When I did a call-out to readers when I was compiling the questions for my most recent book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book, this question about the link between childhood treatment and putting things off came up with some regularity. Readers complained about not being a finisher or what one woman called “cluttering up her life with half-done projects” while others chimed in that even looking at their to-do lists filled them with guilt and shame. One wrote in to say:
“This has actually become a huge issue in my marriage—my inability to get things done. I am perfectly capable in many ways—I hold down a job and have done a decent job raising my kids—and I’m not hopelessly disorganized. But a task that requires planning or forethought somehow stops me in my tracks. It doesn’t matter whether it’s planning a vacation or researching the right people to hire for the kitchen remodel. I just can’t get started, and I make excuse after excuse until, inevitably, my husband takes over. He thinks I’m being deliberately difficult but I’m not. I become undone under that kind pressure.”
What makes people procrastinate?
Research illuminates much about why people procrastinate—and most people do at one point or another, even if not habitually. It’s estimated, for example, that of college students, some 80-95% dilly dally and put off, with some 50% indulging “consistently and problematically,” according to a meta-analytic review conducted by Piers Steel. It’s been suggested that the tendency for procrastination for some is stable enough for it to be considered a trait.
Putting off something you’re dreading—getting your tax numbers in order, answering the blistering email you got from a colleague, booking the dentist, or cleaning out the attic—is one thing, and very different in kind from doing it all the time to your own detriment. The motivation to postpone, delay, or simply fink out can be spurred on by different impulses. For example, it’s been suggested that, for some, procrastination is tied to what’s called The Imposter Syndrome or that feeling that no matter how high-achieving you are, you’re really just either lucky or about to be uncovered as the fraud you are. The reasoning is that if you never get it done, no one will be able to judge you. Perfectionists who can’t bear to fall short also procrastinate for similar reasons.
Fear of failure plays a role too; after all, you can’t be judged for something you never accomplished to begin with. This seems counterintuitive—after all, you’re swapping one variety of failure for another—but for those daughters who’ve grown up around impossible-to-meet standards and hypercriticality, ducking the issue may be much easier than risking humiliation. In a similar vein, it’s also been theorized that procrastination may be a form of “self-handicapping”—a way of protecting self-regard by putting obstacles in the way of a task, thus giving yourself an explanation or out instead of having to deal with potential failure.
If you constantly delay or end up ducking challenges by simply waiting until it’s too late to do anything about it, the best thing you can do is to plumb the personal reasons you procrastinate. The chances are good that procrastinating is getting in the way of your living your best life so now’s the time to deal.
Ask yourself the following questions and answer as honestly as you can:
- Are there specific tasks you put off or does any task qualify?
- Do you feel anxious when you procrastinate? Or does delaying a task induce a feeling of relief?
- Why do you think you put off taking action?
- How has procrastination affected you in the day to day? In your work life? In your relationships?
- Are there times you’re more likely to procrastinate than others? Do you see a pattern
- What’s your opinion of people who procrastinate? Do you lump yourself into the same category?
Seeing what drives you to drag your feet
Figuring out why you procrastinate will absolutely help. Here are some reasons you might want to look at so that if dilly-dallying is messing up your life, causing friction in relationships, or actually ruining your credit score, you can begin to deal. See whether any of the following statements apply to you and your own modus operand.
- I should never have committed to this. What was I thinking?
Do you find it difficult to say no to people or do you in default to a habit of trying to please even when you know you’re going to have trouble following through on your promise? Ask yourself how often you find yourself in this predicament, and why it’s a default position. Do you habitually over-commit as a result?
- I hate pressure. The more pressure, the worse I do.
Some people thrive under pressure and others fade under the same glare. If the goal is something you want to achieve and you’re feeling pressure from the outside, use reframing to look at it. You can get it done the way you want and at your own pace if you set up properly. Obviously, this will not be easy if you have a boss breathing down your neck but perhaps talk to said boss and say it out loud with a respectful tone,
- I am afraid I won’t get it done or it (and I) will flop
Tackle your fear of failure head on through self-talk and figuring out where that fear comes from; is it an echo from childhood, the voice of a perfectionist parent, that you have internalized? Recognizing that failures and missteps are inevitable shouldn’t fill you with despair but should encourage you to come with a Plan B or even C when you embark on Plan A. Successful people use “If/Then” thinking to maximize their flexibility and ability to cope when things unexpectedly go south.
If putting things off is getting in your way, there are ways to tackle the problem. Tracing your habit back to its roots is a great start. For more questions and answers, please see my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.
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Steel, Piers. “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure,”Psychological Bulletin, 2007, vo;133(1), pp. 65-94.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A., “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice (1978), 15(3), 241-247
Langford, Joe and P.R, Clance, “The Imposter Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regrading Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment,” Psychotherapy (1993), 30 (3), 495-501.
Badawy, Rebecca L., Brooke A. Gazdag, Jeffrey R. Bentley, and Robyn L. Brouer, “Are all imposters created equal? Exploring gender differences in the imposter phenomenon-performance link,(2018), Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 156-163.