What is Procrastination? Why You Procrastinate and What You Can Do About It.

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

If you struggle with procrastination, this podcast is for you. Today we are going to talk about the 7 reasons WHY we procrastinate and what to do about it.

Several years ago I had the privilege of working with the founder and CEO of a major international company. As the company grew, so did my client’s responsibilities. Calls came in on his cellular phone all hours of the night and on the fly, multitasking became a necessity. As the pressure mounted, sleep was sent to the back burner, he started to experience heart palpitations, and he had started to put off completing tasks that required more effort. Once his symptoms got bad enough that they started to bleed into his professional life, he went to the doctor.

His psychiatrist diagnosed him with ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder and gave him a prescription for an antidepressant, Adderall and Xanax. His libido dropped on the antidepressant, the Xanax helped with the palpitations and sleeplessness but it made him feel lethargic and depressed and so he needed the Adderall to get through work. But for all the trade-offs, he was still procrastinating, and now he felt like he was losing his edge.

I want to share with you, exactly what I said to my client:

Your brain is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing, given your experience. In fact, your ability to adapt to the pressure of your circumstances is outstanding and is very likely a big part of how you have been so successful to this point.

When under stress, the healthy nervous system triggers a cascade of responses that have worked throughout human history to ensure survival. Your adrenal glands release cortisol, which gives you energy and drive. Your levels of adrenaline increase which speeds up your thoughts, your heart, and while these biological mechanisms are amazingly useful when we’re in a literal crisis, they can cause a whole host of issues in a setting where you need to sit down, focus on the task at hand, finish a project or get something done.

In the example of our CEO, his autonomic nervous system enabled him to thrive in his job. It did this by giving him quick thinking that could turn on a dime, energy to wake up and be ready at all hours of the night, hypervigilance that enabled him to detect issues rapidly, and endurance that allowed him to persevere despite exhausting hours, grueling hours, and with high-pressure decisions.

His body was doing what he had asked it to do, and untethered the nervous system can behave like a snowball rolling down a hill: Picking up speed and snow, leaving us overwhelmed, overstimulated, depleted and unable to calm down.

One of the trade-offs of being able to live like a bear is constantly tracking you, is that it becomes incredibly difficult to FOCUS, and overwhelm bleeds into your brain and body.

In response to this, your well-intended brain pushes all non-essentials to the back burner and we label ourselves as procrastinators and the cycle continues.

Procrastination is a natural response asking you to pay attention to an underlying unmet need. Our CEO was in a state of fight-or-flight, and procrastination was a mechanism by which he mitigated his stress in the short term, but in the long term the back burner became over-filled and he realized he needed a different plan of attack.

Let’s talk about the 7 most common causes of procrastination and then I’ll share with you my top 6 strategies to send procrastination backstage.


1 – Anxiety

    • Fear of failing.
    • Panic disorder: “Procrastination can be a common problem for many people with anxiety-related conditions, including panic disorder. There are numerous symptoms of panic disorder and common anxious personality traits that can contribute to procrastination.”
    • Anxiety: Racing heart, poor concentration, restlessness, distractibility, symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity.
    • Avoidance is a hallmark of anxiety
      • “Avoidance is a hallmark of anxiety,” says Robin Yeganeh, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness Center in San Ramon, Calif.It’s a vicious cycle, he says. People anxious about a significant goal will often engage in unproductive behaviors (email, social media, trivial errands—anything other than getting down to business) to avoid that discomfort, only to feel more distressed as time passes and no progress on the goal has been made.
    • But when it comes to things that are important to us, what are we so afraid of?
      • Every success comes with tradeoffs—more exposure, more pressure, less freedom—and ignoring worries about those can come back to bite us

2 – Worry

    • “Similarly, worry can keep you from accomplishing your tasks and goals. Sometimes our worry about the end results will keep us from completing certain responsibilities.”

3 – Uncertainty

    • Not having a clear understanding of what needs to be done and how.
    • Intolerance of uncertainty is an important cause of anxiety problems. These are some signs intolerance of uncertainty is causing your procrastination”
      • You have a general tendency to stay stuck on pause whenever you feel uncertain about doing something (i.e., you avoid situations and tasks that involve feeling unsure).
      • You overcomplicate the issue of where to start. You don’t know how to do all the steps in a task so you avoid doing the first logical step.
      • You like to mentally work through every possible scenario before you take the plunge. You get caught up in thinking about the details rather than the big picture.
      • You try to do too much yourself rather than delegate/outsource to others, because you can only be 100 percent confident in yourself.

4 – Perfectionism

    • “Your personal demand to be perfect can be contributing to your struggle with procrastination. You may think that perfectionism is a positive attribute. However, setting yourself up to such a high standard can hold you back from completing your tasks and can often lead to feelings of defeat.”
    • How does perfectionism come out
      • Personal self-talk and reasoning.
        • “Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to finding ways to avoid that bad feeling,
          • be it procrastination (“I’ll do it tomorrow”),
          • diversion (“I’ll just check Twitter first”), or
          • self-sabotage (“You know what? It’s a dumb idea anyway.”) This last one is particularly popular among analytical or cerebral types who may not even realize the extent to which their hyper-rational reasons for abandoning a dream are influenced by fear“
    • Having all perfectionistic criteria met in order to proceed
      • “For example, perfectionism can take on the form of should statements. You may think to yourself, “I should complete this task perfectly or not at all.” Such self-criticism adds pressure to your life and can derail your attempts at reaching your goals.”
      • “Perfectionism also can lead to procrastination when you need to have everything line up perfectly before you feel ready to work on a particular task. You may always be waiting for the “perfect time” to start working on a goal. For instance, you may tell yourself that you cannot work on relaxation techniques until you have read several self-help books for panic disorder. Or maybe you tell yourself you are too busy right now to seek out professional help for your condition. By waiting for everything to be in order, you are actually putting off any progress and giving in to procrastination.”

5 – Resentment and anger about having to do the task

    • Blaming others for your procrastination
      • If you’re blaming others for your procrastination, then acknowledging the role of your own anxiety can help you take self-responsibility and kick your butt into gear. Sometimes talking about your anxiety can help you have productive conversations about issues that need solving, such as when you’re making decisions with your spouse or partner. Expressing vulnerability can trigger other people to respond in ways that are more caring, provided you don’t overuse this strategy.
    • Procrastination can occur when you feel strong resentment about having to do the task at all
      • For instance, you feel resentment about doing aspects of a task that feel like a waste of time, or when you need to comply with a system or procedures that don’t feel logical, fair, or caring. When anxious people feel like a system doesn’t work for them, it can trigger their general sense of not fitting in, and their anxiety around that. Or, when someone is very anxious about perfectly complying with all rules, procedures that feel onerous can trigger anxiety about achieving the perfect compliance they’re aiming for.”

6 – Depression

    • Delusion of failure
    • Low self-confidence
    • Lack of drive or motivation

7 – Overwhelmed and unclear of how to proceed

    • “Procrastination due to overestimating the number of tasks you can get done in the time available.” / “working memory being overwhelmed.” No band with.
    • “When faced with a large task, it is easy to feel discouraged by the amount of work ahead.”


1 – Decide if the activity is worth it

    • imagine a see-saw teetering back and forth between “what feels good” and “what’s good for me.”
    • “I ask clients to mindfully notice which choice they make in relation to particular growth areas and then identify which choice they value,” he said. “If they value ‘what’s good for me,’ we lean in and develop a more specific plan of action.”

2- Embrace uncertainty

    • Going into the zone of proximal development
    • “by being willing to take on an uncertain situation, you open up the possibility that you’ll do better.”
    • “I’ve found that the more I strategically embrace uncertainty and opt for better, uncertain options over worse, certain ones, the easier it gets, and the more my brain has begun to interpret uncertain situations as exciting rather than threatening.”
    • “Knowing that my brain generates many ideas about what could go wrong actually gives me more confidence when it comes to risk-taking. I know if my instinct is to go for it when it comes to a particular opportunity, that instinct is usually right, since I’ve mentally factored in the risks. My bias tends to be being too cautious, so when my “go” light turns on, I know I can generally trust that signal.”

3 – Practice making small decisions quickly

    • Using Heuristics (hear-istic): this is a mental shortcut that helps you make decisions quickly and frees up cognitive resources. Making decisions on the fly without using much information. Cognitive tools to help us make quick decisions and judgments. Helps us not deliberate over our hundreds of daily choices. These are shortcuts to help us make decisions. Instead of deciding what to wear every day, have default options. Instead of choosing from an entire menu, eat what you enjoyed in the past.   https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/heuristics to help you make small decisions more quickly
      • “Being a worrywart is energy-intensive. So that I can have the luxury of time to think through big decisions, I’ve learned to make small decisions more quickly.

4 – Work on self-esteem and confidence

    • Recognizing strengths that can arise from an anxious brain
    • Own negative beliefs and overpowering fears.
    • FACT CHECK: Reality check your thoughts:
      • Listing all the reasons for not engaging in higher priority behaviors and then challenging the credibility of each reason.
      • “begin to assess if you really do not have the skill set needed to complete a specific task. If you do not, who can you solicit for support?”
      • “Sometimes people are surprised to realize they’re prone to both positive and negative cognitive biases. An example of a positive bias is overestimating how much you can realistically get done in a particular window of available time. Biting off more than you can realistically chew is a common cause of anxiety and avoidance.”
      • Reality check procrastination due to predicting a negative outcome.
        • Often when people drag their heels on a task, it’s because they’re predicting a negative outcome. For example: expecting to struggle with a task, or expecting a task to not go smoothly.
      • Calculate your wins

5 – Get organized

    • “In the short term, the most effective strategy is breaking a larger goal down into small, measurable steps—and scaling expectations way back, Connor said. When you’re paralyzed by worry, just opening a Google doc and choosing a title counts as progress—so don’t promise yourself that three pages of fluid writing will follow. And beware the creep of perfectionism, in all its forms.
    • “Some of my clients have liked an idea that comes from a book called Getting Things Done. How it works: Get 31 cardboard folders, and label them for each day of the month (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc). I like to use “file jackets” for this purpose rather than manila folders (so that things don’t fall out).
    • When something comes in that you need to add to your to-do list, file it in the correct folder based on the day you need to think about it. Reuse the folders the next month. Reducing the need to make decisions about what to do with new information will free up your willpower for other things.”

6 – Small Steps:

    • Where in the task do you struggle the most? Beginning? Middle, finishing?
      • “You might not feel nervous about all aspects of a task, but perhaps you feel nervous about just one aspect or a few aspects. For instance, you might not want to make a phone call but the rest of the task isn’t particularly nerve-wracking once you’ve gotten past that step. “
    • Get support to help you where you struggle the most.
    • Pick out one small thing that you can complete toward accomplishing your larger goal. It may be helpful to list out the many small steps that will lead up to accomplishing a greater task.”

Did you know that we have an Anxiety Freedom Warriors private Facebook page? If you resonated with anything you heard here today, check it out here.

Looking for more ways to wake up and be free from anxiety? Download the FREE 1 Week Anxiety Freedom Challenge to get 14 tools for anxiety relief and videos walking you through them each day.

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first. Dr. Nicole Cain consults with clients locally and internationally. Dr. Nicole Cain ND MA has helped countless people take back control of their lives, and she can help you. To set up a complimentary consultation, call our office or visit https://drnicolecain.com/getting-started to schedule online.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational video e-courses, books, and exclusive free Facebook group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.