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.
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.
Whatever type of procrastinator you are, pushing off tasks over and over again is a risk factor for poor mental and physical health, experts say. Chronic procrastinators have higher levels of stress and a greater number of acute health problems than other people, Sirois has found.
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.
The real reasons you procrastinate — and how to stop
Have you ever sat down to complete an important task — and then suddenly discovered you were up loading the dishwasher or engrossed in the Wikipedia entry about Chernobyl? Or perhaps you suddenly realize that the dog needs to be fed, emails need to be answered, your ceiling fan needs dusting — or maybe you should go ahead and have lunch, even though it’s only 11 a.m.?
For many people, procrastination is a strong and mysterious force that keeps them from completing the most urgent and important tasks in their lives with the same strength as when you try to bring like poles of a magnet together. It’s also a potentially dangerous force, causing victims to fail out of school, perform poorly at work, put off medical treatment or delay saving for retirement. A Case Western Reserve University study from 1997 found that college-age procrastinators ended up with higher stress, more illness and lower grades by the end of the semester.
But the reasons people procrastinate are not understood that well. Some researchers have viewed procrastination largely as a failure of self-regulation — like other bad behaviors that have to do with a lack of self-control, such as overeating, a gambling problem or overspending. Others say it’s not a matter of being lazy or poor time management, as many smart overachievers who procrastinate often can attest. They say it may actually be linked to how our brain works and to deeper perceptions of time and the self.
Most psychologists see procrastination as a kind of avoidance behavior, a coping mechanism gone awry in which people “give in to feel good,” says Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University, in Ottawa.
It usually happens when people fear or dread, or have anxiety about, the important task awaiting them. To get rid of this negative feeling, people procrastinate — they open up a video game or Pinterest instead. That makes them feel better temporarily, but unfortunately, reality comes back to bite them in the end.
Once the reality of a deadline sets in again, procrastinators feel more extreme shame and guilt. But for an extreme procrastinator, those negative feelings can be just another reason to put the task off, with the behavior turning into a vicious, self-defeating cycle.
Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why, created an amazing and funny (if layman’s) explanation of what may happen inside the brain of a procrastinator. Urban calls himself a master procrastinator — he didn’t begin writing a 90-page senior thesis until 72 hours before it was due. Urban recently gave a TED Talk about his own extreme procrastination tendencies, in which he used some of his own cartoons to explain how life is different for an extreme procrastinator.
This continues until things get really bad — the prospect of the end of your career or your schooling looms. Then something that Urban calls the “panic monster” kicks in and finally spurs you into action.
People can be various kinds of procrastinators, Urban says. Some procrastinate by doing useless things, such as searching for cat GIFs. Others actually accomplish things — cleaning their homes, working their boring jobs — but never quite getting to the things they really want to accomplish in life, their most important, long-term goals.
To illustrate this, Urban uses a concept that is known as an Eisenhower Matrix, a graphic that was included in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It’s named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, the famously productive president. Eisenhower thought that people should spend their time on what was truly important to them — the tasks in Quadrants 1 and 2 below.
Unfortunately, most procrastinators spend little time in those quadrants, Urban says. Instead, they mostly hang out in Quadrants 3 and 4, doing things that may be urgent, but are not important. Occasionally, when the panic monster takes over, they take a very brief detour to Quadrant 1.
Urban says this habit is disastrous because “the road to the procrastinator’s dreams — the road to expanding his horizons, exploring his true potential and achieving work he’s truly proud of — runs directly through Quadrant 2. Q1 and Q3 may be where people survive, but Q2 is where people thrive, grow and blossom.”
Pychyl discusses the idea of the “monkey mind” — that our thoughts are constantly darting all over the place, preventing us from concentrating. And psychologists agree that the problem with procrastinators is that they are tempted to give in to instant gratification, which brings people the kind of instant relief psychologists call “hedonic pleasure,” rather than staying focused on the long-term goal.
Important goals (the kind that occupy the first and second quadrants above) are more challenging but in the long run bring longer lasting feelings of well-being and self-satisfaction that psychologists call “eudaimonic pleasure.”