Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone postpones an assignment until right before its deadline, despite the fact that they intended to work on it earlier, that person is procrastinating.
This article contains a collection of interesting and useful facts about procrastination, which will help you understand what procrastination is, why and how it affects people, and how to overcome it. The facts are all based on credible sources, and primarily on peer-reviewed research articles, which are linked in the text.
Facts about the prevalence of procrastination
- Procrastination is a chronic issue for around 20% of adults.
- Although procrastination was an issue throughout history, it became more common in modern times, likely due to phenomena such as the increased availability of distractions and temptations (e.g., social media and video games), as well as the increase in unstructured or self-structured jobs.
- Workplace procrastination has been found observed in individuals working in a wide range of jobs, including among food servers, legal secretaries, computer system administrators, library assistants, sales representatives, lawyers, and managers and executives.
- Procrastination is especially common among students, and academic procrastination has been observed among students at all levels of education, including in elementary school, middle school, high school, college (undergraduate), and graduate school. For example, studies show that approximately 80%–95% of college students engage in procrastination to some degree, approximately 75% consider themselves to be procrastinators, and approximately 50% say that they procrastinate in a consistent and problematic manner. In fact, procrastination is so common among students that the tendency to procrastinate on tasks until right before they are due is sometimes referred to as the student syndrome.
- Academic procrastination is an issue not only for students, but also for other academic populations, such as high-school teachers and university faculty.
- Bedtime procrastination is a prevalent phenomenon, which has been observed in a variety of populations, including adolescents, college students, and adults. For example, in one study on adults, 74% of the people who were surveyed indicated that they go to bed later than they planned at least once a week, with no external reason for doing so.
- There are many famous and important procrastinators, including J. K. Rowling, Mozart, Bill Clinton, Hunter S. Thompson, Nassim Taleb, Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, and Steve Jobs.
- Young children procrastinate too, including 3-year-olds attending preschool.
Facts about the dangers of procrastination
- Procrastination is associated with a wide range of mental and physical health issues, such as stress and an increased rate of illness, as well as with the tendency to delay getting treatment for those issues.
- Procrastination is associated with various financial and employment issues, such as earning a lower salary, having shorter durations of employment, and having a higher likelihood of being unemployed or under-employed (as opposed to working full‐time).
- Students often report that procrastination occupies over a third of their daily activities, usually in the form of behaviors such as sleeping, watching TV, or playing video games.
- Though student procrastinators tend to experience less stress early on in the semester, they also tend to experience more stress later on in the semester and overall.
- For students, procrastination is associated with a wide range of academic issues, such as worse exam scores, worse grades, more course failures, more course withdrawals, and an increased likelihood of dropping out.
Facts about procrastinators
- Age is negatively correlated with procrastination, which means that older people tend to procrastinate less than younger ones.
- Gender is weakly associated with procrastination, as men tend to procrastinate slightly more than women.
- Compared to non-procrastinators, procrastinators are more likely to remain single than to get married, less likely to stay married, and more likely to get separated rather than divorced.
- Out of the personality traits in the “Big Five” model (conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, and agreeableness), conscientiousness (the tendency to be disciplined, achievement-oriented, hardworking, focused, and organized) is the most strongly associated with procrastination in general, so people who have low conscientiousness tend to procrastinate substantially more. However, there is substantial individual and situational variation, and other personality traits can are also associated with procrastination sometimes. For example, neuroticism (the tendency to be prone to negative emotions and psychological stress) can lead people to procrastinate, for instance by making them more likely to engage in activities that distract them from task-related anxiety. Similarly, extraversion and openness to experience can lead people to procrastinate by prompting them to engage in activities that are more exciting—and often also more social—than the activities they should be engaging in.
- People who are externally oriented (i.e. believe that outcomes that they experience depend primarily on external factors outside their control) tend to procrastinate more than people who are internally oriented (i.e. believe that outcomes that they experience are within their control).
- People who are evening types (“night owls”) are more likely to engage in procrastination in general and bedtime procrastination in particular than people who are morning types (“early birds”).
- There is generally no significant correlation between people’s intelligence and their tendency to procrastinate.
- There is a substantial genetic component to procrastination, which means that the tendency to procrastinate is moderately heritable, so some people are naturally more prone to procrastination. This aligns with the fact that associated factors, such as self-control and conscientiousness, also have a strong genetic component.
- At both the phenotypic and genetic levels, procrastination is strongly associated with impulsivity (the tendency to take rash action without thinking or planning) and goal-management failure (the tendency to fail to set and pursue short and long-term goals).
- There are some neurobiological and neuroanatomical between the brains of procrastinators and those of non-procrastinators, as there are various neural mechanisms that increase people’s predisposition to procrastination. For example, procrastinators tend to have brain structures that make them less future-oriented, so they are more focused on the present than on the future compared to non-procrastinators, and accordingly are less willing to engage in aversive tasks that are important to their long-term goals.
- Procrastinators are often well-aware of the issues associated with this behavior, and can be its harshest critics.
For more information about procrastinators in general, see the dedicated article on the topic.
Facts about the causes of procrastination
- Procrastination is often involuntary, as evidenced by the many procrastinators who agree with the statement “No matter how much I try, I still put things off”.
- People’s procrastination is largely independent of their self-reported work intentions, which means that procrastinators often intend to work as hard as non-procrastinators, or even harder.
- There is a disparity between procrastinators’ intended and actual work habits, a phenomenon referred to as the intention-action gap, whereby they work less than they intend to. This gap generally grows as the amount of time between the intention and the action grows, meaning that it tends to be greater for actions that are far in the future. At the same time, this gap tends to narrow as the deadline for an intended action approaches, and it may even reverse, meaning that, when finishing tasks right before the deadline, procrastinators often end up doing more work than they originally intended.
- Procrastination often occurs due to issues that people have with emotion regulation, and negative emotions, such as fear, distress, guilt, and anxiety, can lead to procrastination.
- People sometimes procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed with regard to the tasks that they need to handle.
- People often procrastinate on tasks because they find them aversive (e.g. boring or unpleasant), and there is a positive correlation between trait procrastination and task aversiveness, which suggests that procrastinators are more prone to perceiving tasks as aversive, and that this may be one of the causes of their procrastination.
- People sometimes procrastinate as a result of difficulties in valuing outcomes or associating outcomes with tasks.
- People are more likely to procrastinate when their goals are vague or abstract, compared to when their goals are concrete and clearly defined.
- People tend to discount the value of outcomes that are far in the future (a phenomenon known as temporal discounting or delay discounting), which can lead to procrastination.
- Procrastination often occurs when people display a present bias, and choose to engage in activities that they feel reward them in the short-term, at the expense of activities that are more rewarding in the long term.
- People sometimes procrastinate because they feel disconnected from their future self, a phenomenon known as temporal self-discontinuity or temporal disjunction.
- Some people procrastinate because they suffer from depression.
- Low self-efficacy and low self-esteem are associated with higher levels of procrastination.
- People sometimes procrastinate as a way of placing barriers in their own way, so that if they fail their failures could be attributed to their procrastination rather than their abilities, a behavior which is referred to as self-handicapping.
- People sometimes procrastinate due to their tendency to engage in self-defeating behaviors, which means that they actively try to sabotage their own progress.
- People sometimes procrastinate due to an underlying fear of failure.
- Different aspects of perfectionism are associated with procrastination in different ways. Specifically, perfectionistic concerns, which are characterized by excessive preoccupation with other people’s opinions, negative self-evaluations, and an inability to experience satisfaction even after successful performance, are associated with higher rates of procrastination. Conversely, procrastination strivings, which are characterized by the tendency to set excessively high personal standards and demand perfection from oneself, are associated with lower rates of procrastination.
- There’s a substantial association between many ADHD-related behaviors and procrastination, and various procrastinatory behaviors are sometimes viewed as symptoms of ADHD.
- Low-quality sleep can lead to procrastination, especially among people who naturally struggle with self-regulation.
- People sometimes procrastinate as an act of rebellion, generally by postponing a task that they resent being given by an authority figure.
- People sometimes procrastinate due to sensation seeking. For example, this can involve postponing a task because of the expectation that it will be more exciting and enjoyable to work on it right before the deadline, when there’s intense time pressure.
- A person’s ability to avoid procrastinating can be influenced by the people that this person spends time with, in either a negative or a positive way.
For more information about why people procrastinate, see the dedicated article on the topic.
Facts about solutions to procrastination
- Various techniques have been shown to be effective at reducing people’s procrastination. This includes, for example, inquiry-based stress reduction and episodic future thinking. Episodic future thinking, for instance, involves visualizing your future self to make you care more about your future self, about the future consequences of your actions, and about the perceived value of the future outcomes of your work.
- Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to substantially reduce people’s procrastination, both when it’s guided by a therapist and when procrastinators engage in it by themselves. However, people may sometimes benefit from using other types of procrastination treatments, such as in-person therapy or group therapy, either in addition to an internet-based solution or instead of it.
- Interventions that teach people how to manage their time or regulate their emotions have been shown to reduce people’s tendency to procrastinate.
- Increased mindfulness is associated with reduced levels of procrastination.
- Self-compassion has been shown to reduce procrastination, and also to help people deal with the negative emotional impact of their procrastination.
- Increasing people’s self-efficacy, which is their belief in their ability to perform the actions needed to achieve their goals, has been shown to help people self-regulate their behavior and avoid procrastinating.
For more information about how to stop procrastinating, see the dedicated article on the topic.
Facts about the history of procrastination
“Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.”
“He who postpones the time for right-living resembles the rustic who’s waiting until the river’s passed by: yet it glides on, and will roll on, gliding forever.”
— Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), in “The Epistles” (Book I, Epistle II), published circa 20 BCE
“Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.”
— Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger), in “On the Shortness of Life” (Ch. 9), written circa 49 CE
“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
— Marcus Aurelius, in “Meditations” (Book II, Passage 4), written circa 180 CE
Facts about the etymology of procrastination
The Oxford English Dictionary includes the following facts about the etymology of procrastination:
- The earliest use of the term “procrastination” in English writing appeared in 1548, in Edward Hall’s “The union of the two noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke” (known as “Hall’s Chronicle”), where the author wrote: “Without longer procrastinacion, he assembled togither.viii.C.horsemen.” [The OED clarified, via correspondence, that “viii.C. means 800 (the viii being 8 and the C being 100 in Roman numerals).”]
- The first use of the term “procrastinate” also appeared in 1548 in Hall’s Chronicle (similarly to the term “procrastination”), where the author wrote: “The kyng of England..was so sore moued against the Scottysh kyng, that he would not procrastinate nor deferre one houre tyl he were reuenged.” The same work also uses a rarer and now obsolete version of this verb (“procrastine”): “Thinkyng that if that pardon were any lenger space procrastened or prolonged, that..Sir Thomas Broughton..should sodeynly moue a newe insurreccion against him.”
- The term “procrastinator” first appeared in 1607, in Thomas Walkington’s “The optick glasse of humors”, where he wrote, “So is he no procrastinatour.”.
- The word “procrastinate” is borrowed from Latin, and specifically from “prōcrāstināt” in classical Latin, which is the past participle stem of “prōcrāstināre”, meaning “to put off till the next day, to defer, delay”. This word, in turn, comes from the combination of “pro” (in this context a prefix meaning “forward”), and “crāstinus”, meaning “belonging to tomorrow”.
- Words similar to “procrastination” appeared earlier in certain Romance languages than in English. For example, when it comes to the term “procrastination”, the Middle French “procrastination” appeared in 1520, and the Italian “procrastinazione”, appeared before 1536. Similarly, when it comes to the verb “procrastinate”, the Italian equivalent “procrastinare” appeared circa 1300, and the Middle French “procrastiner”, appeared in the 15th century.
Additional information about procrastination
If you want to learn more about procrastination, beyond the facts that you saw here, take a look at one or more of the following: