How Fear (Especially of Failure) and Procrastination Are Connected and What To Do About It

Procrastination is a common issue, which occurs when people unnecessarily postpone decisions or actions, generally despite knowing that doing so will likely affect them negatively.

A common reason for procrastination is fear, meaning that people procrastinate because they’re afraid of something, such as failing or being criticized. For example, if a person delays doing a task because they’re afraid of failing, even though it would be better for them to just do the task, then that person is procrastinating due to fear of failure.

The association between fear and procrastination is complex, and can have serious implications, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about how fear and procrastination are connected, and see what you can do about this in practice.


How fear can cause procrastination

Fear generally causes procrastination by serving as a powerful emotional deterrent, which makes people more averse to certain tasks, and causes those people to delay taking action as a way to delay whatever it is that they’re afraid of. For example, if a person is afraid to fail on a task, then they might postpone the task as a way to delay dealing with their fear.

Coping with fear through this type of avoidance can help the procrastinator protect their mood in the short term, by helping them postpone the thing that they’re afraid of. However, in the long term, this generally hurts them more than it helps, for several reasons:

  • Procrastinating doesn’t solve the fear, but rather only postpones the point at which the procrastinator has to deal with it.
  • Procrastinating can give the fear time to grow and become worse, which can increase the negative emotions associated with it.
  • Procrastinating can give rise to new negative emotions, such as frustration, guilt, and shame.
  • Procrastinating can lead to various other issues, such as increased stress, increased interpersonal conflicts, and failure to achieve goals.


Types of fear that can cause procrastination

The following are common fears that can cause procrastination:

  • Fear of failure. For example, this fear can play a role when a student worries that they will fail a test, so they avoid studying for the test to avoid thinking about it. Fear of failure is the most common type of fear that’s researched and mentioned as a cause of procrastination.
  • Fear of negative evaluation. For example, this fear can play a role when someone worries that they will get judgmental feedback or harsh criticism on their performance during a public presentation, so they delay preparing for it to avoid thinking about it. Note that this fear has to do with how someone’s performance will be evaluated by others, rather than about the actual quality of the performance. This means, for example, that someone might worry that they will receive negative feedback even if they’re likely to do well, because they lack confidence or have low self-esteem.
  • Fear of rejection. For example, this fear can play a role when someone worries that their job application or romantic proposal will be rejected, so they delay submitting the application or making the proposal.
  • Fear of inadequacy. For example, this fear can play a role when someone worries that if they do poorly on an assignment, then that will mean that they’re not skilled enough to ever be successful. Conceptually, this is generally about failing on a personal level, meaning that not only is our performance not good enough, but also we’re not good enough.
  • Fear of regret. For example, this fear can play a role when someone worries that they’ll make a decision that they’ll regret in the future, so they postpone making the decision for as long as they can.
  • Fear of success. For example, this fear can play a role when an entrepreneur worries that if their new business does well, then they’ll feel compelled to take more risks and step out of their comfort zone, so they delay launching the business.
  • Fear of change. For example, this fear can play a role when someone worries that once they commit to a certain decision, then the routines that they’re used to in life will change, which frightens them.
  • Fear of the unknown. For example, this fear can play a role when someone worries about going to practice a new sport or hobby, when they don’t exactly know what it will involve.

Some of these fears overlap in some senses. For example, the fear of rejection and the fear of negative evaluation both generally involve worrying about negative reactions from other people, and are strongly associated with fear of failure and fear of inadequacy.

In addition, a person can be influenced by multiple fears at the same time, often with regard to the same thing. For example, a student might worry both about receiving a bad grade on a homework assignment and about being criticized for it by their teacher or mocked for it by their peers.

Finally, additional fears beyond these can also cause people to procrastinate, such as fear of disappointing others, fear of disapproval, fear of asking for help, and fear of a specific individual (e.g., a teacher or parent). For example, people might procrastinate due to a fear of missing out, for example when a student postpones writing a paper because they’re afraid of missing out on social events with their friends.


Understanding the fears that cause procrastination

The fears that people have on the surface are often driven by deeper underlying fears. These fears, in turn, can often be traced back to fear of negative emotions, such as guilt and shame, which can lead to unpleasant emotional pain.

For example, a student who’s afraid of failing a test might actually be afraid of feeling stupid, and of being ashamed of their abilities. Similarly, an author who’s afraid of their book being unsuccessful might actually be afraid of other people thinking that the author is talentless, which would hurt the author emotionally.

These fears are often irrational for various reasons, such as that the negative outcome that people are afraid of is unlikely, or is unlikely to influence them as much as they worry it will. For example, someone might be irrationally afraid of getting harsh criticism, even though they’re unlikely to actually receive such criticism, or even though this criticism won’t matter to them in reality. This issue often occurs due to catastrophizing, a phenomenon where people imagine terrible outcomes for their actions, and overestimate the likelihood of those outcomes.


Fear-procrastination cycles

Fear is not only a potential cause of procrastination, but also a potential consequence of it, meaning that procrastination can perpetuate and exacerbate existing fears, as well as create new ones. This can lead to a fear-procrastination cycle, where some fear leads a person to procrastinate, which in turn makes them more afraid of the same thing, which causes them to keep procrastinating due to their fear, and so on.

For example, this type of cycle can occur when someone is afraid of doing badly on a task, so they procrastinate on it, which means they have to rush to complete it before the deadline, which leads them to do badly. This makes them afraid that they will do badly on similar tasks in the future, which leads them to procrastinate again, and so on.

In addition, fear-procrastination cycles can also occur in other ways. For example, if someone is afraid of change, then they might procrastinate on something that can lead to change (e.g., asking for a job promotion), which can get them more used to the status quo, and consequently more afraid of change. Similarly, if someone is afraid of rejection, they might procrastinate on something that can lead to rejection (e.g., asking someone out on a date), which can give them more time to obsess over the potential rejection (e.g., by imagining embarrassing ways it could happen), which can make them more afraid of it.


The complexity of the fear-procrastination relationship

Though fear can lead to procrastination, the relationship between these two phenomena is complex, as fear doesn’t always cause procrastination (and vice versa).

Most notably, this is because fear can sometimes drive people to act in a timely manner, rather than procrastinate. For example, this can happen when fear makes someone worry about the negative consequences of not completing a task on time (e.g., punishments), which pushes them to get started early.

In addition, the relationship between fear and procrastination can be influenced by other factors, such as people’s self-efficacy. This means, for example, that if someone’s self-efficacy is high enough, they may be able to get started on time, even if their fear would otherwise push them to procrastinate.

However, the influence of such factors can also mean that if someone’s self-efficacy is low enough, then they may be driven to procrastination by even small fears, which wouldn’t dictate most people’s behavior. Furthermore, certain factors can also increase people’s tendency to be afraid; these include the personality trait of neuroticism, which reflects the tendency to be prone to negative emotions and psychological stress, as well as associated issues, such as low self-esteem and high self-doubt.

Finally, note that people can procrastinate for many reasons other than fears, such as anxiety, perfectionism, depression, and ADHD. Taken together, this all means that not everyone who procrastinates does so because they’re afraid of something, and that not everyone who’s afraid of something will procrastinate on it.


Overcoming fear-based procrastination

There are several things that you can do to deal with the fears that are causing you to procrastinate:

  • Identify your fears. Specifically, figure out what exactly you’re afraid of, and why you’re afraid of it. This is important for figuring out how to deal with those fears, and in some cases, clearly identifying your fears can help you deal with them, for example by showing you that they’re completely exaggerated. Metaphorically, you can think of this as shining a light on your fears, rather than letting them hide in the dark, to help you see them for what they truly are in order to make them less scary.
  • Question your fears. For example, you can ask yourself “am I worrying about something that’s unlikely to actually happen?” or “so what if this happens?”. When doing this, you might benefit from using self-distancing techniques, for example by asking yourself “is there any reason why you should actually care so much about this issue?”, or by considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation.
  • Address your fears. For example, if you’re worried that you’ll encounter some obstacle in your work, then you can figure out exactly how you will deal with that obstacle should you encounter it. Similarly, if you’re afraid of something bad happening (e.g., rejection), then you can think about how you will cope with it and move on afterward. Note that, if your fears are severe enough (e.g., you have a debilitating clinical phobia of something), then you should strongly consider getting help for them from a relevant professional, like a therapist.
  • Consider the negative impact of your fears. For example, you might consider how being afraid is causing you to feel stressed and miss out on valuable opportunities, or how you will likely regret letting your fear dictate your actions.
  • Consider the potential advantages of overcoming your fears. For example, you might consider how taking action and confronting your fears directly can help you learn from your mistakes, or how facing your fears head-on can help you finally achieve your goals.
  • Make the necessary preparations. For example, if you’re procrastinating on filling out and submitting an application because you’re afraid of rejection, then you can start by just filling out the application, without intending to submit it yet. Completing just this part of the task should be easier, because it won’t lead to rejection directly, and it can help you understand the situation better, which can reduce your fear. Furthermore, doing this means that all you need to do next is just submit the application, without also needing to fill out the form first, so even if you manage to overcome your fear for just a short while, then you may be able to submit the application.
  • Get into the right mindset. For example, if you need to do something scary that you’ve been putting off, you can make yourself feel braver for long enough to get it done, by doing things like watching a motivational video, listening to energizing music, or engaging in encouraging self-talk. The goal of this is to increase your courage enough for you to overcome your fear and take action, even if the courage boost is temporary.
  • Get support and encouragement. For example, you can ask a therapist to help you overcome your fears, or ask a friend to be by your side and motivate you when it’s time for you to take action.

It might help to do some of these things in writing. For example, you can write down what you’re afraid of, and then write why you’re afraid of it, before writing down things that help you cope with the fear (e.g., reasons why it’s overblown or ways you can deal with its source). Doing this can have various benefits, such as helping you think through the situation more rationally, and helping you have a reminder of how to cope with your fears, which you can look at in the future.

In addition, there are many general anti-procrastination techniques that you might benefit from using, primarily to deal with your procrastination, and potentially also with your fears. These techniques include the following:

  • Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft.
  • Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to writing only a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as writing a research paper, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, finding relevant resources, and writing the introduction.
  • Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and can’t make progress, switch to a different task until you’re ready to go back to the first one.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
  • Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest can reduce your productivity in the short term, it will often be much better for you in the long term, both in terms of your productivity and in terms of your wellbeing.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.
  • Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassionself-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.

When choosing which of these techniques to use, it can help to start by figuring out why you procrastinate, and when and how you do so, since this will help you find the best anti-procrastination techniques to use in your particular situation. This is important not only for understanding the fears that cause you to procrastinate, but also for identifying other issues that are causing you to do so, such as perfectionism, depression, and ADHD.

In summary, to overcome fear-based procrastination, you can deal with your fears directly, for example by identifying them, thinking through them, and making necessary preparations. In addition, you can benefit from doing other things, including figuring out the nature of your procrastination problem (especially its causes), and using general anti-procrastination techniques, such as developing self-efficacy, breaking your work into manageable steps, and giving yourself permission to make mistakes.