The truth about procrastination and what to do about it

As intelligent, mature people, it is certainly easy for us to find rational reasons why these wonderful endeavors are not getting off the ground.

by Dr. James McClernan — 

In our high-speed, computerized, polluted, congested environment, with its economic and political uncertainties and threats of war, we are told we must try to look younger than 30 and stay fit, or the stress of it all will kill us. At the same time, how-to books, media gurus and celebrities are telling us how to survive it all, be wildly happy and live to be 100.

These choices — breaking out of our deadly, hedonistic rut; removing the limitations we have placed on ourselves; and committing ourselves to healthier lifestyles — sound great. Just talking about them increases our energy. When we organize and make plans for them, when we purchase that new pair of running shoes and some really potent vitamin/mineral tablets — we see it all beginning to come true.

But somehow the plan — the action — is short-lived or never gets started. As intelligent, mature people, it is certainly easy for us to find rational reasons why these wonderful endeavors are not getting off the ground. For example, we had a surprise visit from an old friend; we had to stay late at the office; that late TV movie we got caught up in; the kids drove us up the wall; as soon as the holidays are over, we’ll apply for that new job; etc.

Putting knowledge of a healthy lifestyle into action and staying with it — not to mention learning to enjoy and prefer this lifestyle — can be like a diet, short-lived.

The process of self-discipline when you are unmotivated — when the sensual, self-defeating lifestyle is habitually entrancing — makes changing to a healthy way of life a constant struggle. You know you want to change, on the one hand; yet emotionally, on the other hand, you do not feel like changing.

After a few inspired starts that fade quickly into those old routines, the usual self-blame, self-deprecation, depression, guilt and negative behavior continue until the next magic inspiration comes along to start the cycle over again.

As pointed out by Jane Burka and Lenore Yven in Mind Games Procrastinators Play, “Procrastination is not just a bad habit, but a way of expressing internal conflict and protecting a vulnerable sense of self-esteem.” It seems that procrastination is very intermixed with fears, rewards, success, change and a host of psychodynamic meanings, indicating feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism and poor self-direction in seeking potentials.

Most of the reasons for procrastination come from various types of fears built upon feelings of inadequacy, usually at an early stage in life. Consequently, long-term self-defeating habits have developed (e.g., being compulsively perfectionistic), and like all long-term habits we develop, we feel secure with them and uncomfortable without them. Thus, to change these habits is frightening, even when the habits work against us — a vicious circle, but one that can be changed by design. One of the first steps is to be aware of the price we pay for perfectionistic procrastination. The awareness itself stimulates motivation/desire.

Consider the price you may be paying and notice how you feel about it.

  1. Decreased productivity — This is determined not only in dollars and cents, but also in achieving goals in most areas of life.
  2. Impaired health — Read any one of a thousand studies on stress as related to health, and the high correlation to all forms of illness are unlimited. Procrastination and perfectionism ultimately lead to distress.
  3. Poor self-control — Distress means heightened emotions; the higher the emotions go, the less effective we become.
  4. Low self-esteem — Shooting for perfection increases the probability of seeing failure in ourselves and putting ourselves down.
  5. Troubled relationships — It is not easy to like people who are critical of themselves, put themselves down, get depressed and are critical when we aren’t as perfect as they think we should be.
  6. Serious mood disorders — Anxiety, depression, loneliness, obsessive compulsiveness and even suicide may occur in this circle of self-defeating behavior.
  7. Undeveloped potentials — Creativity, risk-taking, relaxed and open thinking, visionary thoughts and trying new things are difficult when being perfect is so important.

These are very big prices to pay for procrastination.

Motivation for major changes in one’s life usually does not come about on a permanent basis simply by being aware of the price we are paying for not changing, although it is a start. Teachers, preachers, politicians, advertisers, parents, employers and, yes, psychologists are persistently trying to motivate us, usually through fear (punishment) or rewards (praise, status, remuneration). The successful ones usually do move us temporarily, but can it ever match the influence our parents had when we learned to be perfectionistic procrastinators?

When we have been motivated to be procrastinators and to deliberately continue unhealthy lifestyles, it will take a lot more than a single inspirational person or circumstance, fear or minor reward to effect change. These influences may help, but a true desire to change must come from within in order for us to go through the struggle, discomfort and “learning to let go” necessary for us to face our fears long enough to learn to prefer and enjoy a new, healthier lifestyle.

The reason the internal desire is so necessary is its correlation with the reason a person stays a procrastinator. The person is motivated by dealing with uncertainty, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy — assuming that being perfect is a way to get love in a critical home and that one’s only worth is one’s performance.

Perfectionistic parents and culture reinforce the belief at every turn — good grades, being pretty, selling the most widgets and generally beating the competition is rewarded. It is easy to see why a person may be motivated not to compete — to procrastinate to avoid not having to accomplish the impossible by being perfect.

To modify perfectionistic behavior and thinking means excellence is possible. Perfectionism requires straining, controlling, compulsiveness and going to extremes that often backfire. Excellence is reached by staying focused on the path (process), not the outcome. Excellence is achieved through patience and balance which brings out the best of you, the real you.


James McClernan, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist at Palm Valley Behavioral Health in Goodyear, Ariz., and the author of Hugs From the Refrigerator: The Psychology of Emotional Eating and Change Your Mind, Change Your Weight. 623-925-2677 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 1, February/March 2007.

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