Carol Dweck’s now-famous concept of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets can tell us a lot about procrastination. A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence and ability are set at birth and are broadly unchangeable. They’re part of the personality, or constitutional. This means there’s very little point in trying to change them! A very negative side effect of this belief is the idea that success, if it comes, is natural and that if you’re meant to do something well, you ought to do so immediately and with ease. Someone may try a new hobby, find it quite difficult, and throw their hands up and quit, because they believe that they simply weren’t born with the requisite intelligence to do it. What’s more, they have a low tolerance for being a beginner—they don’t want to look like they’re unintelligent or make mistakes. So they avoid or procrastinate or fail to take action at all.
The more adaptive and useful mindset is seeing life as a work in progress and the brain as a fluid, trainable thing. This “growth” mindset means that intelligence and ability are developed deliberately, with consistent, slow practice that improves skill in increments. This way, a person is never surprised to make mistakes as they learn—in fact they expect it. They are comfortable with being a beginner, because they understand that mastery is a process. If they begin a task and are not immediately rewarded, they don’t quit or procrastinate—they take it in stride and carry on.
If you find yourself with thoughts that hint at a fixed mindset when it comes to the tasks you’re avoiding, it may be time to reframe a little. Train yourself to completely forget about the big goal at the end. Focus only on the smaller tasks in the interim. Try to detach your ego from the outcome. Remind yourself that trying and failing is normal and proof that you’re learning! It may even help to try focusing on the process instead of the outcome. Plan to do a number of hours, say, rather than assign yourself an impossible and lofty goal at the outset. As a practical example, a poor goal would be “do well on my assignment” whereas a better one could be “try my hardest on my assignment.” The latter is less ego- and goal-centered and is more reasonably under your control. Finally, learn to laugh at yourself a little—sometimes “finished is better than perfect”!
Someone might feel that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and as a result procrastinates on all those “new tricks.” For example, despite being asked repeatedly to go to therapy with his partner, he may refuse, believing that it’s just not in his nature to talk about his feelings. Here, as with many cases of procrastination, it can pay to ask sincerely, “What am I really trying to accomplish right now?” and “Why is what I’m trying to do important to me?”
Realizing that, deep down, protecting and maintaining his relationship is worth more than momentarily feeling right, he may have the impetus to push past beliefs that nothing will change or he’ll look stupid trying. Reconnecting with this deeper purpose can bring clarity and inspire action. If this rings true for you, ask yourself if momentarily protecting your ego or avoiding the slight embarrassment of failing or being wrong is worth passing up on your dreams and goals. Do you keep a big bank of embarrassing memories of all the times people around you looked a little silly? If not, then don’t expect that others will remember your slip-ups either!
People procrastinate because they have low self-confidence.
According to Dr. Lisa Saulsman and the Center for Clinical Interventions, it’s natural that people shy away from tasks that might expose any weakness or flaw. If you think that you’re generally not that great, you might avoid all situations where you have to apply yourself, be appraised or rated, or have your work looked at by others. The belief that we are fundamentally up to the tasks life throws our way is the root of high self-esteem. If this doesn’t sound like you, you may have automatically assumed you’ll fail and now are procrastinating on the task because you “know” that doing it will expose your weaknesses to others and be painful for you.
If self-belief is low enough, people may stop themselves even from wanting to set goals for themselves, convinced in advance they’d only fail. Unfortunately, this means they never give themselves the opportunity to prove themselves wrong, making this attitude somewhat self-fulfilling. People with severely low confidence will avoid challenging or pushing themselves and cringe away from criticism or failure. What better way to avoid failure entirely than to not even try in the first place?
Someone could start to challenge these limiting beliefs, however, by gently encouraging themselves to take small steps to prove themselves wrong. Divide every task mentally into three parts: 1) deciding, 2) starting, and 3) finishing. Often, people who procrastinate due to low self-esteem try directly jumping to the second part. However, try to take some time to decide how you want go about the task and gather everything you’ll need to begin. Once you have made that initial step and have the resources to begin, proceeding to part two becomes easier. As you continue with the task, try to picture all the good outcomes that can come from doing the task well or even finishing it at all to reach part three. This is a mindset that will take practice to incorporate, but it will become easier with each task you complete.
Sometimes, even deliberately courting a negative outcome can be strangely liberating—a person deathly afraid of sharing their art may suddenly realize they don’t actually care so much once they get their first dreaded negative reaction. If you have low self-esteem, it may help to journal down all the ways you’ve survived and overcome adversity in the past already. Try to find evidence for a new narrative—one in which you are capable and able to deal with what life throws your way.
People procrastinate because the task is confusing or overwhelming.
Often, the barrier is simply that although the alarm bells are blaring in your head—get this done!—you’re not at all clear about how to do that or what steps to take first. So you turn up to the task filled with the desire and motivation to do good work, but you’re confused and have no direction. The thing looks overwhelming. Immediately, your anxiety goes up and your sense of efficacy and confidence goes right down. Though such a problem isn’t strictly emotional to start with, it soon leaves you with a bunch of unpleasant feelings that can make you spiral out of control. It’s an organizational problem, and this is not something that is ever strictly taught, is it?
Here, the solution is not emotional so much as practical and executive. It’s all about carefully dividing tasks up into smaller tasks and completing them in an orderly fashion. Procrastination can happen when there is a lack of organization in the way a task is approached. Sorting through a task step by step can give you a sense of control and order and give you clear, concrete work to do every time you sit down to tackle it. Here, “laziness” tells a very different story about someone’s thought process.
A complicated work presentation you need to compile within two weeks can look overwhelming and lead you to procrastinate. Instead of reprimanding yourself for being lazy, though, simply take a deep breath and break the thing down. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I need to do to start moving again?” Just one thing: what you can do in the next five minutes, for example. Identify separate tasks of researching data, compiling a graph or two, finding images, writing some descriptive text, getting someone to look over the slideshow, adding a list of references or further reading, etc. Don’t worry if you don’t have a 100% clear picture before you begin. Only aim to make it a little clearer and understand your very next step. Focus on what needs to happen instead of the big picture.
Now, you can relax and let your field of attention shrink down to a more manageable single task, one at a time. Set aside some time and work on just one aspect. Adjust as you go. Feeling confused or overwhelmed is not a cause for alarm—it’s simply a little bell inviting you to stop for a moment, reorient yourself to your goals and values, and remember what you were ultimately trying to achieve. What is unnecessary and can be eliminated? What is the core and what is peripheral? Center yourself and wait a moment. Sometimes giving confusion a little time is all that’s needed to gain some clarity and an idea of what your next step should be.
People procrastinate because they’re mentally or physically unwell.
Emotional barriers (like fear of failure or not being good enough) and executive barriers (not knowing how to break an overwhelming task down systematically) are two of the most common reasons for the “laziness” that is procrastination. But there are other barriers too—some of them even invisible to the person themselves. Again, “laziness” takes on a whole different meaning when we can view it through an alternative lens. We might find that we, or others around us, aren’t lazy at all.
Untreated anxiety, depression or other mental illness, ADHD, undiagnosed autism, stress, or trauma can hinder the many cognitive processes that need to take place to complete a task. Low confidence and self-esteem can lead to self-sabotage. Physiologically, it’s obvious that work is more difficult to stick with if a person is sleep-deprived, undernourished, ill, or uncomfortable. Ask if you’re avoiding the task or are just tired, hungry, thirsty, too hot or cold, etc.
On this note, it’s worth taking a moment to separate “lazy” from “tired.” Sometimes “I don’t have the energy” is actually just code for “I have the energy, but I don’t want to spend it on this.” You may find an overachiever calling their genuine exhaustion “laziness.” The socially accepted response to fatigue is to fight against it: drink coffee, push through, and stop whining. But what if we were to force an elite athlete to act in this manner? We would hopefully recognize that rest and recovery are part of the winning equation to be able to push even harder—why should it be any different with our mental energy?
You may find your body forcing you to take a break if you won’t heed its polite request for a rest! Here’s where self-condemnation and blame enter again and have a disastrous effect. We fear inactivity, rest, or quiet contemplation, and so we browbeat ourselves into doing more when we’re tired—or at least making sure we don’t actively enjoy our downtime by piling on guilt when we stop!
A little self-awareness and compassion can make the difference. Take a nap and note your feelings toward the task when you’re refreshed and rested. Give yourself permission to take a walk and do something else, and see if your motivation returns in time. Be honest about whether you’re giving yourself adequate time to sleep and rest. We are not machines, and treating our bodies like they’re not allowed to rest can have dire consequences—not to mention making us less productive anyway.
As an example, someone might find they repeatedly have to force themselves through a new project. They stop and ask, “Is this the most important thing I should be doing right now?” and discover that, in fact, their priority at that moment is not the project but their own rest and well-being. By simply changing your focus from judgment to curiosity, you can start to look at laziness with compassion and empathy and start finding real ways around it. Laziness will seem like a symptom of a bigger problem—one that can always be solved.
Finally, it’s worth noting something else that’s seldom mentioned: if you’re avoiding a task you’ve told yourself you want to do or should do, take a closer look. You might discover that you don’t in fact want to do it or that your motivations are external and superficial. In this case your avoidance is really a sign that the task is not something you’re truly aligned with. You don’t care, you’re apathetic, and you would rather clean the bathroom for the fifth time than devote your time to this thing. While this isn’t always helpful information, don’t ignore this warning sign about what you care or are passionate about.
It seems obvious when you say it deliberately: nobody is intrinsically a failure or wants to be lazy or weak-willed or apathetic. We don’t want to view ourselves that way, and we will engage in mental acrobatics to avoid it. We all have a desire to work meaningfully toward goals that are important to us. If you find yourself feeling lazy, it’s almost always a question of removing the barriers and identifying what is actually keeping you from motion. Once the barriers are removed, it then becomes a lot easier to realistically develop self-discipline. It’s just about setting yourself up for success rather than continually butting your head against a wall that you cannot identify.
Self-discipline, it’s been said, is choosing between what you want now and what you want most. There is always an opportunity cost, but in truth, the opportunities you are foregoing by acting disciplined aren’t very large—comfort, security, safety, television, gaming, junk food, and so on.
Pushing ourselves through our fears, limitations, and bad habits takes energy and is uncomfortable, but is mere discomfort what you will allow to keep you from what you want most?