The Real Reason We Procrastinate

Ever since high school, I’ve struggled with procrastination. And for more than twenty years, I assumed that my problem was that I was lazy, unmotivated, or unworthy.

That sounded good, but it just wasn’t true.

Procrastination isn’t a character flaw. It’s the byproduct of an inner conflict: a part of us wants to do something and another part doesn’t. And the most common reason for procrastination is that it’s the unavoidable cost of using stress as your primary fuel source.

Procrastination is the automatic consequence of using fear as fuel.

Do you remember Pavlov’s dogs? In this early psychology experiment, Ivan Pavlov would ring a bell each time he fed his dogs. He consistently paired the two events: Ring the bell, feed the dogs. Ring the bell, feed the dogs. Then one day, he rang the bell without feeding them and found that their mouths salivated anyway. The dogs had learned, in a deeply physical way, that “bell equals food.”

The same thing happens whenever we get stressed about a task. Each time we use fear as fuel, we train our bodies to be afraid of that activity. We create resistance – at a deep, biological level – to the very thing we’re trying to accomplish.

When this happens, we naturally feel conflicted. The voice of fear tells us that we have to do something or we’ll fail. But this brings up our fear of that activity.

What’s the easiest way to deal with this conflict?

Procrastinate. Put it off. Decide not to decide. Agree to worry about it tomorrow. Or the next day.

Or the day after that.

Starting in high school, each time I got stressed about my homework, I trained my body that “homework equals pain.” I learned that homework hurts. Not because the homework was particularly painful, but because my fear of failure was.

This created a vicious cycle. Each time I used stress as a motivator, I created more resistance and an even stronger desire to procrastinate the next time I faced my homework. This forced me to create an even greater fear of failure, and to push things even closer to the deadline before I could amp up and “turn on.”

I got to the point where I spent most of my life chasing my “on mode” – the state of being just stressed enough to stop procrastinating and hit that glorious place of hyper-focus where it felt like I could do anything. But when I wasn’t in that place, I had an even harder time being present and became ever less productive.

Even as I became more successful in terms of making money, I had a harder time functioning. I got to the point where I met the clinical criteria for ADD, and my father suggested that I explore medications. I put off paying my bills so much that I regularly had my utilities disconnected. I avoided going to the dentist, so I regularly had to have root canals. I lost all trust in my ability to create success without stress.

My life became one big oscillation between procrastination and overstress. I learned how to manage this pattern as well as I could. I figured out how to make it work for me, harnessing my fear of failure to create success.

But no matter how successful I became, I still felt bad. I still felt insecure. And while I’d been raised to believe that I could do anything. I started shifting, after enough procrastination and failure, from “I can” to “I can’t.” I started giving in to my fears.

“I can’t pay my bills on time.” “I can’t take care of my teeth properly.” “I can’t be present with other people.” “I can’t be trusted with responsibility.” These self-judgments started to define my reality and identity. Not because they were necessarily true, but because of how powerful my fears of failure had become.