Why You Procrastinate, Or Fail To Choose

It’s not “perfectionism,” “fear of failure,” or “time management”


As I’ve mentioned, “procrastination” is something I’m working on right now, except I don’t call it “procrastination” because it doesn’t feel like procrastination so much as it feels like “deliberation,” with the end goal being “make a decision.” More quickly.

I take action just fine, once I’ve decided. It’s the “deciding” part that often takes me a minute. I’ve stayed in relationships too long, lingered at jobs that didn’t fit; it took me forever to start a business — because I wasn’t sure. Once I make a choice, I flip a switch and move forward almost without thought or emotion, but getting to that point takes me more time than I think it should.

People love to say that procrastinators procrastinate due to:

  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of judgment or failure

First of all: those are exactly the same damn thing. But furthermore: research suggests these aren’t the real reasons.

People also like to say procrastination is “giving in to temptation” or “poor time management,” but those aren’t the real issue, either. It’s also not motivation, or skill set, or rebellion…

That’s not to say those aren’t part of procrastination. They may be. But these are all other effects — not the actual cause.

HOW we procrastinate

We each have a default style that feels only one of a few ways.

Belief 1: “I can’t pick until I know The One Thing”

This is the most common issue, reflecting about 55% of people, and there are two sub-types here; people who want either:

a.) Black and white answers (~47% of all people), or

b.) Abstract, “ultimate truths” or “insights” (~8% of all people)

Both believe they need to “know” before they can do or decide, and they need time to do so. Not that that’s always bad.

Buffet-goers who look at everything available before deciding what to eat tend to weigh less than those who go for the first thing that looks good. In a study out of Cornell, researchers found that 71% of low-BMI patrons browsed the buffet before serving themselves, compared to 33.3% of high-BMI patrons.

That’s how this “procrastination” feels — just wanting what we want, which requires that we review all of the available options and information.

The problem is that “real life” isn’t a buffet, and the options we want to survey are often “endless.” So if we spend too much time filtering for “the one thing,” we’ll end up with nothing.

Belief 2: “I can’t pick one thing because I want EVERYTHING”

About 18% of all people are this type.

This isn’t me (I’m the “insights” sub-type, above), but I know several people like this and they are the light of life itself, licking the air of everything around them and drinking it in; people who live with palpable zest and enthusiasm for It All. They have endless ideas and see innumerable ways things could unfold in the future.

But I see their dilemma, when they occasionally stop short, their arms full of life’s bits and pieces, and notice they haven’t driven down substantial roots in any one way. (And wait, because shouldn’t they want to…?)

Note 1: There is one other “tendency,” but it’s “I just do it!”

This is where the other 27% of all people not reflected above fall.

These people live in the moment and are typically action-oriented and happy-go-lucky (at least compared to the other types.) They don’t struggle with procrastination as much (and probably aren’t reading this post), but I include them just to call them out, especially if anyone’s thinking “but how does so-and-so do it?”

They just do. They’re wired that way. I dated one of these types for years, and can assure you: their enthusiasm for action is very natural and real — they don’t need “the right thing,” they aren’t distracted by “everything,” and they don’t quite understand what our hang up is. They usually don’t even have plans. (When I asked the guy I dated what his Big Goals were for the upcoming year, he shrugged and said, “I don’t have any.” And yet he made more money than most people I knew.) These people are the ones with their heads cocked to the side at us, smiling and shrugging, “just do it!!”

Leaving the rest of us like, “that’s… that’s not how this is.”

Note 2: If you think “I know what the thing is! I just can’t take action”…

Bullshit.

You either:

a.) Don’t actually know “the thing” (“start a business” is not a thing, “be happy” is not a thing, “accomplish more” is not a thing), which means you are actually one of the two types above, or

b.) Don’t actually want that thing that badly… which also means you are one of the two types above.

If you’d really defined the thing and truly wanted the thing (for the right reasons) — then damn, fam, you’d be taking action. (And here so many people want to talk about needing “plans” or “process” or “motivation,” and I’ll just reiterate: that’s all an excuse. If you’re crystal clear on what you want and you want it that badly, the plan or process will work itself out and get out of your way.)

If you still think this is your hang-up, your issue is something else (read on.)

Note 3: There ARE other ways we get “stuck”

Like fear of what others think, or getting caught up in our own emotions. But these are actually our decision-making functions operating in unhealthy ways. More on that next.

Note 4: The solution to our procrastination is never, ever in these tendencies

The hardest part about our preferred procrastination tendency (above) is that it feels so damn good to us. We are convinced that “the answer” is in there somewhere, just around the corner. And while it’s true that our tendency is innate to us, the reality is that we can never find the answer inside of it.

Deciding requires we interrupt this cycle and use decision-making functions.

How we operate

We all have two primary sets of cognitive functions:

  • The ones we use to process information, and
  • The ones we use to make decisions

We only use one set at a time.

When we are procrastinating, we are “stuck” in our “information” (or “ideas”) functions. When we decide, we “close ourselves off to new information” and use the “decision-making” ones. But we have to do this using the right ones, and in the right way.

I didn’t leave partners, jobs, or cities because they weren’t “100% perfect.” I left them because they weren’t even 50% okay. It just took me a long time to realize. And that’s what’s interesting.

Ending procrastination is not about “getting just a little more time,” but it’s also not about “forcing” anything. PS Fellow Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University says:

“To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

Forcing the buffet-goer to “just pick something already” only means they’ll end up with a plate of mashed potatoes they don’t want. They have to go through their process, and their functions, to choose.

But why does it take us so long, and why do we sometimes still mess it up?

The number one real reason we procrastinate is: SELF ESTEEM

It’s not our employers’ or partners’ jobs to make us happy, or discern what makes us happy, or defend any semblance of happiness if we find it. It’s ours. If we can’t accurately identify our wants, needs, aspirations, values, and boundaries — what even makes us happy — then of course we’ll struggle to decide.

And to be clear: flippant definitions of “happy” are not enough. This is not an exercise of “I love cozy Sundays” or “travel!”

We have to understand:

  • The difference between “happiness” and “hedonism;” i.e., long-term, substantial wellbeing compared to short term pleasure (which requires us to deeply understand and embody our values.)
  • Our values (see above)
  • How to live our values, both longterm and day to day (see above)
  • What level of happiness we demand
  • What minimum level of happiness we’re willing to accept (and for how long)
  • What we’re willing to give up in exchange for both
  • How to discern (and defend) healthy emotional boundaries so we don’t inadvertently sacrifice too much of our own happiness in the long-run
  • What our own real happiness even looks and feels like
  • What we actually want

So many of us (myself included) are woefully bad at this, building lives that don’t work and not even realizing it, instead unknowingly soothing the disconnect with day-to-day fixes and pleasant distractions, and finding ourselves unable to take action on “what we want.” (And then breezing through lists such as the one above like “yeahyeahyeah I get it!” But we don’t.)

Having lives that serve us starts and end with us. And once we develop self esteem, “deciding” becomes a lot more obvious:

How we move forward

We’re all capable of using any of the following decision-making functions, but we all only favor one of the four.

Once we start building self esteem, we move forward by using one of the following:

Type 1: Set goals

…based on what you want.

Above all else, these folks are fact-oriented, think out loud, and see their world as a series of black and white opportunities for immediate action. They love setting and achieving external, measurable goals. About 25% of all people are this type.

If you’re this type and you’re “stuck:” lol, this type is never truly stuck. If you’re “stuck,” you’re probably not this type. They don’t need this post. Even if they’re procrastinating, they fully understand why and what they need to do, because they always know what they need to do: identify the most effective next step for their immediate environment, and then do it.

Type 2: Pursue what’s authentic to you

…and then put it out there.

Above all else, these folks are highly in tune with their feelings and values, and expresses them independently through active, creative or rational means. About 30% of all people are this type.

(This is the inverse of the first type: this type first identifies their feelings, and then figures out how to act on them.)

If you’re this type and you’re “stuck:” You also already know what you need to do: get back in touch with what makes your heart sing, brainstorm ideas, and then pursue whatever feels like the most authentic external expression.

Type 3: Pursue what’s logical

…and then connect with others.

Above all else, these folks like internalized logic. Some in this group find it very easy to take action (and would probably never be reading this post); others need to first either brainstorm or mull things over. About 15% of all people are this type.

If you’re this type and you’re “stuck:” just take the next logical step, of course. Brainstorm ideas, logic it out, or tinker where you like to tinker (you’re a good judge of what to work on), then pursue the option that makes the most sense, and take action.

Type 4: Connect with others

…and apply logical solutions to their pain points

Above all else, these folks are exceptionally good at either:

a.) Understanding what is “expected of them” and acting logically, according to a pre-defined set of rules, or

b.) Identifying other people’s fears, values, aspirations, and feelings, and making logical decisions to satisfy them accordingly.

However, they struggle with: knowing what they want.

If you’re this type and you’re “stuck:” you’re not alone. This is one of the most common types to get stuck, and one of the most common personality types in general. Many people don’t want to admit that they’re this type (and instead want to identify as one of the others) but, statistically, most of us are. About 30% of people are this type.

We “don’t feel that strongly about anything,” or feel like we need to “know” before we can act. Sometimes we feel paralyzed by what others think — or withdraw from others entirely. And we’re actually out of touch with “what we want.”

I know.

I know because I’m this type, too. So I feel you.

If you’re this type and you’re “stuck:” the solution is in first building self esteem and self awareness, as mentioned above. Figure out what you want most in life. Only then can we connect with others — and in healthy, mutually-beneficial ways.

It all starts and ends with self-esteem.

Understanding what we want and value, how we feel, what we think, in a vacuum and not in relation to others. Only then will we accomplish what we want.


This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 289,682+ people.

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