Everyone puts things off sometimes, but procrastinators chronically avoid difficult tasks and may deliberately look for distractions. Procrastination tends to reflect a person’s struggles with self-control. For habitual procrastinators, who represent approximately 20 percent of the population, "I don't feel like it" comes to take precedence over their goals or responsibilities, and can set them on a downward spiral of negative emotions that further deter future effort.
Procrastination also involves a degree of self-deception: At some level, procrastinators are aware of their actions and the consequences, but changing their habits requires even greater effort than completing the task in front of them.
Procrastinators are often perfectionists, for whom it may be psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a job than to face the possibility of not doing it well. They may be so highly concerned about what others will think of them that they put their futures at risk to avoid judgment.
Some procrastinators contend that they perform better under pressure, but while they may be able to convince themselves of that, research shows it is generally not the case; instead, they may make a habit of last-minute work to experience the rush of euphoria at seemingly having overcome the odds.
Procrastination is driven by a variety of thoughts and habits but fundamentally, we avoid tasks or put them off because we do not believe we’ll enjoy doing them, and want to avoid making ourselves unhappy, or we fear that we won’t do them well. People may also procrastinate when they are confused by the complexity of a task (such as filing one’s taxes) or when they’re overly distracted or fatigued.
Psychologists have identified various drivers of procrastination, from low self-confidence to anxiety, a lack of structure, and, simply, an inability to motivate oneself to complete unpleasant tasks. Research has also shown that procrastination is closely linked to rumination, or becoming fixated on negative thoughts.
Procrastination is a self-defeating behavior pattern, but it can be seen as serving a psychological purpose, especially for people with perfectionist tendencies, by protecting the individual against fear of failure, judgment by others, and self-condemnation. Avoiding unpleasant work by devoting energy to other tasks, like organizing or cleaning, also helps procrastinators avoid feeling unproductive, although they will have to pay the price for it later.
Predicting how we’ll feel in the future is known as affective forecasting, and people tend be fairly bad at it. For example, procrastinators may feel bad about not having exercised today, but they may raise their mood by predicting they will do it tomorrow. Thus, they avoid feeling negative emotions in the moment, but make the cycle more likely to repeat.
People who procrastinate, research finds, may hold different values than people who do not. In studies, procrastinators report valuing personal enjoyment more highly than others do, and valuing a strong work ethic less, and are more likely to complete tasks they feel are important to them personally than those that are assigned to them.
It’s somewhat developmentally appropriate for teens to procrastinate. The passive resistance of delay is one way adolescents may pull away from parental authority. But increased independence and decreased supervision also bring less structure and greater opportunity for distraction. And like adults who procrastinate, teens may come to overestimate their ability to work under pressure and their need to feel pressure to do their best work.
Procrastination may relieve pressure in the moment, but it can have steep emotional, physical, and practical costs. Students who routinely procrastinate tend to get lower grades, workers who procrastinate produce lower-quality work, and in general, habitual procrastinators can experience reduced well-being in the form of insomnia or immune system and gastrointestinal disturbance. Procrastination can also jeopardize both personal and professional relationships.
Procrastinating when it comes to one’s health—putting off exercise and checkups, and failing to commit to healthy eating—can lead to a higher risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Procrastinators are also more likely to engage in self-blame and disengage from wellness advice, suggesting that cultivating greater self-compassion could help such individuals begin taking better care of themselves.
Procrastination, avoidance, and rumination are all common symptoms of depression. People with depression may struggle to plan ahead, lose confidence in their ability to follow through, and adopt “what’s the point” thinking. The treatment approach known as behavioral activation, in which one schedules enjoyable activities that provide a sense of mastery or accomplishment, may help alleviate some of these effects.
When a procrastinator enters a relationship with a non-procrastinator, conflict is almost inevitable: Each places a very different value on their time, believes their approach is superior, and struggles to understand the other’s motivations. As with any other conflict, though, stepping back, considering the other’s perspective, and finding a way to accept it, and one’s own reaction to it, can help keep a couple together.
It's possible to overcome procrastination but it takes considerable effort. Changing a habitual behavior consumes a lot of psychic energy, but engaging in highly structured regimen of cognitive behavioral therapy is one approach that has worked for many. In the short term, some cognitive tricks can help people complete discrete tasks.
Studies based on The Procrastination at Work Scale, which identifies 12 common forms of workplace procrastination, have highlighted some potential solutions, such as adopting timelines that build in time for delay, but not too much; making a personal challenge out of mundane tasks; breaking large jobs into achievable chunks you can celebrate completing; and limiting your access to online news and social media.
When people procrastinate, their present self benefits by avoiding unpleasant work, but their future self pays the price in stress or punishment. Developing empathy for one’s future self as one would for a close friend, then, can be an important first step to ending the habit, because we’re less willing to put a good friend in such a disadvantaged position.
Many procrastinators struggle to make important decisions, in part because not making a choice absolves them of responsibility for the outcome. But sometimes people simply become so exhausted from making decisions that it seems impossible to make even relatively unimportant ones. Research suggests that sticking to a personal set of decision-making rules, or outsourcing some decisions to a partner, friend, or co-worker may help overcome decision fatigue.