Kicking the Can Down The Road: Why We Procrastinate

We all procrastinate – each one of us – so firstly, there is no room for shame or stigma in the discussion of procrastination although many of us feel shame when we procrastinate. Perhaps we feel shame because our productivity-obsessed culture often labels the behavior of procrastination as ‘lazy’, and it takes almost super-human ego-strength not to internalize such strong messages to some degree. For our purposes, let’s first try to set the shame aside in recognizing the universality of the experience or procrastination.

We are all unique, with our own experiences of procrastination, but contemporary research suggests that one of the most common correlations with procrastinating is not laziness, but perfectionism. Personally, perfectionism is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of laziness, and I certainly see no shame in wanting things to be done excellently, but sometimes perfectionism leads to paralysis and can lead others to view perfectionists as lazy.

The research that exposes perfectionism at the root of procrastination is congruent with a century-old assumption that Carl Jung, the Swiss founder of analytical psychology, suggests: any symptom (unwanted pattern of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that negatively impact our quality of life) can be considered a replacement for legitimate suffering. It’s important to note that when he uses the term ‘legitimate’, he means that the pain experienced is close to the core of our problem, not that one form of pain is more valid than another. For some of us, to tackle a task exposes us to the risk of doing something that is below our expectations of ourselves, and to get too close to the negative feelings experienced during the task would be too much for our conscious selves to stand. So instead, we choose to do something else that might scratch our itch of needing to feel productive, or we choose to do something that provides escapism.

For example, perhaps you’ve experienced a strong desire to pick up a musical instrument in your adulthood, yet the instrument has sat in the corner of your living room for two years. Though time has passed, the desire to play the instrument hasn’t decreased any, and you still mention to friends in conversations that you’d like to learn to play, you just can’t quite bring yourself to do it. As you kick the can down the road, you may find yourself using replacement behaviors. These behaviors often are productive like laundry, dusting, dishes, or something else that has little to no risk for emotional distress. You also may turn to escapism like substances, sex and masturbation, fantasy, gaming, or social media. These replacement behaviors allow our conscious selves to feel either immediately successful in terms of productivity, or they distract us from the threatening feelings we would experience if we were doing the avoided task. Perhaps not picking up the musical instrument and instead of doing something else is allowing your conscious self to avoid the legitimate suffering experiences when you don’t sound as good as you’d like to for months as you work your way through the learning process. Maybe this negative feeling is big enough to be threatening to the ego, so much so that it is unconsciously more desirable to procrastinate.

Or perhaps you’re avoiding a difficult conversation with an individual you know would benefit. When opportunities arise, you may find yourself using the replacement behavior of changing the subject to something more superficial or maybe overloading your time with the individual with activities to eliminate the opportunity for deep conversation. Perhaps the legitimate suffering you’d experience if you confronted the individual would contain considerable anxiety that the relationship will not be able to survive the confrontation. Maybe you’re afraid of the guilt you may feel if you own your own shortcomings in the relationship. Maybe these feelings that are closer to the core of your problem are large enough that you choose to avoid the suffering and replace it with another more palatable choice – another ‘what’s new’ or ‘how’s the weather’ conversation.

Using Jung’s lens to view our procrastination can lead to insight and breakthroughs. What would happen if we asked ourselves in moments of procrastination and avoidance, “what painful emotional experience, what suffering, or what big, unpleasant feeling or negative belief will I confront if I dig into the task I’m avoiding”? Might we uncover the expectation of some suffering that has roots that run below the surface of the usual justifications we use for procrastination?

If we ask ourselves this question in our moments of kicking the can down the road and identify the legitimate suffering the avoided task contains, we may bring to consciousness the unconscious drives that keep us stuck in our procrastination patterns. If we meet these insights with self-compassion, we can develop the necessary libido to courageously move through the legitimate suffering, leading to transformative change and personal growth. 

When all else fails, remember these two things: Done is better than perfect, and you’re never going to feel like it!