The Real Reason We Procrastinate

What is it about having an important task to complete that makes us want to focus on anything but that one task? Procrastinate, postpone, delay—call it what you like, but there’s no denying that our tendency to put things off until the last minute can be problematic.

Procrastination is particularly troublesome for students, and according to a meta-analysis by Calgary University professor Piers Steel, between 80 and 95 percent of university students procrastinate, especially when it comes to their coursework. Research by University of Denver School of Education professor Kathy Green found that procrastination was one of the top reasons doctoral students failed to complete their dissertation.

This is surprising considering that productivity is practically worshiped by society today, and we’re constantly being bombarded with new self-help books, blogs, and apps dedicated to helping us get more done in less time.

So why is procrastination still such a big a problem?

Having an impulsive nature is likely a factor, because an impulsive person is more easily distracted and therefore more likely to flit from one task to the next. But according to Carleton University professor of psychology Timothy A Pychyl, there’s more to it than just getting distracted.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Procrastination is rooted in fear of failure and self-doubt.

Pychyl explains that procrastination is often triggered by self-doubt and is kind of like a coping mechanism. Putting something off allows us to avoid the negative emotions that we associate with that particular task, whether it’s stress, frustration, anxiety, or boredom. So when you choose to scroll through your Facebook news feed instead of study for that upcoming exam, it’s probably because you’re feeling anxious about performing well and want to avoid that unpleasant emotion, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Our self-doubt and fear of failure also prevent us from putting forth our best effort and sometimes even lead us to actively sabotage our efforts. We would rather have people think that we lack effort than ability, so we subconsciously make the decision to study less or leave projects unfinished.

This cognitive strategy is known as self-handicapping and can take many forms, from substance abuse to poor sleeping habits to procrastination. Oddly enough, we don’t only procrastinate because we worry about performing inadequately; in some cases we put things off because we’re afraid that succeeding will raise other people’s expectations of us and that we won’t be able to live up to those expectations the next time around.

Research also shows that we’re more likely to handicap ourselves when the stakes are higher. A study by leading procrastination researcher and professor of psychology at DePaul University Joseph Ferrari together with APS Fellow Dianne Tice, found that students were more likely to hold off on studying for a test when they were told it was a meaningful evaluation of their abilities. When they were told that they were only taking the test for fun, they diligently prepared for it. But when they thought the test real, they protected themselves by not trying too hard.

So in a way, procrastination is something we do to control situations that are beyond our control. Of course, in the long run, putting off the inevitable will only make things more stressful and chaotic. But subconsciously we’re doing it to let ourselves off the hook. We tell ourselves that if we’d only had more time to study we would have performed better, or if we had started on our essay earlier it would have earned a higher mark.

Aside from having a negative impact on final exam scores and assignment grades, procrastination can also take a toll on students’ mental health and physical well-being. Research led by Dianne Tice found that although students who procrastinated reported lower levels of stress and illness early on in the term, their stress and illness levels rose sharply later on in the term. Procrastination just delayed the inevitable and eventually exacerbated the problem.

So what can we do to stop putting things off and get to work?

Understanding why we procrastinate is half the battle, but it’s also important to find coping strategies that actually work. If you know that you have a tendency to delay or avoid important tasks until the last possible minute, here are a few things you can try.

How to Procrastinate Less

1. Focus on the root of the problem

The first step towards banishing procrastination is getting to the root of the problem. Pretending that your task avoidance issues are a result of poor time management skills would be disingenuous. Of course it’s never a bad idea to make lists and break large projects up into smaller chunks, but if the real reason for your procrastination is wanting to avoid unpleasant emotions like anxiety and frustration or being afraid to fall short of other people’s expectations, then basic time-management strategies aren’t going to be the solution.

2. Practice regulating your emotions

If you tend to procrastinate as a way of avoiding negative emotions like boredom, frustration, or anxiety, it’s time to practice your emotion regulation skills. Research shows that if we can learn to tolerate and modify aversive emotions, we will procrastinate less as a result.
One effective emotion regulation strategy is self-forgiveness.

A study led by psychology professor Michael Wohl found that University freshmen who forgave themselves for putting off studying for their first exam went on to procrastinate less the next time around. So simply not being too hard on yourself and accepting that you will procrastinate from time to time can diffuse some of the negative emotions you’re feeling and help you avoid it in the future.

3. Set short term goals with immediate rewards

If staying focused for long periods of time is difficult for you, try setting short term goals with immediate rewards at the end. Researchers from Princeton University found that two different areas of the brain, emotional and abstract-reasoning, compete for control when we have to choose between long term and short term rewards. The emotional area of the brain has difficulty envisioning the future, while the logical area is better able to understand the future consequences of our decisions. Because the rewards of long term goals are delayed, the emotional part of our brain has difficulty envisioning them.

So setting short term goals with immediate rewards can help us persist towards our long term goals. For example, you could set the goal of completing one practice test, and then reward yourself at the end of it with a quick social media break.

4. Visualize your future self

Research shows that we tend to focus narrowly on our present selves. We satisfy our immediate needs or desires while wrongly assuming that our future selves will be better equipped to deal with the consequences of the decisions we make today.

One study found that when people were shown a digitally-aged picture of themselves, they were more likely to put aside money for retirement. This is likely because they felt a stronger association with their future self and better were able to recognize the need to save money. So if you’re not feeling motivated to work or study, try to visualize your future self dealing with the consequences of that decision, whether that means imagining yourself pulling a desperate all-nighter to finish an essay or sitting an exam that you don’t feel prepared for.

5. Try active procrastination

If you know you’re going to procrastinate anyway, it makes sense to spend that time doing something productive. For example, if you feel stuck on your writing, you could procrastinate on it by doing some research or fact-checking. This strategy has been dubbed ‘active procrastination,’ by University of San Diego professor Frank Partnoy. His research suggests that this particular type of procrastination can help you get more done because although you’re still procrastination and delaying one task, you’re still working on something important and crossing items off your to-do list.

If you are going to use this strategy, however, it’s important to make a conscious decision about procrastinating. Don’t waste your time stressing about the fact that you’re putting off your essay. Instead, check your to-do list and use the extra time you now have to be productive in some other way rather than letting all your tasks pile up.

Looking for more advice on how to deal with procrastination? Check out these tips for improving your productivity.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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