Procrastination refers to the voluntary postponement of an unpleasant task, often against one’s better judgment (Steel, 2007). When a person procrastinates, they pass the buck to their future self. Although some procrastinators claim that they work best under pressure, perhaps they also need the rush of a last-minute deadline to get started.
The costs of procrastination are often considerable. Evidence suggests that the habit of leaving things until the last minute generally results in low-quality work performance and reduced well-being (Tice and Baumeister, 1997). For example, students who routinely procrastinate consistently get lower grades (Ariely & Wertenbroch, 2002). Procrastinators also tend to postpone getting appropriate medical treatments and diagnostic tests (Sirois and Pychyl, 2013).
Why, when so little good comes of procrastinating, do we do it so much? Here are five reasons:
1. Absence of structure.
The lack of imposed direction that's become common in the workplace might contribute to the increase in procrastination. The collapse of the delay between impulse and decision inevitably favors impulse (e.g., checking Facebook instead of doing work); our easy online access makes urges easy to gratify. One solution to this is to design your environment in a way that makes your desired goal more likely to happen. For example, if you tend to check your email or Facebook too often, make it difficult for yourself to connect to the Internet.
2. Unpleasant tasks.
The most significant predictor of procrastination is a task that's considered unpleasant, boring, or uninteresting (e.g., Christmas shopping, laundry, or exercise). How can you complete your unpleasant tasks on time? One strategy is to divide and conquer. Shift your focus from the ultimate goal to a series of easy to complete, intermediate tasks (Andreou and White, 2010). Another strategy is to form an if-then plan to automate goal striving—e.g., if I turn on the computer, I will first work on my assignment for 45 minutes (Gollwitzer, 2004).
Another important factor is the timing of the reward and punishment—meaning that the point of choice and the associated consequences are separated in time. A gap like this produces internal conflict between future and present interests. Procrastination occurs when present efforts are highly noticeable in comparison with future ones, leading individuals to postpone tasks without anticipating that when it comes time to do them, the required action will be delayed yet again (Ainslie, 2001). A smoker who wants to quit can spend many years having "one last cigarette." The solution is to find a way to make long-term goals feel more like short-term rewards. For example, the painful moment of getting into a cold swimming pool can overpower the delayed benefits of doing morning laps. To overcome that resistance, you need to associate the activity with the positive mood effect of exercise.
Avoidance is a well-known form of coping with anxiety. Procrastinators may postpone getting started because of a fear of failure. Evidence indicates that procrastination is associated with high levels of stress (Sirois, 2007). To relieve stress, procrastinators shift their focus away from the future toward more immediate rewards in order to avoid high-priority, yet challenging tasks. Finding ways to reduce stress can strengthen an individual’s capacity to reduce procrastination (Sirois and Pychyl, 2013).
When difficulties arise, people with weak self-confidence easily develop doubts about their ability to accomplish the task at hand, while those with strong beliefs are more likely to continue their efforts. When low self-confidence causes people to avoid activities, they miss opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills (Ericsson, 2016). For example, a college student with a low sense of confidence for math may avoid enrollment in upper-level math courses. The decision not to enroll deprives the student of valuable skills development experiences. In contrast, goal attainment may raise feelings of self-confidence, which can result in a person setting even more challenging goals.
Ainslie, G. (2001). Breakdown of Will. Cambridge University Press.
Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13, 219–224.
Andreou, Chrisoula & White, Mark D. (ed.), 2012. The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford University Press.
Ericsson A., Pool R. (2016) Peak: Secret from the new science of expertise. An Eamon Dolan Book. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gollowitzer, Peter M., et al., (2004). Planning and the implementation of goals. In Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. Guilford Press.
Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013). Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115-127.
Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94.
Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: the costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science, 8 (6), 454–458.