The Psychology Behind Procrastination

Why do you always leave your assignment to the last minute even though you promised yourself you wouldn't do that again? It's 10 am, and you have a massive assignment due at 11.59 pm that night. Have you started? Well, no, not yet, anyway.


Why do you always leave your assignment to the last minute even though you promised yourself you wouldn't do that again?

It's 10 am, and you have a massive assignment due at 11.59 pm that night. Have you started? Well, no, not yet, anyway. So, what do you do? You put everything else aside and focus on finishing that assignment. 11 pm rolls around, and you are nearly done with it, you are on the home stretch. Finally, it's 11.58 pm, and you hit submit! Ahhh, finally done. But then you think, ugh, why do I always leave things to the last minute? You promise yourself next time I won’t.

Spoiler alert: the same thing happens.  

Procrastination seems to be one of the greatest enemies of students. APS Fellow Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University and a pioneer of modern research on the subject, found that it is a common problem. It affects around 20% of adults and 50% of university students. It can be described as the act of “unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions” when we know we will suffer as a result of it.

Psychologists have found various reasons why people procrastinate, and it is probably not what you think. Studies show that some of the drivers of procrastination include low self-confidence, anxiety and low self-esteem, to name a few. The key that unites most of these reasons is emotion and mood regulation.

According to Sapadin, there are six different types of procrastinators which occur from two behaviour types. The first three types are motivated by avoiding the task in some way because of the anxiety surrounding said task, and the last three are motivated by boredom and frustration. 

Procrastinators who avoid completing the activity due to some form of anxiety

  • The Worrier: Does not start a difficult task because they do not believe they will be able to complete the task. Therefore, their logic is not to start the task because they believe they will not feel the anxiety of failure if they do not start. 
  • The Perfectionist: Does not start the task because of a fear of failure, specifically that they will not complete the task to perfection. 
  • The Over-Doer: This type commits to too many tasks, failing to prioritise properly and therefore does not fully complete any task they have committed to.

Procrastinators who are driven by boredom and frustration

  • The Crisis Maker: Holds a belief that they need stress to perform at their best, they are addicted to living on the edge.
  • The Dreamer: Believes that they do not need to work hard to achieve their goals and do not like details which makes it hard to implement their ideas. 
  • The Defier: A rebel seeking to break the rules. 

Procrastination has been described as a “complex maladaptive reaction to various perceived stressors.” It is a short-term solution to the immediate problem. However, procrastinators do not consider the long-term consequences of leaving those tasks unfinished until the last possible moment. Ironically, putting off your assignment will make you feel better now but will leave you stressed out when you have left yourself too little time to complete it.

Before you go and blame the internet or technology as reasons for why procrastination is so common, people have struggled with this problem since the time of ancient civilisations. Nowadays, technology tends to be used as a scapegoat by people who do not want to address the root of their problems. However, in saying that, it is true that technology and social media have only made it harder to stop procrastinating.

Several studies have shown the negative benefits of procrastination which include academic issues, employment and financial problems, low well-being, and mental and physical health. Chronic procrastinators have been documented to have higher levels of stress and a greater number of acute health problems, which can lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Scary right?!

An influential study conducted in 1997 by Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice found that while procrastinators are less stressed than non-procrastinators when they are actively procrastinating, this can come back to haunt them because their overall stress is doubled in the long run. Building on this idea, Fuschia Sirois found that those who procrastinate appear to have higher levels of stress and lower levels of self-compassion. This low level of self-compassion indicates that blaming and harshly treating oneself may contribute to the aforementioned stress. 

The research into the benefits of procrastination is mixed. While procrastination offers momentary relief, it only reinforces a vicious cycle of avoidance which ends up making it harder to stop procrastinating. However, because there are many kinds of procrastination, the act itself may have various outcomes. 

Productive procrastination can be described as doing other beneficial tasks while deliberately postponing the original task. Choi and Chu's study, published in The Journal of Social Psychology, builds on this idea. They explain that not “all delays lead to negative outcomes.” The intentional delay resulting from time spent planning and gathering information may be beneficial. Therefore, Choi and Chu decided to distinguish two types of procrastinators. Passive procrastinators do not intend to put off completing a task but do so because they lack the capacity to decide quickly and act accordingly. Active procrastinators intentionally postpone job completion because they like to work under pressure. The preferred type is the active procrastinator because this has the potential to bring about unexpected benefits, such as contributing to goal attainment or creativity.

The idea that postponing tasks boosts creativity is explained in this popular Ted Talk by Adam Grant. Grant talks about the link between a moderate procrastinator and creativity/originality. This is because while we may actively put off a task, it is running in the background of our minds like when you're stuck on a topic for a paper, you say you'll think about it later and then come up with something you had not considered before. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences in 2017 by Liu et al. supports this idea. It found a link between creativity and active procrastination. It seems that while active procrastination may have some benefits, it is better to try and avoid procrastinating. So, how exactly do we do that?

There are many different ways to combat procrastination. The best method seems to vary depending on why you procrastinate. Saying that practising self-forgiveness and self-compassion can be a great starting point, and this is because procrastination appears to stem from mood dysregulation. Another great idea I am sure we have heard before is dividing up tasks into smaller, more manageable, and achievable pieces. Instead of feeling overwhelmed because you have to complete a 2,000-word essay in a set amount of time, you can break it down into stages. For example, the planning, drafting, writing, editing and proofreading stages and put personal deadlines for when you have to complete each section. Once you have completed a section, celebrate the small success. 

If you identify as a perfectionist or feel like you procrastinate because you think it is going to be awful, I recommend stop judging your work before you have even started. The first draft is always going to be awful. I am not saying this because you, as an individual, are a terrible writer, but because the first draft for everyone is always going to be worse than the final piece. I am sure we have all heard before that starting is the hardest part of completing a task, and I relate to this as well. The best way to start a task is to commit to a tiny first step, for example, starting a reading. A tip I would recommend, especially because exam season is around the corner, is to improve your environment by studying in a place that has minimal distractions, such as the library and increase your energy by taking breaks. Taking care of your mental and physical health is crucial too.

We all procrastinate, but we probably should not do it in important areas of our lives, such as our health, wealth, career or personal relationships. Managing your emotions would be a key takeaway message because procrastination is not due to poor time management instead, it is due to poor mood regulation. I wish you all the best in tackling the ugly beast of procrastination, and remember that imperfect action is better than no action. Good luck!

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