous quotes about procrastination. For example:

2. Many years ago there was a musical comedy in New York City that appeared "Off Broadway." It was based on Charles Shulz's delightful comic strip named Peanuts. The name of the play was "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown." In one unforgettable scene the cast sings about doing homework. Each character sang about their way of handling the assignment. When it was his turn to sing about the homework assignment Charlie Brown, the main character of the show, succinctly summarized his approach to all homework:

Charlie Brown sings:

"I work best under pressure, and...if I wait until tomorrow.....there will be lots of pressure."

How many times did I tell myself this very thing during High School and College?

Mark Twain captured the essence of procrastination in his famous quote:

"Never put off until tomorrow.....what you can do the day after tomorrow."

3. I like Gloria Pitzer's quote because it encompasses some of the problems about procrastination:

"Procrastination is my sin.

It brings me naught but sorrow.

I know that I should stop it.

In fact, I will---Tomorrow!"

People may joke about this topic but it really does cause sorrow the very next day.

Why do people procrastinate?

I remember many of Sam Levenson's jokes about the school children who failed to submit their homework but did not fail to have thousand of excuses. Among some of the most famous were things like, "the dog ate may home work," or "it got flushed down the toilet," or "there was a death in the family." Whatever the excused the failure to get assignments done in a timely manner plagues children, adolescents and adults. It is a plague because it causes huge amounts of worry, stress and anxiety. In the case of adults it can result in the loss of a job and for people in school it can result in poor grades and failure.

While it might seem like the solution is to simply get the work completed, there are many of us who feel compelled to put it off. One of the reasons for the need to delay is the fearful thought that the work is beyond our capabilities. There is no worse feeling than that of being overwhelmed and overburdened with more than we are capable of handling. The belief that someone is not capable of getting something done may stem from the fear that they are not smart or skilled enough to accomplish certain tasks. For instance, a school child who cannot read or whose reading comprehension is very poor will avoid homework out of the knowledge that they cannot do it.

Fearing that a task is above one's ability is something that often annoys adults and children with ADHD. I have seen many cases where someone with ADHD is excellent at work until they get a promotion. In these cases, if the promotion calls for paying attention to many details, remaining organized and keeping appointments, they can quickly fall apart, feel overwhelmed and stop performing even thought it means the loss of the job. Needless to say, this is very humiliating.

However, a person does not have to have ADHD in order to procrastinate out of the fear that they are not able to do a job.

Those who are perfectionists in everything they do will often delay getting to a task because they fear that if they do the job, the result will be far less than perfect. Hoping to avoid both criticisms from others as well as disappointment in themselves, they delay and delay until their anxiety becomes intolerable. Even greater than the fear of imperfection is the fear of failure and this is what really causes the perfectionist to delay the task.

Sometimes people procrastinate because they find a task extremely distasteful or aversive. This is probably one of the reasons why so many people in the United States file their taxes at the very last minute. Overwhelmed with all of the details that must be collected to file a tax return, many people keep delaying getting to the task. Other people find the tax codes so confusing that they avoid the task because they do not like feeling "stupid." Still others fear that they will owe a lot of money and keep delaying having to face what they view as an inevitable disaster.

Difficulty focusing attention and feeling easily distracted are factors that contribute to procrastination. In other words, once having started a task the individual who is easily distracted loses focus and begins doing something else. I remember that, as a college student, there were too many times when I was distracted by the thought that I wanted to speak to a buddy or a girl friend of mine. Then, there were those times when I was distracted by something I wanted to watch on television. All too often, what would happen was that the evening would rush by without my having completed an adequate amount of reading or writing that needed to be done.

Motivation is another important factor that can influence procrastination. "Motivation is defined as a need or desire that energizes and directs behavior." This definition is quoted from several undergraduate psychology text books. There are many types of motivation, including 1. Intrinsic Motivation: The desire to perform a task out of the wish to feel effective or capable or just for the sake if getting it done. 2. Extrinsic Motivation: The desire to perform a task in order to gain a promised reward or to avoid a punishment. If any of the factors discussed in the web log are more powerful than either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation the likelihood of procrastination increases.

What Can Be Done About Procrastination?

There are several methods that procrastinators can learn to help them get to and succeed at their tasks:

1. Divide tasks into sub tasks and approach each part of what needs to be done one at a time. Like the proverbial football receiver, if you keep your eye on the end zone you are likely to drop the ball. It is important to focus on each down, and on completing ten yards at a time. By dividing tasks into units they become much less daunting.

2. Make a schedule for when each sub task needs to be completed and work towards to completion of each sub task.

3. Make a list of priorities so that the most important things to be done in a day are listed first and attended to first. Keep focused on the priority list and do not allow yourself to become distracted. I have had people tell me that, at work, they become distracted from completing tasks by telephone calls or by people entering their office to talk. Voice mail can take messages while you are working on a project and people wishing to see you can be told you are not to be disturbed until some later time when you will be available.

4. Be an information seeker if you do not know how to get a particular task done. Too many people falsely believe that they are supposed to know how to do anything and should not need to ask. We all need help and it is important that we seek information and know-how.

5. Use your "will power" to control your impulses to do something else and force your self to complete the task.

6. As you begin to succeed at getting things done the tendency towards procrastination will decrease as self confidence grows.

In the end, if none of these things work then it might be time to consider psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help in learning the skill necessary to getting things done and toward overcoming the depression that could be holding someone back.

  • Pamela

    Dr. Schwartz, I enjoyed your article on Dysfunctional Procrastination. Thanks. I have a couple of books on organization and procrastination, but I don't know where they are and have never got around to reading them! No doubt you have heard that before. I'll probably never get around to going for therapy, either, so I might as well just do the tasks that need doing. Speaking of tasks, I have a paper due tomorrow, so as soon as I press SEND, I'll go and work on it.

  • Mike

    Dr. Schwartz,

    I procrastinate about many, many things and it's practically destroyed my life. I'm 53, moved in with my widowed Mom 17 years ago, make only a marginal income, have no spouse or offspring or friends. I'm too embarassed and ashamed to pursue new friendships or even to allow the few good old friends I used to have stay in contact with me. And, I'm actually fairly personable --believe it or not! But heres the thing -- and I wonder if there's any connection to procrastination for me. I shake my hands vigorously, almost always unconciously, whenever I feel like I've accomplished something, or even if I think about or anticipate (exited?) accomplishing something. It looks and feels very weird when I do it (my face even contorts somewhat) and I've always been afraid of being caught doing it. I guess the only way I can stop it completely is to kind of not do much and to not think (fantasize) about doing much or to get too excited as a spectator of something, say for instance a sporting event on TV. Iv'e had this unconcious physical compulsion since I was a little boy. Could you provide any insight or direction for me? I don't want to see a professional or even describe --in person-- what I just described to you (let alone give a demonstration!) unless I have at least some idea what the hell this is, going in. I don't have much time left to try to build some sort of a, not so isolated, not so hopeless, not so useless life.

    Thank you for your website offerings and thank you for your time. Sincerely, Mike C.

  • Abe Billingsley

    a long term procrastinator, social phobic, hyper-anxious person, i am always tinkering with my own mental health -) my latest theory on my own procrastination may be useful for others to read. the main form of procrastination i use is to surf the internet. this is a continual and catastrophic interruption to my day -- but i no longer think that this behaviour is the chief problem. i now think that the real culprit is not my procrastination, but the anxiety levels with which i "attack" my work. i've been observing myself very closely. I perform 'real' work in short and furious bursts. I now see that as I work I am continually clenching my jaw, tightening my muscles, chiding myself to work harder and faster, in a high state of psychological arousal, to the point of distress. i am running myself into the ground at a very fast rate -- and the internet surfing is just a much needed relief from this state of affairs. so today's new plan is to relax a little -- breath a little calmly, tone down the angry self-talk, give myself a few positive messages -- and see if this let's my periods of unbroken work continue a little longer before the 'drug-seeking', i mean internet-seeking, behaviour arises again. i always though that going easy on myself was the last thing i needed -- but now i see it might be just the right thing -- provided i time it with the work itself.

  • Sassie

    Dear Dr. Schwartz,

    I've been a procrastinator all my life, and this article gave me much insight. My procrastination never bothered me at work I always wrote lists and then went about getting them done. The feeling of accomplishment was my reward.

    However, when I decided to return to school, that's when my procrastination took an ugly turn for the worse. Not at first, but after I was going to work on a project with a professor and wrote my first draft for submission, I was accused of plagiarism by her. I had never had trouble with papers before, I had always received an A or a B, and I always cited my references, used quotations, etc. I do, however, have a much more formal style of writing than speaking. For one thing, I have ADHD, so when I speak I'm frequently all over the place. This can be resolved when I write because I can take more time to think about what I'm going to say, revise, etc. After this professor accused me of plagiarism, even though I paraphrased in my own words, cited references, and used quotations with references, I noticed that's when my real trouble began. Specifically, I began to put off writing papers. I have even taken Fs in classes because I've just been too afraid, not of being accused of plagiarism, but of failing to produce a less than perfect paper.

    I've reasoned this to be because when she criticized me and I knew I was not guilty of plagiarism, I internalized this as an attack on my writing skills, and since self-confidence has always been a major problem for me, I think I just lost my self-confidence. So now I put off writing papers, and now that I'm in graduate school, the problem is becoming much worse. I need help, and just don't know what to do. Every time I have a professor that is even remotely like that old undergraduate professor - condescending, arrogant, cold, aloof, unapproachable, etc. - I get that same old feeling back again that I'm never going to be able to earn my degree, that I won't be able to "fool" people much longer, that I'm disguising the fact that I'm stupid and slow....I'm sure you've heard all of this before. And I know that it comes from my childhood, from my parents, etc., but it's just very hard to shake.

    And speaking of hands shaking, there was a man who wrote you about shaking his hands and contorting his face when excited, and that he'd done that as a boy. Well, I used to do the same thing! When I was younger, my parents would get mad at me when they caught me in some "flight of fancy" looking like I was going to "take off" any minute.... I don't know if it has to do with procrastination, but I bet that it does have to do with anxiety and maybe ADHD (restless energy)? I rarely catch myself doing that now, maybe once every 5-10 years, so I don't think it was physical. Just wanted him to know that we're about the same age, opposite genders, and he's not alone. I sure thought I was, though! I've never heard of anyone else having had this "experience"!

  • Giulio Bortolozzo

    This website is a mine of useful information on a broad range of topics. Thanks. I work as a counsellor so I appreciate your work. This article particularly relates to myself. Giulio

  • jsoephine mc dermott

    this is very good and it surely puts ADHD into the context of what it does a lot of the people i talk to about procrastination havent got a clue as to what it is this surely will help them

  • Anonymous-1

    My husband is a severe workaholic. Taxes and all things relating to him/us personally (i.e., health, recreation, relationships) are never "gotten to". We are paying the I.R.S. $1000/mo in back taxes because of this.

    It's a mis-classification to think that workaholics are in it for the money or even that money is the unintended side-effect. Workaholism like any other "holism" creates a life of severe unbalance in which eventually everything goes down the drain. This includes finances.

    My husband is a well-known, highly respected attorney and we live in a house that's falling apart and drive a ten year old car. We are nearing our sixties with no retirement or savings.

  • Andy

    Great articles...here's my contribution:

    "Procrastionation! It's what I do best!"

    I can relate to all of the stories and am working hard to eliminate this bad habit out of my life. I've even gone to the extreme of quiting work, six months now, so I can focus on what I need to do to get my life together, once again. I collect a small pension, plus have some savings, which is keeping the bills paid and food on the table. However, it won't last forever, so I need to get this under control quickly. Procrastination is like a monkey on one's back, or even worse, an extremely heavy anchor. It drags you down and holds you there and there is no real way I have found yet to get rid of it. But, I am trying. I am finding the key, for me anyway, is focus and routine. Will keep you posted on my progress. Hope you are having a wonderful!

  • Carlos M

    My life is a mess. All because of procrastination. Recently, I lost my home to forclosure. Everyone thinks I am the most recent "victim" of the housing meltdown however, the reality is it was due to procrastination. I had an many opertuninities to negotiate a loan modification but I procrastinated and time ran out. In reality I could afford the house, I just procrastinated with making payments. I chose to spend my money on other unnecessary things. I just recieved a notice of audit from the IRS and I already feel that I will procrastinate with this and I will get in more trouble. I can go on.....last night I was pulled over by the Highway Patrol...my car was impounded for expired registration, and I had a suspended license for some small citation. I need help. I don't think its just laziness. I really believe there is something phsycological. My wife just left me this morning. I am 33 years old, with an excellent wife and beautiful 3 year old daughter. I don't know what has made me this way. My parents seem to have the same problem although not as bad. Could this be hereditary?

    Thank you Dr Schwartz.

  • Mike

    I am glad I found this site as the information closely resembles my issues. I had problems with the IRS, but my wife eventually got in the middle and forced me to resolve them. Thanks God I was earning a decent living in order to pay back $10,000 I owed in back taxes...just becasue I did not file for about 4 years. Why??? I guess is the dysfunctional procrastination. However, it's back again and I have lost 2 jobs in 2009. I start a new job next week and hope I can hold on. I appreciate this article and will (if my wife doesn't divorce me) try to get some help.

  • Anthony

    My procrastination is so bad that I am on this website right now instead of working on a grad paper due tomorrow, which I have put off for two weeks!!

  • Anonymous-2

    very useful article. On first read it appears my symptoms are very similar. I think some times I have fear that I will not be able to complete tasks while other times I am delaying it bcoz I think it's not worth it, although I am certain that my manager will really like it so I guess it's not perfect according to me so I am not doing it. I have built substantial saving over last 4-5 years so money does not drive me to that extent. I get excited when I think of doing something big like starting my own business but not able to pursue it due to fear that given my organizational skills/discipline I will not be able to do it. Though my business ideas are usually sound (or at least I think) but my execution is really poor.

    I have lost two jobs in last two years despite of being smartest person in team on both occasions. I think procrastination is the main reason for it. I always had some ideas to expand business in my job but i could not implement most of them due to procrastination/perfectionism/fear/lack of motivation.

    I have also noticed that I always underestimate the time required to complete tasks.

    I feel guilty and anxious very often also.

    I would like to add that I have cleared some of the toughest exams and have been to best universities.There are times when I am motivated and energetic and those have been most productive/happy times at work/home. These periods have often coincided when I have been doing Pranayam(yoga). I think yoga helps calm my mind which is very important for me to be productive.

  • Anonymous-3

    (I use a game of chess as an analogy for life and the decisions made in chess are analogical to the moves made in a game of chess)

    When I really try to understand why I procrastinate, I think of a game of chess and relate it to my life and the decisions I have to make.

    When you start the game there aren't very many decisions needing to be made, they are all simple with little risk or concequence. You can make the move and begin preparing for the next round.

    Late in the game, there are many different options each with its risks. You may spend a long time thinking of each move planning your following move and considering every possible move that will be made against you. We procrastinate in life as in a game of chess because we are not sure which action will be the most effective, cause the least risk of loss, and bring us closer to the desired outcome.

    Even if we know that our next action is safe we haven't the confidence to make the move, instead we just sit and think about making it knowing that in our minds we are safe in the action, only once we have no choice but to move will we go ahead with it, however often enough the person playing with us may have already conceded after becoming impatient.

    The problem now is how can we turn our late game of chess into a first turn again? The simple solution may be to lose and start over but that is not ideal. Another thought would be to reduce your options by losing game pieces on purpose, but as some of us do this already by neglecting friends, social lives, family etc it merely becomes more harmful. The best solution I can think of is to simply take a deep breath, move your piece, let go and see what happens. Anyone else having an anxiety attack?

  • Frustrated Wife


    Due to my husband procrastination, we have had our wages garnished for the last 2 years. Im a full time working parent and feel all my hard work to to correct the mess he made in our marriage. The utilities will get shut off and then we have to pay a reconnect fee! When we clearly have the money to pay it. My husband and I always fight and the root is the fact he puts everything off! We are close to gettting a divorce, and the sad thing is...I dream how much easier thing would be. But I get sad thinking about my children. He cant even take the time to pay his car tags. Its easier is he gets a garnishment. PLEASE HELP! Im not me anymore Im just frustrated and angry.

    Frustrated wife