Why do we procrastinate?

Recently I heard someone saying that over 60% of people procrastinate. I was surprised – not because the percentage was so high, but because it’s so low.

I don’t know what criteria they used in the study, but I can’t imagine there is anyone in the world who doesn’t procrastinate one way or another. It is simply against the norm of human behavior that more than one third of the population does not procrastinate.

Generally speaking, there are two types of procrastinators, the pathological procrastinators and the circumstantial ones. Pathological procrastinators procrastinate habitually. They always put off everything until the last minute and inevitably do a poor, rushed job. Eventually, they become known as unreliable and undependable. Fortunately, those people are few and far between. The vast majority of us procrastinate only under certain circumstances. For example, when we are so afraid of failure or mockery.

For centuries, researchers, coaches and counsellors have tried to find out the causes and cures for procrastination. Only recently have we gained a good grasp of the full picture of what causes procrastination.

The breakthrough in our understanding of what drives human behavior in general, and procrastination in particular, came with Dr. John F. Demartini’s discovery of the subconscious system called Hierarchy of Values. When we examine each area of our life and everything we do, think and have, we will find that our life demonstrates to us every day what is most important, what is less important and what is least important to us. When we list all aspects and all activities of our life in the order of importance, we get a hierarchy of values. What is important is a high value and what is not important is a low value in the value hierarchy. One of the most revealing things about the hierarchy of values is that what we consciously think is important is often not really important to us subconsciously and, therefore, our life does not demonstrate it as important in our thoughts, words and actions. As is well known, in the contest between the conscious and the subconscious, the subconscious mind always wins hands down.

For example, if you ask a high school student who always procrastinates about doing homework, How important it is to get homework done on time? They are likely to tell you that it is very important. But when you look at the details of their life, which are driven by their high values in the subconscious mind, you will find they spend far more time, energy and money on their appearance, video games, watching sports, calling and texting their friends or finding someone to have sex with. They are highly unlikely to tell you that those things are more important than homework. In fact, they would be telling you the truth from their conscious mind, but their life demonstrates that those are their high values, whereas doing homework is a low value.

Whatever is a high value to them, they are reliable, organized and on time in that area. Whatever is a low value to them, they show hesitation, procrastination, and end up feeling frustrated.

No student consciously wants to procrastinate on homework, but they can’t help it, because their subconscious hierarchy of values is driving their behaviour. Until the hierarchy in their subconscious mind is changed and doing homework becomes a high value, no amount of pressure from teachers and parents will stop the student from procrastinating on homework.

The same is true for adults. Unless going to the gym, paving your driveway or doing your tax return is a high value, or linked to a high value, in your subconscious mind, you will procrastinate about them, no matter how important your conscious mind tells you they are. You may have told yourself a dozen times that you should act in those areas, but you just can’t get yourself to do it. Then you feel guilty, remorseful and more and more stressed over it.

So what is the cure?

Change your hierarchy of values. Raise the importance of what you procrastinate about by linking it to the high values on your hierarchy. When an action is linked in multiple ways to a high value, it becomes a high value, and you will automatically act on it. You become inspired and no longer need outside motivation, which doesn’t work anyway. Then, procrastination becomes a thing of the past.

The hierarchy of values provides the most fundamental explanation and cure for procrastination. However, there are times when there are other things in addition to an action being a low value that hold us back from getting things done. Under these circumstances, eliminating the other factors is often effective enough and quicker in ending procrastination.

Looked at closely, these “other factors” are all different forms of fear, such as fear of rejection, hurt, betrayal, failure and success. Surprisingly, fear of success is not uncommon in people who procrastinate on projects that they consciously recognize as important. They are afraid of facing what they assume would happen once they succeed, consequences such as exposure, scrutiny, criticism, judgment, jealousy, alienation, time commitment, responsibilities and so on. Becoming aware of these fears is winning half the battle. The rest is to find the origins of these limiting beliefs, question them and then eliminate them one by one.