Do you ever wonder why you procrastinate?

Many of the stories that my Dad used to share about growing up in London’s East End in the 1930s centred on popular expressions of the day – in Yiddish or English – and the wisdom they revealed. As a young child he often pestered his parents to explain why things happened. Tiring of this incessant curiosity, my grandmother would remind him that ‘Y is a crooked letter.”

Over the years, this recollection amused and intrigued me.

As a social scientist and university lecturer, I spent decades studying, researching and teaching academic theories about why people behave in certain ways, either individually or as groups. From voting patterns to shopping trends, from conflict resolution to personal identities – I sought explanations by constantly asking ‘why?’.

But training as a co-active coach introduced me to new forms of conversation. Instead of analysing root causes, I learned to explore different perspectives.

Don’t get me wrong. In certain settings such as therapy or counselling, it may be relevant to analyse why you procrastinate. And on an intellectual level, it could be deeply satisfying.

As I suggest in What’s Your Excuse for Not Being More Productive?  questions beginning with ‘why?’ uncover explanations but don’t boost motivation. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that asking why you procrastinate can even be counterproductive.

5 reasons to stop asking why you procrastinate

The urge to ask why you procrastinate

When you catch yourself staring interminably at a blank screen or surreptitiously scrolling through YouTube videos, what goes through your mind?  If you’re struggling to start an important task at home, at work or while studying, you may find yourself in a familiar loop of frustration and self-criticism.

Clients who procrastinate often fixate on the same question: “Why am I doing this?” Or as frustration builds: “Why am I doing this again?” Perfectionist tendencies tend to amplify this inner dialogue.

So, if you’re keen to stop procrastinating, here are five reasons to declutter the word ‘why?’ from your vocabulary and five questions to ask yourself instead.

5 reasons NOT to ask why you procrastinate

1.  Asking yourself why you procrastinate grounds you in inquiry; it invites you to pause and think rather than nudging you into action. In other words, it takes you (further) into your head. And as you may know from experience, over-thinking is one of the most common obstacles to getting things done.

2. Questions starting with ‘why?’ spark the imagination but are fiendishly difficult to answer with any certainty. Do you procrastinate due to fear of failure or success? Is perfectionism the main cause? Or, as recent studies suggest, is it a lack of emotional self-regulation? Each hypothesis generates another set of questions.

3. Pondering ‘why?’ might take you back into the past to reflect on previous experiences but won’t necessarily move you forward. On the contrary, remembering unfinished projects or missed deadlines might trigger regret and recriminations.

4. And ‘why?’  puts you on the defensive, enhancing self-judgement, churning up negative feelings of shame, frustration and guilt.

5. It’s also a slippery slope towards catastrophising. When you generalise about patterns of behaviour rather than focusing on one specific incident, it sounds even more critical: “Why do I always leave things to the last minute?” reinforces negative perceptions of how you act and who you are.

5 reasons NOT to ask why you procrastinate

5 questions to ask instead of why you procrastinate

Rather than pondering why you procrastinate, these questions are far more motivating:

  1. What exactly needs to be done? Is the task clearly defined and do you understand how to tackle it? Maybe you need to re-read the brief or consult with a peer, professor, mentor or manager.
  1. What’s important to you about doing it? Tap into your intrinsic motivation by identifying what matters to you, not to anyone else. How does the task align with your core values? What will it mean to you to complete it?
  1. What do you need to locate in order to start or continue? Is clutter in your workspace getting in your way, materially or metaphorically? Can you access essential resources such as equipment or stationery? Can you find relevant notes on your laptop or desk?
  1. What help do you need? Are you hesitating because you’re unsure how to undertake a technical task? What kind of practical or emotional support would be useful? Remember that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  1. What’s the next step? Focus on the very first action to take, however small or seemingly insignificant. The initial step might involve just sitting at your desk and turning on your laptop but if it takes you in the right direction, it’s worth challenging yourself to do it.

My grandmother was probably right about Y being a crooked letter. When you need to kickstart yourself into action, ‘why?’ isn’t the best strategy.

So how do you respond to procrastination? Please scroll down and share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to discuss how coaching could help you, do get in touch.