People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing at the tasks that they need to complete. This fear of failure can promote procrastination in various ways, such as by causing people to avoid finishing a task, or by causing them to avoid getting started on a task in the first place.
Why People Procrastinate: The Psychology and Causes of Procrastination
If you’re a procrastinator, then you’ve probably asked yourself at some point “why do I procrastinate so much?” or “why do I keep procrastinating even though I know that it’s bad for me?”. These are important questions, since understanding why you procrastinate is crucial if you want to figure out how to stop doing it.
Specifically, you will learn about the psychological mechanism behind procrastination, and see a comprehensive list of the reasons why people procrastinate, based on decades of research on the topic. Furthermore, you will learn how this information can help you figure out why you procrastinate, and how you can use it in order to successfully overcome your procrastination.
Note that this article is extensive, since procrastination is a complex problem, that different people experience for different reasons. However, don’t let this discourage you; feel free to skim through this article, especially when it comes to the list of reasons why people procrastinate, and focus on the things that are the most relevant to you. Furthermore, if you prefer to just read a summarized version of this article, then simply scroll right on to the next section.
The short version
To successfully deal with your procrastination, you need to figure out why you procrastinate and how your procrastination is preventing you from achieving your goals, so you can formulate a concrete plan of action, based on appropriate anti-procrastination techniques, that will help you deal with your reason for procrastination.
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if you need to write an essay, but end up wasting time on the internet even though you know you should be working, that means that you’re procrastinating.
Procrastination is often detrimental to people’s ability to successfully pursue their goals, which is evident, for example, in the fact that procrastination is associated with receiving worse grades at school and earning a lower salary at work. Furthermore, procrastination is also associated with a wide range of other issues, such as increased stress and worse physical and mental health.
Wait. We procrastinate because of bad moods?
Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.
“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.
In a 2013 study, Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois found that procrastination can be understood as “the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.” Put simply, procrastination is about being more focused on “the immediate urgency of managing negative moods” than getting on with the task, Dr. Sirois said.
The particular nature of our aversion depends on the given task or situation. It may be due to something inherently unpleasant about the task itself — having to clean a dirty bathroom or organizing a long, boring spreadsheet for your boss. But it might also result from deeper feelings related to the task, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity. Staring at a blank document, you might be thinking, I’m not smart enough to write this. Even if I am, what will people think of it? Writing is so hard. What if I do a bad job?
In fact, there’s an entire body of research dedicated to the ruminative, self-blaming thoughts many of us tend to have in the wake of procrastination, which are known as “procrastinatory cognitions.” The thoughts we have about procrastination typically exacerbate our distress and stress, which contribute to further procrastination, Dr. Sirois said.
But the momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — “you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,” Dr. Sirois said. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.
But I thought we procrastinate to feel better?
“We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now,” said psychologist Dr. Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management.
Dr. Hershfield’s research has shown that, on a neural level, we perceive our “future selves” more like strangers than as parts of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off — and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side — are somebody else’s problem.
To make things worse, we’re even less able to make thoughtful, future-oriented decisions in the midst of stress. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala — the “threat detector” part of the brain — perceives that task as a genuine threat, in this case to our self-esteem or well-being. Even if we intellectually recognize that putting off the task will create more stress for ourselves in the future, our brains are still wired to be more concerned with removing the threat in the present. Researchers call this “amygdala hijack.”
Unfortunately, we can’t just tell ourselves to stop procrastinating. And despite the prevalence of “productivity hacks,” focusing on the question of how to get more work done doesn’t address the root cause of procrastination.
Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop? Experts have answers.
If you’re reading this article instead of tackling one of the many projects you meant to do during the pandemic, or before starting the report due tomorrow at work, or as an alternative to changing your car’s year-old oil, feel no shame: This is a safe space, procrastinators, and you’re among friends.
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of “Still Procrastinating?: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done,” has found that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. “That’s higher than depression, higher than phobia, higher than panic attacks and alcoholism. And yet all of those are considered legitimate,” he said. “We try to trivialize this tendency, but it’s not a funny topic.”
Ferrari was speaking while on a road trip with his wife, who chimed in to say that she’s a procrastinator. Her tendencies helped spur her husband’s research interests. He doesn’t procrastinate — he has a 107-page résumé, he said, because he gets things done — but he’s built a career around understanding those who do.
Among his findings: Chronic procrastination doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race or age ; we’re all susceptible . As he put it: “Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” And contrary to popular belief, procrastinating has little to do with laziness. It’s far more complicated, he said, than simply being a matter of time management.
To understand what causes procrastination (outside of conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, where executive functioning issues might interfere with task completion), it’s important to be clear about what it is — and isn’t. Procrastination is different from delaying a task because you need to talk to someone who isn’t available , or not getting around to reading a literary classic such as “Moby Dick . ” Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, defines procrastination this way: “The voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so.”
On its surface, procrastination is an irrational behavior, Sirois said: “Why would somebody put something off to the last minute, and then they’re stressed out of their mind, and they end up doing a poor job or less than optimal job on it? And then they feel bad about it afterward, and it may even have implications for other people.”
The reason, she said, has to do with emotional self-regulation — and, in particular, an inability to manage negative moods around a certain task. We usually don’t procrastinate on fun things, she said. We procrastinate on tasks we find “difficult, unpleasant, aversive or just plain boring or stressful.” If a task feels especially overwhelming or provokes significant anxiety, it’s often easiest to avoid it.
Ferrari theorizes that there are three types of procrastinators: thrill-seekers, who crave the rush of putting off tasks until the last minute and believe they work best under pressure; avoiders, who procrastinate to avoid being judged for how they perform; and indecisives, who have difficulty making important or stressful decisions, often because they’re ruminating over several choices.
Those who procrastinate are also more likely to experience headaches, insomnia and digestive issues, and they’re more susceptible to the flu and colds. The association with health problems is best explained by stress, but another factor is that procrastinators often delay preventive treatment, such as regular checkups.
Research suggests that procrastination is associated with sleep problems, such as shorter sleep duration and an increased risk of insomnia symptoms and daytime sleepiness . Lots of people engage in “revenge bedtime procrastination,” which describes a tendency to push off sleep to make time for personal activities.
Procrastinating is also linked to heart problems. Sirois led a 2015 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine that found that people with heart disease were more likely than healthy people to self-identify as procrastinators. According to the study, procrastinators with hypertension and heart disease were less likely to take action to cope with their illness, such as changing their diet or exercising .
Practice self-compassion. Procrastinators are often hard on themselves. They might feel guilt about letting others down or be appalled by their own slowness. Sirois’s research indicates a connection between procrastinating and low levels of self-compassion. To counter that, treat yourself with kindness and understanding. “Just sort of recognizing that, yeah, maybe I screwed up and maybe I could have gotten started earlier, but I don’t need to beat myself up,” she said. Tell yourself: “I’m not the first person to procrastinate, and I won’t be the last.” Sirois notes that self-compassion doesn’t make people lazy. On the contrary, “research has shown that it actually increases people’s motivation to improve themselves,” she said.