illustration of a person with their head down on their desk, looking anxious
5-second summary
  • Procrastination is a symptom of emotional discomfort, not a sign of laziness.
  • Regardless of the type of discomfort, procrastination is your brain’s way of telling you there’s something missing – something you need in order to complete the task.
  • Identifying the type of discomfort you’re experiencing often reveals a way to address it, and in so doing, remove your desire to keep putting the task off. (Thanks, procrastination!)

Good news, procrastinators! It’s not your fault. If you’ve been beating yourself up about procrastinating at work – calling yourself names like “lazy,” “undisciplined,” or “incompetent” – you officially have permission to stop.

Turns out, procrastination isn’t about laziness at all. It’s about the underlying emotional discomforts we all encounter from time to time. Subconsciously, they can prompt us to avoid starting a task, or in some cases, avoid completing it.

There’s a compelling body of psychological research pointing to things like perfectionism and fear as the real reasons we put off tasks at work. “A consistent theme for people who’ve started to combat procrastination is letting go of the idea that everything they put out needs to be A+ work. It’s actually a muscle people need to build,” says Liz Fosslien, co-author of “Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay.”

She, along with co-author Mollie West Duffy, blended scholarly literature with anecdotes they sourced by starting discussions on social media to paint a holistic picture of how we experience uncomfortable feelings and how those feelings sometimes manifest in unexpected ways. I sat down with Ms. Fosslien to learn more about the myriad causes of procrastination and was surprised to find that it can actually be useful if you adopt the right mindset.

Procrastination type #1: trouble getting started

This flavor of procrastination has three basic root causes:

You don’t know where to start

Pretty tough to get started on something when you literally have no idea what the first step should be, right?

In the context of work, it’s often because the task is too nebulous or too intimidating. Imagine your boss puts you in charge of “doing something about our customer satisfaction scores” – then runs off to their next meeting. You’re left wondering how much improvement counts as “doing something,” what kind of budget is at your disposal, and a host of other questions about the approach you should take. Then imagine approaching your boss with all these questions that you, apparently, should’ve already known the answers to. Sliiiiiightly intimidating.

Or, the task might be so big that it’s overwhelming, and you find yourself paralyzed. It’s tempting to simply pretend the task doesn’t exist. Maybe you dive into some smaller, business-as-usual work that lets you ignore the problem while still feeling justifiably productive. Win-win! 🙃

You feel inadequate

Sometimes we have a goal or an idea, but we feel like we don’t have the right to take up space in the world in that way. “For example,” recalls Ms. Fosslien, “when I was starting to put stuff on the internet, I struggled with illustrations.” To be clear, it’s not that she can’t draw. She just doesn’t have a degree proclaiming her artistic prowess. “I studied math and economics. I felt like I was playing pretend by creating my own illustrations and that made me afraid to put them out into the world.”

Here, the quality of your work isn’t the issue. It’s more about what people will think of you for stepping into this space in the first place. This feeling is especially common among historically underrepresented or marginalized groups. It’s a lot like impostor syndrome, and we all know how “fun” that is.

How to overcome impostor syndrome and discover the brag-worthy you

You don’t want to do it in the first place

We often experience this in our personal lives when it comes to exercising more or eating healthier. (Nobody prefers zucchini noodles to traditional pasta. There. I said it.) In our professional lives, we balk at work that we don’t see as valuable – e.g., writing status reports that nobody will actually read. Or it could be a project that you think is poorly conceived or is taking your team in the wrong direction. On the outside, it might look like you’re loafing on the job. But on the inside, you’re genuinely conflicted and that’s why you haven’t started on the task yet.

Procrastination type #2: you can’t finish it

When you have plenty of time to complete a task but can’t bear to bring it across the finish line, the root cause is almost always:


You’re afraid people won’t like your work, so you find ways to avoid putting it out there. “You’re putting so much pressure on yourself [to make it perfect] that the thought of actually putting it out there can be very scary,” says Ms. Fosslien.

One story she and Ms. Duffy heard from their social media discussions was about a hobbyist photographer who would take years to touch up their photos. They’d spend hours (if not days) Photoshopping a subject’s teeth pixel by painstaking pixel. And they were the only person who even noticed the difference. This is a classic stalling tactic, according to Ms. Fosslien. Unfortunately, “gold plating” a piece of work before showing it to the world makes you less open to feedback. You spend so much time working toward your definition of perfect that even trivial critiques feel devastatingly personal.

Other stalling tactics include working on everything besides the thing you should be finishing up, and for schoolchildren everywhere, claiming your dog ate your homework.

Pie chart showing the real reasons we procrastinate: feeling inadequate, fear, don't know where to start, perfectionism, stretched too thin

Procrastination serves a useful purpose!

If procrastination is a symptom of emotional discomfort, that means it’s your brain’s way of telling you what you need in that moment. The trick is recognizing and interpreting your procrastination in the right way. Fortunately, Mss. Fosslien and Duffy’s research revealed several helpful clues. Here’s your decoder key:

If you’re fearful…

It’s usually a sign of perfectionism. This sounds counterintuitive because our mental model of perfectionism centers on color-coded binders and gold medals and always being on time. “Many people said they never realized they were a perfectionist until their therapist pointed it out,” says Ms. Fosslien. “But when they thought about it, it all sort of clicked.”

Perfectionism isn’t about the quality of your work – it’s about the pressure you put on yourself. You’re so nervous about what others will think of your work that you can’t bring yourself to finish it (or even start).

Overcoming perfectionism can be a slow process, but Ms. Fosslien suggests two tactics to start training your “let it go” muscle. First, start showing small pieces of work to a trusted colleague or friend when it’s roughly 80% done. Intentionally sharing incomplete work lets you practice receiving feedback at a point when you’re emotionally prepared to absorb it. Second, shift your inner monologue from “I need to be perfect at X” to “I am a person who is learning to X.” Progress is more important than perfection. Growth mindset for the win!

Shift your inner monologue from “I need to be perfect at X” to “I am a person who is learning to X.”

How you can benefit from a growth mindset

If you don’t see the value (and it feels like apathy)…

That’s a sign you might be burned out. We often associate burnout with being stretched too thin, but feeling like the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze anymore is another common symptom. There are whole books written on overcoming burnout, which I won’t rehash here. In the meantime, finding meaning in your work helps. And you don’t have to save the world. Simply putting food on your family’s table or saving for that dream vacation is meaningful.

If you don’t see the value (and you feel passionate about that)…

It’s a sign you need to have a conversation with your boss and/or team. Whether the issue is a disagreement in strategy or one too many TPS reports, it’s time to be the change you seek. Make your case for dropping the task or changing direction, using data to back up your claims whenever possible.

If you’re feeling inadequate…

It might be that you need a confidence boost. Or, it might be a sign that you’re working in a toxic environment where you’re being made to feel less-than. Either way, your procrastination is a prompt to examine where your feelings of inadequacy are coming from.

If the task is too nebulous…

It’s a sign you need to ask for clarification. That can be an incredibly nerve-wracking and humbling experience in certain work environments, I know! But even if that’s your situation, you’ll take a lot less heat for asking questions than you will for delivering the wrong thing (or delivering nothing).

If the task feels overwhelming…

Break it down! As the proverb says, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Project management techniques like dependency mapping, capacity planning, and decomposing the task into smaller pieces go a long way toward demystifying big tasks. When you see it laid out piece by piece, figuring out where to start is much easier.

If it’s a creative task…

Procrastination is a sign that you need more time to find your inspiration and develop your approach. If that sounds like a cop-out, consider that creative powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda is an admitted procrastinator. Here’s how he put it: “Incubation is an important part of the creative process…I don’t know any other way around it.” (I guess you could say he’s “willing to wait for it”? 😏)

Listen to what your procrastination is telling you

It’s all too common to notice a behavior or emotion in ourselves and label it, then feel bad about it. That’s the way with procrastination – we immediately label ourselves as lazy. According to Mss. Fosslien and Duffy, a healthier response is to pause and reflect: “Why am I so worked up about taking the next step? What’s really getting in the way?“

If we can address whatever emotional discomfort is at the heart of the matter, we’ve got a good shot at getting ourselves back on track. Now quit stalling and get to work! (Kidding.)

The real reasons you procrastinate at work