Procrastination: What is it and why do we do it?

Lady procrastinating on bed with phone

“If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”

Rita Mae Brown

What is procrastination?

Procrastination at its simplest means putting things off. When we procrastinate we intentionally put off or delay a task that needs to be done, despite knowing that there may be negative consequences for not getting it done now. We procrastinate over all manner of things, from returning phone calls to finishing assignments to cleaning up the kitchen. In each situation, our procrastination behavior is the result of a conscious decision to delay an unpleasant task for now with an intention to come back to it later, even if we know we’ll be worse off as a result.

Procrastination researchers have found that there are three main criteria for a behavior to be classified as procrastination:

  1. It must be counterproductive 
  2. It must be needless
  3. It must be delaying the completion of another task

Procrastination is “to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.” 

Dr. Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Getting Stuff Done

Procrastination is not laziness

Contrary to popular belief, procrastination has little to do with laziness. While both laziness and procrastination are closely related to motivation, laziness is when an individual has the ability to complete a task but chooses not to exert the effort needed to get it done. They essentially choose to avoid a task (or complete it to a poor standard) because they don’t want to put in the work. In contrast a procrastinator truly does want to complete the task, but chooses to delay it in favor of easier or more desirable tasks and return to it later. Unfortunately, this is more often than not at great cost, causing additional stress, guilt, and anxiety.

Chronic procrastination

“While everyone may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator” says Dr. Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University and author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. Ferrari’s research indicates that the vast majority of procrastination is situational. In situational procrastination, a determining factor is how unpleasant the task is perceived to be. The more unpleasant the task, the more likely someone is to put it off. However, if the task is fun or enjoyable, procrastination is unlikely to occur. Approximately 80% of the population will engage in situation procrastination at some point, choosing to delay unpleasant tasks in favor of something more pleasant.

Chronic procrastinators are those individuals that repeatedly fail to complete tasks in all areas of their lives, not just those tasks deemed unpleasant or difficult. Approximately 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators, for whom procrastination becomes a deeply ingrained habit, resulting in missed deadlines, unachieved goals, and feelings of guilt, depression, and low self esteem.

Why do we procrastinate?

While the short term benefits of procrastination are tempting (we get to do something fun and enjoyable rather than something tedious or boring) deep down we know that if we choose to procrastinate we will suffer for it later. The task still has to get done, only now we’ve forced ourselves into a race against time to get it completed at the last minute. So if procrastination is not simply because we are lazy, and we know that we will have to get the task done eventually regardless, then why do we procrastinate?

The main causes of procrastination

Mood regulation

The first major cause of procrastination is an inability to regulate our moods. Procrastination expert Dr. Tim Pychyl from the Procrastination Research Group and psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa believes that procrastination is not a problem with time management, but a problem with emotional regulation. We procrastinate as a way of dealing with negative emotions.

Putting off a difficult or undesirable task for something more pleasant is often a way to manage our boredom, frustration, anxiety, or resentment. When having to accomplish a task brings up an unpleasant feeling, for example a long, tedious data entry task that elicits feelings or boredom, or cleaning up after a messy spouse that brings up feelings of frustration or resentment, we divert to a more enjoyable task to avoid those negative emotions rather than face them head on.

The bad news is that by avoiding these feelings with procrastination instead of dealing with them we set ourselves up for even more stress and anxiety in the form of procrastinatory cognitions. Procrastinatory cognitions are the negative thoughts and feelings we have about our procrastination. We beat ourselves up because we know we should have just got on with it in the first place, adding self-blame and frustration to our already-negative mood. While we may have managed to avoid our negative feelings in the short term by watching a cat video or watching tv, in the long term procrastination drains our energy and makes our negative moods and emotions even more potent, leading to even more procrastination.

Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is the mother of procrastination”

Michael Hyatt

The idea that procrastination is linked to perfectionism is not new. Perfectionists seek exceptional results every single time. Anything less than perfect is a failure. When a perfect performance is in doubt, the perfectionist chooses to procrastinate with a less threatening task rather than risk failure. 

Perfectionism and procrastination together are a powerful force, bringing perfectionists to a screaming halt when it comes to achieving their dreams and goals. They may dream of starting a business, learning a language, performing in a play, or simply taking on a new project at work, but the fear of not executing perfectly stops them in their tracks and diverts them into procrastination.

There are seven stages/thought processes in the perfectionism-procrastination loop:

  1. You hold exceptionally high standards and expectations for yourself
  2. You have no guarantee that you will meet your own high standards and expectations
  3. Less than perfect is just not an option for you
  4. The more you think about not doing well, the more uncomfortable you feel
  5. You fear feeling uncomfortable, and your anxiety begins to rise
  6. You avoid these feelings of discomfort and fear by doing something easier
  7. You begin to feel better, reinforcing your procrastination behavior as an effective way to alleviate discomfort

For the perfectionist, procrastination offers a way to avoid the discomfort of being seen as imperfect or failing. At the same time, it holds them back from trying new things and going after their goals.

Self-worth theory

The self-worth theory of procrastination suggests that by delaying important tasks until the last minute, we are able to deflect responsibility if the outcome is poor. Imagine you spend hours and hours on an assignment, only to submit it and get mediocre feedback. What do you attribute your mediocre performance to? Your skills, abilities, and competence. The responsibility for producing the less-than-stellar performance logically falls onto you.

Now imagine you have to produce that same assignment, only this time you procrastinate until the last minute and have to rush to get it completed. How can you explain the mediocre feedback now? In this scenario you could blame a lack of time, that you couldn’t give it your full attention, or some other external factor that got in the way of really giving it your best effort. Responsibility for the failed assignment now lies outside of you – it was not a lack of skill, ability, or competence, it was a failed strategy (e.g. leaving it to the last minute and procrastinating).

Blaming a failed strategy for our poor performance rather than our level of skill or competence is an effective way to subconsciously protect our sense of self worth. We want to appear competent and capable, and our sense of self-worth is closely tied to our performance and how we believe we are perceived by others.

When we are faced with self-doubt about our abilities, procrastination offers us a way to protect our sense of self-worth by deflecting responsibility away from the self and onto a poor choice of strategy instead. We can reason that if we hadn’t waited to the last minute we would have done much better, and our sense of self worth remains intact. We can still view ourselves as competent and capable, we just have to use a more effective strategy for getting work done next time.

Pain verses pleasure

Tony Robbins, possibly the world’s best known personal development ‘guru’ attributes procrastination to two simple things: pain and pleasure. Robbins believes that these two factors are the ultimate drivers of behavior and that we are driven towards that which we believe will give us pleasure, and away from that which will bring us pain. Procrastination occurs when we perceive the short-term pain of the task in front of us as greater than the long-term pleasure completing the task will bring. Additionally, avoiding the pain now and engaging in a more desirable activity, like taking a nap or watching TV, brings much more pleasure than the thought of having to endure the pain in the future. When presented the opportunity to avoid pain and gain pleasure by procrastinating and worrying about getting stuff done later, it’s easy to see why so many of us give in! 

Interestingly, this tendency to focus on short-term pleasures over long-term progress is compound by a rather strange phenomenon – the subconscious belief that you and ‘future you’ aren’t actually the same person.

Detachment from future self

“Sounds like a problem for Future Homer! I sure don’t envy that guy!”

Homer Simpson

Have you ever procrastinated on a task and justified it to yourself by believing that ‘future you’ will be more motivated and better equipped to tackle it in the future than you are right now? How often have you told yourself that tomorrow or some point in the future you’ll have the energy, enthusiasm, and drive to get stuff done and start making some real progress? Or how about putting off starting that diet until Monday because ‘Monday You’ will be much more motivated and able to resist temptation than you are now?

In some cases procrastination results from a disconnect between our current and future selves. Research has shown that we think of our future selves as somehow ‘different’ to our current selves, almost as if they are a different person. It’s as if we failed to connect that our future self is still fundamentally ‘us’ – that unless we actively address our procrastination habits and challenges in the present we will still be the same person in the future as we are right now.

Research by Dr. Hal Hershfield of UCLA Anderson School of Management found that different areas of our brains are activated when we think of our current and future selves, and that the areas activated when thinking about ourselves in the future are the same areas that light up when we think about someone other than ourselves. Dr. Hershfield’s experiments showed that participant’s brains lit up the same when they thought about their future selves as when they thought about celebrities such as Natalie Portman or Matt Damon, yet when they thought about their current selves a different area of the brain was activated.

To test this idea that we are somehow disconnected from seeing our current and future selves as essentially the same person, Dr. Emily Pronin of Princeton University asked participants in a study to decide how much of a nasty concoction of ketchup and soy sauce they were willing to drink. The results showed that individuals were significantly more willing to commit their future selves to drink greater amounts of the nasty stuff (around half a cup) than their current selves (two tablespoons), as if their future self would somehow be much more capable of chugging it down than they are now.

This helps us understand why we often condemn our future selves to the stress and anxiety of trying to get more work done in less time. It’s as if we feel that we are pushing it off onto someone else more capable than we are, not realizing that person is, in fact, us!

Procrastination and depression

The link between procrastination and depression seems obvious. The more miserable and depressed you are, the less likely you are to get stuff done. The diagnostic criteria for depression in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) list out a set of symptoms that create the perfect conditions for procrastination. Lack of interest in activities? Check. Lack of energy? Check. Diminished ability to concentrate? Check. Excessive feelings of guilt and worthlessness? Check, check, check!

So, it logically follows that sufferers of depression experience a higher rate of procrastination. But does depression cause procrastination? Perhaps not.

Author and former habitual procrastinator David Parker suggests that, for some people, it may be the procrastination habit that is causing their depression, and not the other way around. In his book The More You Do, The Better You Feel: How to Overcome Depression and Live a Happier Life, Parker says that the turning point in his own journey from depressed, habitual procrastinator to positive, ‘do-er’ was realising that his procrastination habit was the source of his misery.

While examining his daily journal, Parker began to notice a distinct pattern in the way he felt and the number of items on his ‘to do list’ that he had not completed. He began to realize that the bigger the list and the more he procrastinated, the worse he would feel. Yet when he did take action, he would feel better and his mood would improve. It wasn’t the numerous therapy sessions and multiple medications that eventually lifted Parker’s depression, it was learning strategies to beat his procrastination that ultimately changed his life.

So what does the research say? Does depression cause procrastination or vice versa? In reality the relationship is more indirect. Research supervised by Dr. Tim Pychyl found that while depression and procrastination are positively correlated (when one increases, so does the other), the key factor was in fact self-regulation. The lower participants scored on measures of self-regulation, the higher their scores on depression and procrastination. By focusing on improving his self-regulation of his behavior, Dr. Pychyl was able to dig himself out of his own depression.

“As I succeeded despite my feelings each day, I avoided most of the procrastination. With time, my sadness lifted, as exogenous depression will. And, I hadn’t fed that beast with procrastination. Nothing like not getting things done to drag myself down deeper into that darkness.”

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, Author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change

In essence, this is exactly what Parker also did to lift himself out of depression. The J.O.T Method (Just One Thing method) he devised to tackle his procrastination habit focused primarily on self-regulation his behavior, or as Dr. Pychyl says “setting an intention and putting one foot in front of the other”. 

Ultimately, your procrastination habit isn’t directly causing your depression, but it sure isn’t helping it.

Do you need help beating procrastination and getting stuff done? Here are 8 ideas to beat procrastination and Get Stuff Done. Continue reading…

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