It is not laziness that makes us postpone to tomorrow what should be done today

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As usual, you don’t want to study… to exercise… to work…

Shopworn sentences that someone told us and we have said an indefinite number of times.

Others expect many things from us and we, as a reflection, do the same with whoever surrounds us, those that we come in touch with, that we live with and work, day after day. Pushed by that horrible sentence that chases us since we were kids: “You can do more”.

In a company, people of every rank procrastinate the submission of projects, miss important meetings and arrive late, in those places in which it is considered sacrilegious. This also happens in universities: students rarely submit their work respecting the deadline. In one of my courses, a student lost two years before submitting her thesis.

Laziness, weak will? No. Absolutely not. Or better: until not too long ago, I also thought that it was like this…

I study behaviors, thus I’m interested (obsessed is more correct) in what guides human choices. When you try to anticipate the actions of a subject, looking at the context is more predictive than resorting to intelligence or other personality traits.

Therefore, when someone cannot keep up with the deadlines, I learnt to ask myself: “What situation has slowed or blocked them? What did they miss? What obstacles that I do not see prevent them from acting?”.

With time, I learnt that there are always obstacles that limit us, that is why it is wrong to cry out to bad will or laziness, if the context has not been analyzed before.

We can judge or try to understand

Facing a person’s behavior that does not match our expectations, we can act in two wasy: judge or try to understand. Between the two, it is much easier to judge and condemn procrastinators for their bad behavior. Postponing a project easily favors the idea of laziness, at least for a superficial analysis. They often think the same way those that procrastinate… you must do something, you are a failure, you are lazy…

For decades, psychological studies explained procrastination not as a side effect of laziness, as many successful people proved, reaching higher-than-average results procrastinating, among other things.

Procrastination is an existential process, deeper and more complex than it seems. And more than we like to label it.

In a company, people of all ranks procrastinate the submission of projects, miss important appointments and arrive late.

Why do we procrastinate?

We like to explain laziness, negligence and poor sense of duty (“They could do it… but they don’t apply themselves!”) as a response to a bad time management, poor activity planning, insufficient efficiency in problem-solving (“They could do it… they try to apply themselves… but they do it wrong!”).

What characterizes procrastination, instead, is not only the act of postponing an activity… but even the disturbing emotional perception that follows: the feeling that we are going against what common sense suggests. In actuality, it is a “self-sabotage”. Initially, it relieves us from anxiety, then it makes us feel not right with ourselves.

Procrastinating is an irrational behavior. According to Tim Pychyl, professor of Psychology and member of the Research Group on Procrastination at the University of Carleton, in Ottawa, procrastination is not caused by laziness, but it is a reaction to painful emotional states that are difficult to manage: anxiety, fear of judgment, inadequacy, guilt. It is the prevail of the urgency to immediately manage a painful emotion, rather than the long-term advantage of working on an activity.

To this, personal moods have to be taken into consideration: “Will I be able to conclude the project? What will others think of me if I will fail?”.

Facing these thoughts, we can become alarmed and look for an exit: this does not eliminate the painful states associated to the postponed responsibility, but it simply postpones them, often in a way that is not indulgent, but as an interior dialogue, strict and inflexible (“Good for nothing! Incompetent! You’re inadequate!”), that increases pain and, paradoxically, we try to manage… procrastinating even more!

Let’s go back to us

Intolerance to procrastination must not make us forget that is often caused by deeper reasons than weak will, as it happens instead.

I know colleagues from the University that never asked themselves what blocked a student. A colleague refused to let in the classroom any student that was late. She wasn’t interested in why; she started from the idea that nothing is impossible if you want to obtain it, imagine arriving on time for lessons. I remember of a deaf-mute kid – who then obtained his degree in Engineering with the highest vote possible – who underwent an oral exam, rather than a written one, and was reprimanded by the professor because he did not understand the question. When looking at his face would have been enough, in order to read the lip movement. He didn’t become a procrastinator, but he could have become one, and not for a weak will.

Or the student that often came late to the first hour of lesson, because she spent the nights at the bedside of her dying mother. She felt shame for the harshness of the professor and couldn’t even find the strength to explain the situation.

Beyond scientific cataloguing, sometimes asking yourself the why of a behavior could be enough, before judging it without listening to the answer.

I know that it is not easy, few of us are used to reflect on what blocks collaborators, students, and even friends. There are many that pridefully refuse to share space and time with who’s less lucky, slower, apparently less elite. The more we have important roles, the more distance we put, because we fall victim to other problems than laziness. Yet, just as we know that laziness is not always an active choice, even elitist and judgmental behaviors are determined by situational ignorance.

The secret is to ask ourselves what others are fighting and remember that they probably did not choose it. They are trying to do well, but it is not always easy. Some barriers are hard to overcome, even for the strongest and most tenacious people. Adopting a curious and empathic approach to individuals that we initially want to judge as “lazy” or irresponsible is often enough. It is spontaneous to me to ask myself why we have this need to satisfy, even before understanding the reason behind others’ laziness.

People do not deliberately choose to fail or disappoint. Nobody wants to feel incompetent, inefficient or useless. If you only see laziness while watching a person’s action (or inaction), you probably lost the key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Only because you cannot see them, or you do not consider them legitimate, does not mean that they do not exist.

Maybe you just have to learn to see better.

Laura Mondino


[1] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1979-28632-001

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0092656686901273

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html

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