Why do I procrastinate?



I thought this “Procrastinator’s to-do list” was amusing when I stumbled across it recently on a coaching website:


  1. Contemplate vacuuming then watch 4 back to back episodes of Homeland.
  2. Obsess over noxious fumes inhaled at construction site at 77th & 3rd.
  3. Walk past mountain of dirty dishes – avert eyes.
  4. Assume everyone in Tues night Yoga class hates me.
  5. Stare at TO DO list for 20 minutes then buy $60 worth of stupid crap on EBAY.
  6. Compare myself to Alison then feel shitty for 2 hours.
  7. Eat an entire bucket of subatomic nuclear chicken wings.

procrastination is often a serious issue

Even though we laugh or speak matter-of-factly about habits of procrastination, many people are suffering immensely from it. When people come to therapy for procrastination problems, it is usually because those issues have led to financial insecurity, minor or major hoarding, pathological disorganization, strained relationships, decreased self-esteem, chronic feelings of shame, career stuckness and more.

what are the underlying problems that give rise to procrastination?

If procrastination is so destructive then why do we do it? Why don’t we just create to-do lists and stick to them? Why can’t we, as the saying goes, “just do it”? The answer is simple conceptually but difficult to deal with in lived experience: we procrastinate excessively due to unresolved  emotional/existential conflicts about our lives.

Whether we like it or not, the truth is that we are complex, conflicted and inwardly divided creatures. Unfortunately what exists more and more in popular culture as well as in many corners of the psychotherapy world is a deeply over-simplified model of the mind (and the person) where we are told that if we just “change our thinking” then happiness and success are pretty much guaranteed. Some of this is due to the explosive popularity of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) over the past 25 years.

cognitive behavioral therapy vs. psychoanalytic therapy

I am a fan and an experienced practitioner of cognitive behavioral therapy. I love it. I use it daily. But somehow the way in which CBT (mixed with the positive psychology movement) has influenced popular culture these days has made one think that unconscious processes of the mind either do not exist or are not worth attending to. This is terribly unfortunate. In the daily practice of all the good NYC psychotherapists that I know, CBT and Psychodynamic thinking are complementary rather than conflicting schools of thought.

A basic premise of CBT is that we can reflect on and change our core beliefs and patterns of thinking which in turn will help us shape/manage our feelings and behaviors in desirable ways. This is absolutely true. At the same time there are situations when our best rational/volitional efforts toward change and positive change do not bring good results. It is in these circumstances that we are well served by digging more deeply into ourselves to uncover the roots of our self-defeating patterns.

an archeological dig into yourself

Changing habits is absolutely doable. The profound changes I regularly see in people’s lives is awe-inspiring. But these changes do not come easy; they very often require ongoing hard work and a serious look into one’s own historical and present day patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior—and how those patterns shaped and were shaped by important people and seminal events.

Perhaps you’ve read books about time management, getting organized and de-cluttering your home. Perhaps you’ve tried to use ideas from Getting Things Done, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life or The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Great. Those are valuable systems for personal organization and personal development.

But if you’re not getting the results you want, you simply need to intensify the work and go deeper. The conflicts you have are not about unread emails or the dishes or the laundry or your taxes or the mail—they are about your emotions, your relationships, your self-image and, in a very real sense, the meaning of your life.

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