There is no single reason why we procrastinate (and I say we, because we do all procrastinate). Rather, there are many reasons and most of us do some of them, and we will be using different reasons for putting off doing different things. It is unlikely that you put off doing the washing up for the same reason that you put off doing your tax return or writing that essay and putting off that decision will be coming from a different place too.
We can understand why we are procrastinating about doing a particular thing by looking at what we say to ourselves, the thoughts that pop into our head, the emotions that those thoughts cause, and the arguments and self-soothing things we then say.
Procrastinate comes from Latin and means to put off until tomorrow, which is very apt. How often have you actually said that to yourself of a task, “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Think about the last time you said this to yourself and the task that you then put off. What actually happened? Was it something along the lines of you remembered that Task still needs to be done and that was almost immediately followed by your thinking to yourself that you’d do it tomorrow (or later, or next week, or whatever) and then the thought of doing the task has gone away. If this was the case, exactly when did you decide that Task wasn’t going to be done now? Wasn’t it actually that by the time you said to yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow”, the decision to put it off, to not do it now, had already made itself somehow and that when you say to yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow, you’re not really forming a plan to do it tomorrow, but you’re soothing yourself that it’s okay not to do it. It feels like a plan. Any anxiety you might have felt at the point you remembered there was Task to do and you didn’t want to do it goes away. The only bit that you actually attended to, the only bit where you have your voice in your head, isn’t about making a choice as to whether you are going to do Task but is at the point where you say the right thing to yourself to soothe yourself and say that it’s okay.
This patterned form of thinking is how we deal with almost everything that happens to us. We have algorithms or recipes or scripts or heuristics (which all mean more-or-less the same thing here) which allow us to deal with almost everything that happens to us fairly automatically and without having to attend to or think about it. Daniel Kahnemann wrote a book, Thinking, Fast and Slow which is mostly about these two different forms of thinking. Thinking fast the is the lazy, easy, inexpensive, automatic and reactive form of thinking that we use almost all of the time. Thinking slow is the attentive, expensive, hard, thinking that we use as little as possible (and when we do, we get a lot of it wrong, as we shall see). Kahnemann, who is a psychologist, got the Nobel prize for Economics for the research he did (with Tversky, who died before the Nobel Committee awarded the prize) that led to the book, which says something of the importance of the work.
We need to do three things to learn how to overcome this form of patterned thinking. The first is to be more present at the time we put off doing Task for the first time so that we are aware that we have done it. We need to learn to recognize what is stopping us wanting to do Task right now and learn to deal with it differently now. And we need to set ourselves up so that the next time we are in the same position and putting off the same Task that we can learn a new script so that we don’t have to fight ourself. Because by the time we get to think about Task and whether we are going to do it now, we are approaching it from the position of thinking “shall I do this thing now?” but from what is actually happening now: I have already decided I am not going to do this task so if I now have to unmake that decision. And that is much harder.