The Basic Idea
Have you ever found yourself desperately rushing to get a task done before a looming deadline, only to ask yourself why you didn’t get started on it sooner?
Unless you always get straight to work the second you sit down at your desk, you have likely been a victim of procrastination. Procrastination isn’t simply putting things off. We often are tempted to tackle small, menial tasks that shouldn’t be our priority before beginning the bigger, more important ones. Common forms of procrastination include cleaning one’s apartment or rearranging one’s desk. Despite the knowledge that we need to get down to business, we often find ways to distract ourselves.
Procrastination isn’t the same as laziness. Instead of inactivity, procrastination causes you to do something else before what is most important or urgent.1 While it is a trap that is incredibly common - behavioral science professor Piers Steel has said that 95% of people procrastinate to some degree1 - it makes us incredibly inefficient.
Theory, meet practice
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Instant Gratification: the desire to feel pleasure, or get a reward, with no delay. It can cause us to procrastinate because we want to feel pleasure right away - which likely means doing something other than the important task at hand.
Empathy Gap: similar to instant gratification, the empathy gap suggests that we tend to make decisions that satisfy our current emotions, rather than our forecasted long-term mood. If we feel averse to a task, we are likely to avoid it to improve our short-term mood instead of focusing on our long-term goals, because we don’t realize that our present emotions cloud our judgment.
Precommitment: a strategy that can help people avoid procrastinating by blocking out distracting temptations. For example, apps like Block Site block distracting websites and notifications for a set period of time, blocking out a potential cause of procrastination.
Projection Bias: suggests that we overestimate how much our future desires and goals will match our present desires and goals. If we start the day full of energy, we might think it’s okay to procrastinate and put off a bigger task until later, believing we will still have the same level of motivation at the end of the day. This is often not the case, which is why it is important to tackle our top priorities first.
Bikeshedding: a tendency to devote a disproportionate amount of time to trivial tasks and push off more important tasks. Bikeshedding is a form of procrastination, and occurs because it is easier to complete small tasks than tackle more complex ones.
The term procrastination, etymologically, comes from the Latin verb ‘procrastinare’, which means to put off until tomorrow. It also can be traced back to the ancient Greek word ‘akrasia’, which means doing something against our better judgement.3
It is hard to pinpoint exactly who first researched or coined procrastination. It is likely that as long as humans have lived, we have found one way or another to procrastinate.
One of the very first iterations of procrastination is thought to have been proclaimed by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. In a poem titled “Work and Days,” Hesiod advised his brother to stop putting off his duties after blowing through his inheritance. His poem reads, “do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work… a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.”4
Throughout the centuries, procrastination was frequently referred to in poems, letters, and plays, which demonstrates its ubiquity. As behavioral science became more popular in the late 20th century, more formal research was conducted on procrastination. One of the first academic books that tackled an in-depth examination of procrastination was Overcoming Procrastination by psychologists Albert Ellis and Bill Knaus, in 1977.5 The pair specifically examined college student procrastination, and claimed that 95% of students procrastinate.5
Health psychologist Laura Solomon and women studies professor Esther Rothblum, inspired by Ellis and Knaus, went on to confirm the frequency at which, as well as examine the reasons why, college students procrastinate. They found that the most common reasons college students procrastinate was fear of failure, aversion to the task, and laziness. Less common reasons included risk taking, rebellion, and difficulty making decisions.5
Traditional economics predicts human behavior as if humans act rationally. Yet, procrastination is an irrational behavior. In 1991, behavioral economist George Loewenstein suggested that consumer behavior is not only influenced by long-term rational concerns, but also by short-term emotional ones. Loewenstein used the term “time-inconsistency” to suggest that we tend to value immediate rewards higher than future ones. So, when a big task seems daunting, we tend to focus on small tasks we can immediately accomplish to feel productive. These smaller tasks are usually more enjoyable; thus we focus on them to reward us instead of our long-term goals.6
Matthew Rabin and Ted O’Donoghue
These pioneers of behavioral science actually disagreed with the idea of time-inconsistency. They suggested that it is instead people’s desire to delay a cost, rather than their desire to satisfy a short-term pleasure, that causes us to procrastinate. They claimed that people’s desire to delay a cost, like enduring an unenjoyable task, is stronger the closer (in time) the cost is. They termed this idea ‘present-day bias’, and suggested that people tend to procrastinate if actions involve immediate costs.7
Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister
In 1997, there was some debate as to whether or not procrastination was always a hindrance, or if it could be mobilized as a tool. Psychologists Tice and Baumeister conducted a study examining the academic performance, stress, and health of students throughout a semester. The researchers found that initially, there seemed to be a benefit to procrastination. For one, students who procrastinated felt lower levels of stress in the short term, likely because they pursued more pleasurable activities. However, long term, these students reported more stress and illness, and received worse grades.8
One of the leading researchers of procrastination. Ferrari distinguished between people who procrastinate (an occasional habit) and procrastinators (people who procrastinate all the time), and identified a category of people known as ‘chronic procrastinators’. He found that 20% of people - deemed chronic procrastinators - procrastinate in every area of their life: work, school, home, relationships, and even their leisure time.9 He suggested that these individuals suffer from something akin to a disease, rather than regular deficiencies in time-management.8
A psychologist who came up with the mood repair theory of procrastination. This theory is based on the idea that negative emotions derail self-control. We think by putting something off or avoiding it, we’ll feel better. In fact, this isn’t the case - we end up feeling much worse. Pychyl therefore suggests that procrastination is due to the misregulation of emotion.10
Procrastination distracts us from what is most important to us. We might put off big projects at work, studying for a final, or even addressing issues in a romantic relationship. Each task seems too daunting, causing us to associate negative feelings with it and avoid it as a result. The worst part about procrastination is that putting it off does the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to avoid the negative feelings related to the task, but they only avalanche, and the buildup causes us to feel much worse later, compounded with the shame of being unproductive. Yet, because it is so embedded within our human nature, there is no easy fix to procrastination.
Although procrastination has plagued humans as long as we have had to-do lists, in the modern tech age, it is even easier to get distracted. The devices we frequently use to complete our work are the same devices that bombard us with notifications and news. It is hard not to check social media, browse the web, or do some online shopping, instead of getting down to business.
In the past year, our distractions have only been further exacerbated by the move to work from home. Since procrastination often entails the choice to do something else, rather than nothing at all, it is evident that there are a million other little tasks we might choose to complete when at home before our main priorities. You might decide to vacuum, meal prep, or put your laundry away first, for example. Since our office space is the same as our work space, it can be hard to get into the mindset needed to focus on work.
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln
There are few people that would deny the existence of procrastination. However, there exists some disagreement as to what causes procrastination. Some people believe it to be sheer laziness, or poor time-management, while other psychologists, like Pychyl, strongly argue that procrastination is an emotional response at its core.
There is also some controversy surrounding how to overcome procrastination. How can we motivate ourselves? Some people argue that extrinsic motivation is a useful way to motivate others or oneself. Enjoying a reward after completing a task, such as a candy bar, might persuade you to associate positive emotions with it. However, research has also shown that once an extrinsic motivation is introduced, we lose our intrinsic desire to do the task, and become even less motivated when the reward is removed. This is known as the overjustification effect.
Another strategy is the Eisenhower Matrix. This time-management separates tasks based on their urgency and importance, and can therefore remind us to tackle ‘important’ tasks first. Of course, some argue that having an extensive to-do list can cause us to feel overwhelmed and anxious, negative feelings which may diminish motivation.11
Don’t Procrastinate on Your Health
People often loosely throw around the term procrastination. Since it is something most people experience at one time or another, we don’t tend to think of it too seriously. However, some research suggests that procrastination doesn’t just impact your efficiency; it can impact your health as well.
Psychologist Fuschia Sirois suggests that procrastination negatively impacts our health in two ways. For one, when we continuously delay tasks, we are likely to face a great deal of stress about missed deadlines. Stress can have severe impacts on our health, such as headaches, digestive issues, colds, insomnia, and at its very worst, cardiovascular disease. Moreover, procrastinators - especially chronic procrastinators - procrastinate in almost all areas of their lives. That means they also put off things like exercise or going to the doctor for regular checkups.12
Sirois suggests two particular coping mechanisms that cause procrastinators to feel more stress: behavioral disengagement and self-blame. Sirois found that in her study, those who used these two coping mechanisms had a tendency to reduce efforts in difficult task and blaming the procrastination on a personal flaw, respectively, were more likely to have a diagnosis of hypertension or cardiovascular disease.12
Is Procrastination Always Bad?
The term procrastination carries a negative connotation. One explanation of procrastination is a gap between what people intend to do and what they actually do.
However, what if people intend to procrastinate? German psychologists Axel Grund and Stefan Fries suggest that procrastination may not be a failure to follow through on our intentions, but rather to have those intentions in the first place.13 They suggest that people who tend to procrastinate actually might have different goals than people who are better at accomplishing tasks on time. For example, procrastinators may prioritize their mental health, which is negatively impacted by the pressure to meet deadlines. The fact that people procrastinate more these days might then be a reflection of increasingly liberal values, such as mental well-being.
Grund and Fries therefore understand procrastination as situational, rather than a moral failure. To test their hypothesis, the pair conducted a study that examined the values of procrastinators. After surveying over 200 undergraduate students, Grund and Fries found that there was a correlation between procrastination and values of personal enjoyment and wellbeing. They also found that students tended to procrastinate less on tasks they had set for themselves, suggesting that procrastination might be a response to tasks that don’t align with one’s personal goals. Grund and Fries concluded that procrastinators should not always be regarded as morally deficient, but rather as people who have personal priorities and strong intrinsic motivations.13
Related TDL Content
Procrastination is especially detrimental to students, who have many responsibilities in different classes, and whose success or failure only impacts themselves. While people might have pressure from their bosses to get the work done, in college, professors have little interaction with their students. Since almost all students procrastinate more than they would like to, our writer Johnny Hugill examines how precommitment can help students overcome procrastination.
We’ve all heard the saying, ‘time is money.’ If procrastination causes us to waste time, then it might impact our saving habits as well. In this article, our writer Sanketh Andhavarapu examines how present bias can cause us to procrastinate when it comes to saving. We focus on short-term rewards, like buying that new shirt, instead of considering our long-term saving goals.
- How to Stop Procrastinating: Overcoming the Habit of Delaying Important Tasks. (n.d.). Mind Tools. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_96.htm
- Procrastination Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/procrastination
- Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html
- Stodola, S. (2015, May 11). Procrastination Through the Ages: A Brief History of Wasting Time. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63887/procrastination-through-ages-brief-history-wasting-time
- Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. (1984). Academic Procrastination: Frequency and Cognitive-Behavioral Correlates. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 31(4), 503-509. https://web.archive.org/web/20160729211829/http://rothblum.sdsu.edu/doc_pdf/procrastination/AcademicProcrastinationFrequency.pdf
- Hoch, S. J., & Loewenstein, G. F. (1991). Time-inconsistent preferences and consumer self-control. Journal of Consumer Research, 17(4), 492. https://doi.org/10.1086/208573
- Matthew Rabin. (2021, February 9). The Decision Lab. https://thedecisionlab.com/thinkers/economics/matthew-rabin/
- Jaffe, E. (2013, March 29). Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-wait-the-science-behind-procrastination
- “Just Do It” Doesn’t Fix Procrastination – Here’s What Really Works. (2017, July 28). Active Growth. https://activegrowth.com/joe-ferrari/
- Coppella, L. (2020, January 23). Procrastination problem? Tim Pychyl knows why. Carleton Newsroom. https://newsroom.carleton.ca/story/procrastination-problem-tim-pychyl/
- What is Procrastination? (2013, February 5). Procrastination. https://procrastination.com/what-is-procrastination
- Better Get to Work: Procrastination May Harm Heart Health. (2015, May 5). Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/better-get-to-work-procrastination-may-harm-heart-health.html
- Whitbourne, S. K. (2018, January 9). A New Way to Understand Procrastination. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201801/new-way-understand-procrastination