Procrastination reflects our brain's hunger to feel good now rather than reap future rewards. But at the end of the day, it's really about choice: You have to decide exactly who it is that you intend to be.
By Steven Kotler published September 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
On the surface, Robert Capp is a true success. He's a publishing executive at the top of his field. In his 38 years, he's overseen everything from major magazines to major Internet sites. In his free time, he runs a charity that helps war veterans adjust to life after traumatic injury. But every day, Capp fights a battle he rarely wins.
"As soon as I have something important to do," he says, "I get really into my head about it. I don't do it, just can't do it. Anxiety starts to build. If I have to arrange a meeting, just making the phone call to set it up becomes impossible. All sorts of weird excuses start popping into my brain. If the meeting is with someone important I start thinking, 'Who am I to be calling this guy, he's really important and I'm not, why would he possibly want to waste time speaking to me?' It's truly awful."
For Capp, this awful feeling has been one of the more defining features of his life. "Procrastination has affected every part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was always hiding from responsibility. By the time I was a teenager, I discovered drugs and alcohol and these were the perfect tools to foster my procrastination. Why do something I should be doing when there were drugs to take?"
His addiction lasted over 10 years. "But even when I got sober, the urge to delay didn't get better. It nearly destroyed my marriage. It's impossible to be in a relationship with a chronic procrastinator. It feels crazy to a partner, who can't help but think, 'Here's this rational, intelligent person, so how can this keep happening? It doesn't make any sense.'"
For Capp, it's worse at work. "Several months ago my boss sent me a memo listing things that were wrong with my performance. There were eight items on his list and all eight had to do with my procrastination problems." Capp lost his job—although he landed a coveted position on a new Web site.
"Everyone procrastinates," observes DePaul University psychologist Joseph Ferrari. However, "not everyone is a procrastinator." Still, a large and growing proportion of the population can lay claim to this problem. In a 1978 survey, 5 percent of the population defined themselves as procrastinators. Ferrari recently completed two large studies of the behavior. "We found that between 20 and 25 percent of the population are procrastinators."
Psychologists define procrastination as a gap between intention and action. Chronic procrastinators like Robert Capp feel bad about their decisions to delay—which helps distinguish procrastination from laziness. Laziness involves a lack of desire; with procrastination, the desire to start that project is there, but it consistently loses out to our appetite for delay. And this is no ordinary delay. Procrastination is considered a needless, often irrational delay of some important task in favor of a less important, but seemingly more rewarding, task. And that accompanying negative feeling—the gnawing guilt, the building anxiety—is one way we know we're not doing what we're supposed to do.
Researchers now believe that procrastination reflects the triumph of impulsivity over the lure of future rewards. We're terrible at processing time. Because our brains were built largely when survival hinged on mastering immediate conditions, we engage in temporal discounting—that is, we misjudge the importance of a task when it lies even a short distance in the future, so we see distant rewards as smaller than they really are. And our impulsivity never had it so good: Modern life furnishes an abundance of endlessly reinforcing demands for our attention, such as the streams of tweets you subscribe to.
However much procrastination reflects a mismatch between our stone-age brains and the highly sophisticated environments those same brains have created, it reaches deep into our being. "It is always about choice," observes Canadian psychologist Timothy Pychyl. And that makes procrastination quintessentially an existential problem. "We're given a certain amount of time and we have to use it," he says.
"It's the acts of omission that lead to our biggest regrets in life. Where do we choose to invest ourselves?" Procrastination, he contends, bumps right up against our commitment "to who it is we are trying to be in life." Even indecision and inaction are really decision and action, Pychyl notes. "Your indecision, your inaction, becomes your choice, your act—perhaps your whole life." Unless, of course, you take deliberate steps to counteract your worst tendencies.
Up Against Impulse Control
Despite the plethora of modern distractions, procrastination has been a problem for about as long as humans have been keeping track of such things. Both the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita mention its dangers. Shakespeare made it Hamlet's folly.
Four million years ago, when our hominid brains first emerged, there were not 500 channels beckoning us. The time suck known as Facebook had yet to exert its pull. But since then, our external world has lapped our internal processing capacity. The result is an array of impulse control issues. Procrastination, many psychologists believe, is a correlate of overeating, overspending, gambling addiction, and pornography addiction. We're increasingly short on ability to resist temptation.
Like overspending and overeating, procrastination has serious consequences in many domains of our lives. At work, it undermines teamwork and threatens both job performance and job security. At home, since it also plays havoc with basic trust, procrastination adds significant stress to relationships. And economics: A 2002 survey done by H&R Block found that tax dawdling resulted in $473 million in overpayments.
As with many problems that arise from the fundamental human condition, procrastination has not been easy to fix. For nearly 40 years, psychologists have tried to identify the core foible. Some think perfectionism is the problem; others find anxiety at its heart. There are those who suspect teenage rebellion against overbearing parents and those who see it as a self-handicapping predicament resulting from a fear of failure. Since plenty of procrastinators claim to do their best work under pressure, thrill-seeking has been fingered as well. Most researchers favor one idea over another, but so much competing data has left little room for agreement on theories.
The Need for a New Tack
University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel decided to try a different tack when he faced the divergent findings on procrastination. "There were 70 different studies that looked at perfectionism. Some found a strong correlation with procrastination; others found none at all. It was a topic ripe for meta-analysis."
So starting in 1996, Steel spent 10 years pulling together studies published and unpublished, analyzing almost everything he could find on the topic, from peer-reviewed journal articles to nearly forgotten doctoral dissertations. He reviewed 553 studies in all. He applied formulas to add weight to those studies with larger research groups and stronger research designs.
And when he was done, he concluded that the roots of procrastination emerge not from any one source, but from four interlinked variables: a person's expectancy for succeeding at a given task (E); the value of the task (V); a person's need for immediate gratification/their sensitivity to its delay (D); impulsiveness (I).
Expectancy of success is essentially a measure of confidence. The more confident you are, the less likely you are to put off a task. Task value is a combination of two factors: how much fun this particular job is and what it means to you and your life. The more fun, the more meaning, the less procrastination.
The need for instant gratification looks at both how much time will pass before you are rewarded for doing the job and how badly you need a reward for its completion. You're more likely to finish a report due next week if it results in immediate promotion. But if that promotion must wait until a year-end review that is still six months away, the urge to tarry increases. Finally, impulsiveness measures how easily distracted you are. The more readily you succumb to distraction, the greater the chance you'll procrastinate.
Steel combined all of these variables into what he has dubbed "the procrastination equation." It goes like this:
Utility (which measures how likely you are to procrastinate on any given task) = E x V/ I x D.
Expressed in words: How likely one is to delay depends on one's confidence multiplied by the importance/fun of a given task, divided by how badly you need the reward (for finishing) multiplied by how easily distracted you are.
According to Jeffrey Vancouver, associate professor of psychology at Ohio University, who studies motivation and goal-setting, "what's really cutting edge here is that Steel has made our understanding of procrastination dynamic; he's added in the critical variable of time. This allows us to really see how deadlines play into our desire to achieve certain goals."
Masters of the Immediate
The introduction of time into the discussion helps illuminate the biggest variable to emerge from the data: the relationship between impulsivity and procrastination. "The largest number in the equation is always going to be impulsivity," Steel says. "There's a huge correlation between procrastination and impulsivity. And that has to do with evolution—specifically with the fact that it's a slow process." Procrastination reflects the difficulty of coping with some aspects of modern society with hunter-gatherer brains because our forebears lived in a world without delay.
"Back then," Steel points out, "food was hard to come by, meat kept for three days, and danger lurked around every corner. It was a very immediate environment. We learned to value the now much more than the later in order to survive."
Steel finds support for his belief in what's known as construal theory, which helps explain how the visual cortex processes information. "We visualize imminent events more concretely," he says. "But distant events are much more nondescript. We inherently see them as fuzzy."
Built for immediate reward, our brains stumble over planning for the future and forecasting how we will feel in the long term, where many of our goals reside. Under these circumstances, a third piece of chocolate cake now trumps a trim figure 10 years down the road. E-mail, voice mail, video-on-demand, Web surfing, and the like—"you couldn't design a worse working environment if you tried," insists Steel.
Indeed, says Pychyl, Steel's focus on impulsivity adds an important dimension to understanding procrastination: "We misjudge the importance of a task because it's still not due until the future." But he believes there's still something essential missing from the procrastination equation.
"Why is it that even when Robert Capp has something right in his face he is unable to proceed? That is the story of our inability to regulate our emotions," argues Pychyl.
He points to Capp's overwhelming feeling of failure, the "awful feeling" of being an impostor. Capp's 10 years of drugs amounted to a form of self-medication. But "he's not talking about self-medicating to be less impulsive; he's self-medicating to deal with the emotions he's unable to deal with successfully on his own."
What needs to be added to the equation, says Pychyl, is giving in to feeling good. "Our self-regulation fails because we're not able to manage our emotions. We give in to feel good" right now.
"When I sit down at my computer and I'm overwhelmed with fear or any other emotion, I can surf the Web or walk away from it, which is procrastination," says Pychyl. He doesn't doubt that people use technology to procrastinate. "We do know that 50 percent of the time people are online they're procrastinating. But we don't know whether, in fact, they wouldn't just use something else."
Steel would have us help ourselves by reconfiguring our immediate world to fit our brains, at least when we need to work. It's not just a matter of shutting off your e-mail. Go that extra step and remove the icon entirely from your desktop, he advises. "Remove the icon so you don't have to see it. Then make sure the 'new mail' tone is turned off. If you see it or hear it, you're going to check it, so you have to remove it completely." And while you're at it, disable instant messaging and turn off phone ringers. And when you're getting your next phone, choose one without lights so you can't see when a new call is coming in. It's necessary to protect your better self.
The solution to procrastination, argues Pychyl, centers around deploying some skills of emotion management. Beyond getting that report done on time, they're what help us to become who we're meaning to be.
Steven Kotler is a blogger for PT. Read his blog: The Playing Field