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.
The following article will give you the answers to those questions.
The short version
The main psychological mechanism behind our procrastination is as follows:
- When we need to get something done, we rely primarily on our self-control in order to bring ourself to do it.
- Our self-control often receives support from our motivation, which helps us get things done in a timely manner.
- In some cases, we experience certain demotivating factors, such as anxiety or fear of failure, which have an opposite effect than our motivation.
- In addition, we sometimes experience certain hindering factors, such as exhaustion or rewards that are far in the future, which interfere with our self-control and motivation.
- When demotivating and hindering factors outweigh our self-control and motivation, we end up procrastinating, either indefinitely, or until we reach a point in time when the balance between them shifts in our favor.
When it comes to specific reasons why people procrastinate, in terms of demotivating and hindering factors, the following are among the most common:
- Abstract goals.
- Rewards that are far in the future.
- A disconnect from our future self.
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- Task aversion.
- Fear of evaluation or negative feedback.
- Fear of failure.
- A perceived lack of control.
- Lack of motivation.
- Lack of energy.
- Sensation seeking.
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.
The rest of the article contains more relevant information about the psychology of procrastination, and explains in-depth each of the reasons why people procrastinate.
What is 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 secondary issues, such as increased stress and worse physical and mental health.
Why people procrastinate
People often assume that procrastination is simply a matter of willpower, but in reality, the situation is far more complex than that.
When faced with a decision to make or a task to complete, we usually rely on our self-control in order to push ourself to get things done. Furthermore, our motivation, which is based on the expectation of receiving some reward for our efforts, can support our self-control, and make it more likely that we will get things done in a timely manner.
Overall, we procrastinate because our self-control and motivation, which might be hindered by factors such as exhaustion and rewards that are far in the future, are outweighed by negative factors, such as anxiety and fear of failure.
This causes us to fail to self-regulate our behavior, which means that we postpone things unnecessarily, even when we know we should be doing them, which is why procrastination often leads to a gap between how we intend to act and how we act in reality.
Reasons for procrastination
People are more likely to procrastinate when their goals are vague or abstract, compared to when their goals are concrete and clearly defined.
For example, goals such as “get fit” or “start exercising” are relatively vague, and are therefore likely to lead to procrastination. Conversely, a goal such as “go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday right after work, and spend at least 30 minutes on the treadmill, running at high speed” is concrete, and is therefore much more likely to lead you to take action.
Rewards that are far in the future
People often procrastinate on tasks which are associated with rewards that they will only receive a while after completing the task, since people tend to discount the value of rewards that are far in the future, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting or delay discounting.
A disconnect from our future self
People sometimes procrastinate because they view their future self as being disconnected from their present-self, a phenomenon known as temporal self-discontinuity or temporal disjunction.
For example, someone might delay when it comes to eating healthy, even if their doctor told them that it’s important, because the harmful impact of their present diet will only start being a serious issue in a couple of years, which they view as someone else’s problem (i.e. as the problem of their future self).
A focus on future options
People sometimes avoid taking action in the present because they intend or hope to pursue a more attractive course of action in the future. This mindset can lead to long-term procrastination, and persist even in cases where the person who is procrastinating never ends up following through on their intended plan
Optimism about the future
People sometimes procrastinate on tasks because they are optimistic about their ability to complete those tasks in the future. This optimism can pertain to two main things, and namely to the amount of time which will be available for the completion of the task, or to the person’s inherent ability to complete the task
People sometimes procrastinate because they are unable to make decisions in a timely manner. This can be an issue in various ways, such as when a person can’t decide which course of action to engage in, or when a person needs to make a certain decision before they can move ahead with their general plan of action
People sometimes procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed with regard to the tasks that they need to handle. A feeling of overwhelm can occur due to a variety of reasons, such as having a single task that feels huge in terms of scope, or having a large number of small tasks that add up. When this happens, a person might simply decide to avoid the tasks in question, or they might attempt to handle them, but then end up feeling paralyzed before those tasks are completed.
People sometimes procrastinate because they feel anxious about a task that they need to handle.
People often procrastinate because they are averse to the tasks that they need to perform.
People sometimes procrastinate as a result of their perfectionism. Perfectionism can lead to procrastination in a number of ways, such as by making someone so afraid of making a mistake that they end up not taking any action at all, or by making someone so worried of publishing something with any flaws that they end up reworking their project indefinitely instead of releasing it when it’s ready.
Fear of evaluation or negative feedback
People sometimes procrastinate because they are afraid of being evaluated or because they are afraid of receiving negative feedback from others.
Fear of failure
People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing at the tasks that they need to complete.
How to stop procrastinating
- Start by establishing your goals. When doing this, make sure to define your goals as clearly as possible, and make sure that these goals are significant enough that they’ll allow you to make meaningful progress, while also being possible for you to accomplish in reality.
- Next, figure out the exact nature of your procrastination problem. You can do this by thinking about cases where you procrastinated, and then identifying when, how, and why you did so.
- Then, create a plan of action. This plan should involve a combination of relevant anti-procrastination techniques, that will allow you to deal with situations where your procrastination problem is preventing you from achieving your goals.
- Finally, implement your plan of action. As time goes by, make sure to monitor your progress and refine this plan, by modifying or dropping anti-procrastination techniques based on how well they work for you, and by adding new ones if you think they could help.
When it comes to anti-procrastination techniques, here are some examples of relevant ones that you can use:
- Prioritize tasks based on how important they are.
- Break large and overwhelming tasks into small and actionable pieces.
- Get started on tasks by committing to only work on them for a few minutes.
- Remove distractions from your work environment.
- Identify when you’re most and least productive, and schedule your tasks accordingly.
- Set intermediate deadlines for yourself on your way to your final goals.
- Create a daily goal and mark streaks of days on which you’ve successfully achieved it.
- Reward yourself when you successfully implement your plan of action.
- Focus on your goals instead of on the tasks that you have to complete.
- Visualize your future self experiencing the outcomes of your work.
- Count to ten before you indulge the impulse to procrastinate.
- Avoid a perfectionist mindset by accepting that your work will have some flaws.
- Develop a belief in your ability to successfully overcome your procrastination.
Summary and main takeaways
- We rely primarily on our self-control in order to get things done in a timely manner, though our motivation to be rewarded for our efforts can often provide our self-control with a helpful boost.
- There are various demotivating factors that have an opposite effect than our motivation, meaning that they make us more likely to procrastinate; this includes, for example, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, and task aversion.
- Furthermore, there are also hindering factors that interfere directly with our self-control and motivation, meaning that they too make us more likely to procrastinate; this includes, for example, goals that are abstract, goals that are distant in time, and a disconnect between our present and future selves.
- When demotivating and hindering factors outweigh our self-control and motivation, we end up procrastinating either indefinitely, or until some point in the future when the balance between them shifts in our favor.
- In some cases, we might also be driven to procrastination by other factors, such as self-sabotage, sensation-seeking, or rebelliousness.