To many people, it's a mystery "why" they're stuck in the procrastination trap. They realize that it makes no sense to berate themselves endlessly for repeating the same tired, old avoidance behaviors, nor does it make sense to label themselves lazy and worthless. It becomes silly to keep promising to reform their self-defeating ways, when they unwittingly continue to get deeper and deeper in the sludge.

I'm not so big on the "why" question; it's often an elusive query which distracts attention from the meat of the matter. It's far too easy to spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing childhood issues and other past influences attempting to connect them to the current state of paralysis. And even if the conclusions sound reasonable and appropriate, they could be wrong, and even more likely, useless.

Too many people spend too much time trying to understand "why," when it would be so much more productive to determine what needs to be modified and what factors at this time play a continuing role in the procrastination trap.

Effective assessment involves the identification of cognitive and behavioral factors that are relevant in promoting procrastination. Here are some examples:


You might procrastinate because a particular job is distasteful, boring or at the moment seems rather inane. Something else might be so much more appealing to you, competing with the less attractive alternative. In other words, you put off one thing to do something that you find more interesting or enjoyable now.


Another reason for this bad habit is fear; you might feel inadequate and may not want to have this inadequacy confirmed for all to see. Or you may be fearful of an unsure outcome, once you commit your time and energy to the goal. Fear of success can be a powerful variable as well. If you succeed, you or someone else might expect you to maintain that level of functioning. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you may fear taking on an endeavor that could manifest in a flawed result. Heaven forbid!


Feeling pressure from others to perform can produce resentment and resistance, which more often than not, are action stoppers. Due to some one else's expectations, you "cut off your nose to spite your face." By the way, who is in charge of your life anyway? Are you going to let someone else dictate your path?


You might feel entitled to have your dream today without all the wear and tear, a desire for and expectation of quick, easy results. Or you might be beating yourself up for not following through on expectations you had for yourself. There are people who make this self-abuse a mantra. Truly action stoppers!


Another action stopper is learned helplessness, the state in which a person feels that no matter what he or she does, it won't make much of a difference in the final result, so why bother? David Burns, M.D. in his book, Feeling Good, the New Mood Therapy, notes that you may talk yourself out of action because of a helplessness mindset. For example, you may magnify the problem so it seems impossible; you may conclude that you have to do everything at once instead of in steps; you may tell yourself that you are not capable of doing what needs to be done or that the end result will not be worth the effort. This kind of internal dialogue is utterly paralyzing and often connected to depression. Persistence is just too hard to maintain in this mindset.


How does procrastination become a strong pattern of functioning, in effect take on a life of its own? Behaviorally, it's an avoidance trap. When you avoid something that scares you, those fearful feelings and the accompanying physical symptoms often diminish or disappear. When you avoid something that is distasteful or boring, the absence of the negative or boring situation reinforces the avoidant behavior.

Because the behavior of avoiding or escaping is so powerful in halting that which is distressing, distasteful or boring, it becomes more likely that you will use this response again when the same situation or a similar one presents itself. Avoidance has gained strength, and you are in backward motion. Avoidance leads to more avoidance. When this is the case, you have limited or lost your control in this area. It's not that you're lazy or good-for-nothing; rather, you're caught up in a cognitive and behavioral state of turbulence and confusion.

Let's say for the sake of argument that you're very afraid of public speaking. You have agreed to give a presentation, but just the thought of standing in front of a large audience gives you heart palpitations, gas, sweaty palms and thoughts of moving to Australia. You put off practicing the speech because even practicing makes you feel ill. You make a phone call to cancel or reschedule your commitment with the lame excuse of having some disease one can only contract in a remote village in Africa.

When you hang up from the call, your heart palpitations and gas disappear, your sweaty palms become dry, and your thoughts are focused on what you are going to have for lunch. Avoidance in the moment has aborted your fearful symptoms. The avoidant behavior has gained power in this situation, and in the future the likelihood of using this course of action has increased, sometimes markedly. Avoidance controls you. In the arena of your public speaking fear, persistence has been dealt a blow. It's much like drinking alcohol in the morning to treat your hangover. This intervention may reduce your symptoms, but I can guarantee you are not in control -- the alcohol is in control.

The same applies for avoidance of the distasteful. You hate going to your mother-in-law's house for dinner on Sunday, a precious day off, especially when she's fixing her liver and egg concoction. You tell your husband that the boss called asking you to help him prepare the schedule for next week. Your husband believes you, and you go shopping instead of dealing with the dreaded liver and boring conversation.

Upon making your escape, your feelings of fatigue, mild depression and frustration magically evaporate into thin air. The thought enters your mind, "I wonder if this will work the next time?" Avoidance has saved the day, and the probability of searching for an escape mechanism the next time has increased. Avoidance controls you.

So you might ask, what's wrong with strategies that make you feel better, if even just in the short-term? What's wrong with managing fear and aversive situations in this way? The answer is important. Your behavior is reactive, not proactive, and in both these cases patently dishonest. You're not being true to yourself or to other people, and you're not in control of your internal and external behavior in this area. You're not going toward your power, you're moving away from it. You have decidedly limited your choices.

This backward spiraling may take on a life of its own. It can become infectious, spreading to other aspects of your life. I have seen the far-reaching effects of avoidance many, many times. These effects can result in one's own personal prison. Avoidance promotes procrastination and is antithetical to persistence. Fortunately, this pattern can be turned around. You can become proactive and regain control and be true to your values.

To become a non-procrastinator:

• Identify the tasks you avoid
• Identify the reasons you avoid these tasks (fear, disinterest, boredom, etc.)
• Identify the excuses you give yourself and others to avoid tasks
• Learn the tools to overcome fears: relaxation, desensitization
• Pick one goal at a time and divide it into steps that are not overwhelming
• Keep telling yourself that no matter how small the step, it is forward movement not avoidance
• Assess your beliefs about finishing tasks
• Dispute the beliefs that reinforce procrastination such as it's not okay for you to be bored; normalize this belief by telling yourself that boredom is a part of life for everyone
• Develop an internal dialogue that is proactive and self-congratulatory when you succeed
• Let yourself dream about how much better your life will be if you move forward

Author's Bio: 

She has served as a hospital staff psychologist and has lectured on topics ranging from stress management, meditation and relaxation training to assertiveness and sleep management. Today, her private practice in San Diego is dedicated exclusively to Positive Psychology Coaching.

Her first book, "It's Your Little Red Wagon… 6 Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life," was Dr. Esonis’ initial contribution to the field of Positive Psychology, presenting proven success factors and strength-building techniques that can lead individuals to a life of purpose, motivation and personally-defined happiness.

In "8 Crazy Beliefs That Screw Up Your Life -- Change These Beliefs and Become a Healthier, Happier Person," Dr. Esonis identifies eight “Thematic Belief Systems” that, in her experience as a psychologist and life coach for over 30 years, prevent individuals from building healthy, long-lasting relationships and extracting maximum happiness from life. She examines these “crazy beliefs” with all their negative implications and offers practical, persuasive arguments for why – and how – they can be replaced with healthy alternatives.

Dr. Esonis is a member of the San Diego Professionals Coaches Alliance (SDPCA) and is a Founding Member of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP).