Why do we procrastinate? The 3 reasons and how to stop! Breaking the Cycle

How do you deal with it when you are putting things off? Does it work and how does it make you feel? In this second step of my series “Why do we procrastinate? The 3 reasons and how to stop” we look at the best way to deal with procrastination and the most effective way to break the cycle of putting things off


In my last vlog I talked about the three main reasons we procrastinate, the three main reasons we start putting things off.

Today I want to talk about how this becomes a habit in our life, and what we do to help perpetuate it, and therefore what we can do to stop it. Because if we don’t stop it, it can become chronic, and it can become pernicious and really damaging.

To recap the three reasons:

The first reason is that the thing we’re putting off isn’t actually on our priority list. It’s either on somebody else’s priority list, or it’s a hangover from a different priority list, one we used to have when we had different priorities, or even one that was put on us as children by our parents, or significant adults in our lives.

If this is the reason it is quite easy to shift, we simply ask the question “Is it on my priority list and do I want it on my priority list?”. It then either goes on the list or we decide we don’t actually need to do it.

If asking that doesn’t shift it, that might imply it is actually one of the other two reasons that is causing you not to do it.

The second reason is that you fear that when you do the thing, you won’t be any good at it or you won’t do it well enough, i.e. fear of failure. It’s so much easier to fail tomorrow, or next week or perhaps when you’ve lost six pounds, or you’ve bought the new clothes, or the stars are aligned. When things are different. Fundamentally you fear you’re no good and when you do it, it will prove to everybody you’re no good.

The third reason is self-handicapping, which is when we’re putting off the preparing for something because if we prepare and we’re still no good then that might imply that we’re actually, fundamentally, no good – which is what we fear. So by not preparing we always have an excuse and don’t have to face up to what we feel is the reality – which is that we’re no good.

The trouble is as well as self-handicapping, its self sabotaging because if we don’t prepare as well, it’s likely we’re not being going to be as good. In fact it’s almost certain we’re not going to be as good.

In the last vlog I talked about how acknowledging that underlying fear, that vulnerability, can help you shift how you feel about the task, and mean that you do the thing you’ve been putting off. Today I want to look at why this is, and why shifting into understanding helps us in a way that what we normally do when we’re procrastinating doesn’t. In fact what we normally do when we’re procrastinating makes it worse.

When I’m procrastinating and I’m trying to get myself to do something that I’ve been putting on I tend to use the words “Should” “Must” “Ought” “Got” or my particular favourite “Need”. I call them SMOG words, and they’re the words that actually most people use, either consciously or subconsciously, when they’re trying to persuade themselves to do something; so why is it I use those words?

We use these words for a reason, because we feel there is some extra pressure to them that will get us to comply and do the thing that we are putting off. So what is that extra pressure all about? To explain this I’m going to dip into some psychology – Transactional Analysis. Some of you may have heard of it, some of you may not.

TA was first expounded in the 1960s by a man called Eric Berne. There are several elements to it but today I want to look at an element called the Ego States. According to this theory there are three main Ego States: Parent, Adult and Child.

The Adult state is the state that we probably want to be aiming to be in most of the time. It’s proportional, it’s rational, it’s not unemotional but the emotion it shows is proportionate to the situation. It’s the state in which we are most aware and most conscious of our thoughts and our feelings, so that the decisions we make from the state are conscious and thought out.

Procrastination is not something we do from the Adult state because anything we decide to do or not do from the Adult State, we do conscious of our intention, thoughts and feelings as opposed to being driven by our subconscious intention, thoughts or feelings.

Taking a look at the Parent state now, the Parent State can actually be subdivided into four main subsections: Critical, Structured, Nurturing and Smothering. To explain these I usually talk about a muddy shoes example with my clients. If my children were to run in through the door with muddy shoes on the Critical Parent would say “Stop, what hell are you doing?! Take your shoes off now!” and possibly go into direct criticism “You idiot, I mean you know better than that, I’ve told you a thousand times!” I think we’ve all experienced critical parent.

One step from that on the spectrum is Structured Parent, and this would be they running in muddy shoes and we say “Stop! Okay, shoes off, take them to the utility room and wash them off.” There’s still an instruction being issued, but there’s no criticism, no direct criticism of the child or the other person.

A little bit further along is Nurturing. Nurturing would be them running in muddy shoes you say “Hold on, okay, can we take your muddy shoes off? Do you need a hand doing that? And then let’s take them to the utility room and we can wash them off together.” So there’s slightly more support in the Nurturing Parent state. With Nurturing there is help and love and affection in addition to the instruction.

The opposite end of the spectrum to Critical Parent is Smothering Parent. When the child comes in in muddy shoes you go “Oh stop, let me help you I’ll take those shoes off and I’ll take them into utility room and I’ll wash them off.” Although the Smothering Parent is looking after the child, because things are always been done for them, the implication is they’re doing it because the child is not capable, making the child feel incapable.

Now let’s take a look at the Child Ego State. The Child can either be Free or Adapted, and the Free Child is the child we’d come into the world as, it’s the one that does what it wants because it wants to, it does what’s pleasurable because it’s pleasurable and it doesn’t think about the outside world. It doesn’t think about its impact on the outside world, and it is relatively unaffected by the outside world. It doesn’t think of consequences. So it’s a fun child to be in, it’s the Free Child we are in when we dance like nobody’s watching, or we laugh and giggle and play, but it is also the Free Child who will run straight up the stairs in their muddy shoes to get the toy they want, because they’re not even thinking. It’s not naught, disrespectful, or rude, they are simply not thinking about the impact of their muddy shoes on the floor. It’s also the Free Child that will eat all the sweets in the bowl, not sharing, and then throw up.

So actually with our own children we do want them to adapt out of Free Child towards Adult, where they’re making conscious, sensible, wise decisions in the moment. But what we sometimes end up with is Adapted Child. Adapted Child is the child that has been affected by the outside world, and that wants to influence the outside world positively or negatively. There are two outcomes for the Adapted Child. They become either are the Compliant Adapted Child or the Rebellious Adapted Child. Compliant, exactly what it says on the tin. The Compliant Child does what it’s told, it’s kind of where we want them to end up, if we’re truthful, as parents or teachers. We want compliant children. Definitely in the moment that’s what we want. In reality, what we want is for them to make these wise decisions because they’re wise decisions. So to do what we want them to not because they’re told but to actually be able to make that decision for themselves, because it’s wise.

The Rebellious Child is your typical teenager. “You should tide you room” – “Why should I?!” “Take your muddy shoes off” – “No I don’t have to, I’ll do it in a minute.” Essentially refusing to comply to do as they’re told.

The interesting thing about the Parent and Child Ego States is that they are complimentary ego states. So if you approach somebody from the Parent State, they are likely to respond from the Child Ego State, and vice versa, if you approach them from the Child Ego State the other person is likely to respond from the Parent Ego State.

How does this relate to procrastination? Well the Parent and Child Ego States are often about power and choice. When we go into Parent we are trying to remove the choice from the other person. We are trying to exert power and control over them to get them to comply. In a sense we don’t trust them to make the wise decision, so we remove their options and we tell them what to do. We don’t give them an option to do something different because we’re worried they might take that option and that’s why we’re trying to control them. This is also what we do when we talk to ourselves about the things we’re putting off. We use these words Should, Must, Ought and Got, and these are words of the Parent Ego State. We’re trying to remove the option not to comply from ourselves. We’re trying to force ourselves to comply, we’re trying to force ourselves into Compliant Child. The trouble is what we can end up with is Rebellious Child from ourselves. A refusal or resistance to comply.

That rebellion, even in children of children age, is often not just about rebellion for rebellion’s sake. When we go into Parent State to get control over the Child, the Child, certainly in their adolescent phase, will want to pull back that control, because they’re practicing being adults and they don’t want you to control their life. So the more you try and control, and the more you go into Parent State when it’s that form of rebellion, the worse it will get. The other reason for rebellion can be the fear and worry that they feel about the task. They may be worried about doing their homework, they may be worried about practising which is why they’re putting it off. They feel vulnerable about it and again, strong-arming them by going further into Parent may mean they dig their heels in. It may actually get them do it, but if they do, they won’t do it willingly or comfortably. It in fact will make them feel more uncomfortable because they’re forced to do something that scares them.

This is why showing understanding can work. Showing understanding acknowledges that there may be a valid reason why they’re finding it hard to do, instead of it being because they’re “stupid” or “lazy” or “disrespectful.” If we acknowledge they have a genuine reason why they’re resisting doing it, that means we are treating them more as the Adult, and if we treat them more as an Adult then they are like more likely to respond in the Adult Ego State and make a wise choice. It can allow them to decide what they really want, what their ultimate aim is and try and achieve it.

It’s the same for us, when we’re procrastinating, if we trust ourselves to do what is wise, like with children, we’re actually more likely to make a wise choice, and make it willingly, and do the task willingly.

Next time, in the final step, we’re going to look at how we can be in Adult more often, and how we can get place where we willingly choose to do the things we are putting off and are therefore are more likely to do them.

Enjoy the rest of your day!