Img: In the time of Leisure, Martiros Sarian, 1930

The Hidden Agenda of Procrastination: Why procrastination is rarely about laziness 

Have you ever found that you have something important to do but end up delaying getting started? If you are like many procrastinators, you may start to think of yourself as "lazy" and get trapped in an endless loop of self-criticism and delay. Is procrastination just laziness?

From a psychoanalytic point of view, procrastination is very different than laziness. It is a prime example of how unconscious issues can actively interfere with moving toward accomplishing things that are important to you. On the surface, procrastination can seem like a problem with time management. But procrastination has its own hidden psychological agenda. Under the surface, procrastination is working to avoid facing underlying anxieties and to protect vulnerable self-esteem. Procrastination serves as the lesser of evils: better to blame yourself for being late, disorganized, or lazy than to put in your best efforts in a timely way and then feel anxious about what happens. 

Here are some underlying anxieties you might face if you completed important things on time. 

Fear of Failure
Maybe you put off things you know won’t come easily, and you fear struggling or failing. Or you put off very important things because the stakes are so high, and what if you fail? 

There are two issues that often underlie fear of failure and lead to procrastinating: 

Vulnerable Self-esteem

If you fear your work won’t be good enough, if you feel you’re not good enough, procrastinating protects your self-esteem because you don’t show your best efforts. 

If you were to start ahead of time, do your best, and finish on time, your best efforts would be judged. If you are afraid it (or you) won’t be good enough, then procrastinating protects you from being judged on your ability. And you can hold on to the idea that of course, it (you) would have been great if only you’d taken more time. 

If you rush at the last minute and still do well, there comes the thrill of victory. If things don’t turn out so well, you can still maintain the illusion of how great it could have been. It’s more tolerable to be a failure at time management than to feel like a failure as a person. 


People with shaky self-esteem often feel they must prove themselves by being perfect. They aren’t satisfied with good enough. Taking lots of time to make something appear perfect is a classic example of perfectionism: Keep doing research but don’t leave enough time to write the paper; draw up many detailed plans but never build the project. 

Some people object, “I’m not a perfectionist….I never do anything perfectly.” But it’s the standard of perfection, not the outcome, that reflects perfectionism. Perfectionism feels like a boost to self-esteem: “I have high standards.” Yet, procrastination covers up a belief that you must be perfect to be loveable or even acceptable. 

Fear of Success
Cultural and familial pressures to succeed can have the opposite effect. Many people unconsciously believe that success will land them in an uncomfortable position that could create bad feelings internally as well as problems in relationships. 


People with low self-esteem may feel they don’t deserve success. They may not even imagine being successful. Procrastinating is one effective way to sabotage success. It operates as a self-fulfilling prophesy that you are not destined for success. Maybe you were always told you wouldn’t amount to much, or maybe you had a family of such highly successful people that you believed you could never achieve at their level.  Missing an important deadline or doing poor work at the last minute interferes with success, keeping you stuck in a sad but less risky rut.

Fear of Losing Relationships
If you are among the first in your family or your social group to achieve success, like going to college, being financially stable, or having a loving relationship, then you may fear the distance success would create within your social circle. You could start to live in a different class, a different culture. Would they be happy for you? Would they envy you? Procrastination is a program of self-sabotage that keeps you from separating from the world you know, a sacrifice made in order to maintain your close ties. 

Relentless Pressure

Fearing success may reflect fearing pressures that are never going to stop. Looking ahead with dread to more demands, more striving, and more challenges can feel like more effort than you can bear. If you don’t feel sturdy, confident, or able, procrastinating can keep you off the escalator to success.  

Fear of Being Controlled
Procrastinating can be an indirect way of saying, “No.” “You can’t make me do it.” “You can’t make me do it on your timetable.” Someone who won”t meet others’ expectations is likely to be someone who is afraid of being taken over. 

The Need for Autonomy

Holding onto your individuality may hold much more value than cooperating with assignments, deadlines, or requests to be on time.  For those who have to guard their autonomy against feeling taken over, cooperating can feel like capitulating. Procrastinating can provide a sense of independence, even though there is often a cost, sometimes literally, like when you are charged a financial penalty for late payments. Unconsciously, the satisfaction of protecting autonomy is more important than paying the penalty.

The Need to Feel in Control

Procrastinating doesn’t always mean fighting a battle with another person or within yourself. Procrastinators can be fighting against accepting the reality of time. They play games with time, as though time is a dismissible opponent they can outsmart. They believe time can be stretched to suit their needs, so tomorrow will come only when they are ready for it. The illusion of control feels so necessary that the reality of the clock or calendar is minimized or denied. 

Next time you are delaying on something important, ask yourself, What is my procrastinating trying to tell me? What is the hidden agenda? What am I afraid of if I were to get going? Then you can get rid of the self-criticism that you are inadequate or lazy. You can work on the main underlying problems, such as the pressure to be perfect, the dangers of being in the spotlight, or the fear of losing yourself.

Author: Jane Burka
Jane Burka, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Oakland, California. She is co-author, with Dr. Lenora Yuen, of Procrastination: Why You Do It; What To Do About It, 2008, 25th anniversary edition, DaCapo Press, Cambridge, MA. 

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