The surprising reason we procrastinate

We're not just slacking off. Chronic procrastinators may be sad, angry or depressed about aspects of their lives

Published May 17, 2014 12:00PM (EDT)

This originally appeared on Psychology Today.

Imagine the following scenario: You’re running late for an important meeting. You’ve overslept because the alarm app on your phone needs to be updated. You can’t find two matching clean socks because you haven’t addressed the laundry situation in more than three weeks. To top it off, you just realized you never opened that letter from the insurance company that came a month ago and now you have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon with no new insurance card to present.

Every one of these details got overlooked because you put off taking care of them. Something better came up. You didn’t feel like it. It was boring. You procrastinated, and now you’re frustrated.

Does any of this sound familiar?

We all procrastinate sometimes, and the basic causes are well-documented: As humans, we are naturally drawn to novelty; new and interesting activities and objects stimulate our pleasure centers, while routine and mundane tasks have just the opposite effect. Some people find that they are chronic procrastinators, unable to complete any mundane task no matter how vital it may be to their daily functioning. Their idea of “self-care” may include a new membership to the climbing gym, but at the same time they might neglect items like laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying, and household chores.

Chronic procrastinators may be sad, angry, or depressed about aspects of their lives. These moods interfere with concentration and focus. Other people may suffer from an attentional problem, like ADD, and find it nearly impossible to start and stay on task.

But are there other emotions or mental states that accompany chronic procrastination?

It's possible that when we put off certain tasks, it's because we do not wish to identify with what those tasks might imply—a conventional, routine, and unexciting life. Behaving like the sort of person who would prioritize such quotidian matters interferes with an identity built on imagination, creativity, and spontaneity—in short, the hallmarks of youth.

A patient of mine outlined a familiar struggle: She couldn't seem to clean her room, make her bed, or open her mail. She claimed to prefer a clean room and an organized life, but couldn't seem to “prioritize” those chores. When I asked her what sort of people came to mind when she thought about those who get such chores done on time, she replied, "Adults."

Adults. It is this very identifier that bothers her; she fears adulthood brings with it a loss of creativity, spontaneity, and vibrancy. She worries that mounting responsibilities will drain her spirit, much as she has witnessed in the adults in her family. And, for her, becoming more mature means being closer to “The End.”

Putting off her daily chores is her strategy for preserving that special youthful place where creativity and pleasure supersede any routine. Yet she also admits that her avoidance of chores impedes her ability to fully enjoy the free and unfettered life she longs to maintain.

We avoid these tasks at our own peril, of course: Imagine waking up late, lacking sufficient clean clothes or missing important paperwork on a day of some significance, like that of a job interview. We can tell ourselves that we will take care of these important details when we really have to. But without the discipline of tending to those routine details of daily life routinely, the skills required won’t be there when they are needed most.

For some, the very thought of taking a responsible path—where self-care includes “grown up” tasks—threatens to squelch vitality, and foreclose the boundless possibility associated with youth. But rather than restrict one’s idea of youth and vibrancy to the novel and unique, it might be useful to recognize that discipline is also critical to sustaining an imaginative, creative life. If we don’t attend to that which is required to maintain ourselves, the ensuing disorder might interfere with our capacity to create the exciting life to which we aspire.

By Lisa M. Juliano

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Anxiety Depression Procrastination Psychology Psychology Today