Procrastination Theories: The Psychological Frameworks for Explaining Procrastination

Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone delays working on an assignment until right before its deadline for no good reason, despite intending to work on it earlier, that person is procrastinating.

Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students. It’s associated with various issues, such as worse academic performance, worse financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and delay in getting help for issues.

Because of the prevalence and impact of procrastination, researchers have investigated this phenomenon from the perspective of various fields, including psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience. This research led to the formulation of many theories about the causes of procrastination, and although there’s no consensus on this yet, there are some dominant theories in the field of procrastination research.

Understanding the theories of procrastination can help avoid procrastination. As such, the following article presents the main theories that are currently used to explain procrastination, and links them to suggestions for reducing procrastination in practice.

 

Theories of procrastination

There are currently two main academic theories regarding the psychological causes of procrastination:

  • Emotion-regulation theory, which states that procrastination occurs when people prioritize their short-term mood over long-term goal achievement and wellbeing, primarily by postponing aversive tasks in order to postpone associated negative emotions.
  • Temporal motivation theory, which states that procrastination occurs when people’s motivation is low, which can happen because of some combination of low-value outcomes, low expectations of achieving outcomes, high delay before achieving outcomes, and high sensitivity to the delay of outcomes.

Both theories are supported by substantial research, in the sense that they can explain and predict many cases and aspects of procrastination. However, as shown in the next sections, which elaborate on these theories, both theories are also limited, and have been criticized on various grounds, as neither provides a perfect explanation of procrastination.

 

Emotion-regulation theory

According to the emotion-regulation theory (sometimes also called the temporal mood-repair theory), procrastination occurs when people prioritize their short-term mood over long-term goal achievement and wellbeing.

This primarily happens when people postpone a task that they find aversive—because it’s boring, frustrating, confusing, frightening, or unpleasant in some other way—in order to postpone the associated negative emotions, a behavior commonly described as “giving in to feel good” (or mood repair). However, this can also happen when people postpone tasks to avoid the absence of positive emotions (e.g., if a task isn’t exciting), or to create, increase, or prolong positive emotions (e.g., when a more appealing alternative is available, such as digital entertainment).

The behavior described by this theory is considered to be a maladaptive coping strategy, since it hinders long-term progress, and can paradoxically decrease people’s emotional wellbeing overall. For example, this can happen when someone postpones a task that they’re averse to, and consequently worries about the task at the back of their mind for a long time, while also suffering from added negative emotions (e.g., as guilt and shame) due to their procrastination.

The emotion-regulation theory ties in to other models of self-regulation and self-control, where hedonistic impulses and desires are pitted against long-term goals. However, it focuses on procrastination as a form of mis-regulation, where people procrastinate because they mistakenly believe that this will make them feel better, rather than under-regulation, where people procrastinate because they fail to exert necessary self-control, though both issues can lead to procrastination.

A significant component of the emotion-regulation theory is temporal disjunction, which means that people prioritize the needs and desires of their present self over those of their future self. For example, this can involve procrastinating on an important task in order to improve the mood of the present self, while minimizing or ignoring the consequences that the future self will have to deal with because of this.

The emotion-regulation theory captures key aspects of procrastination, and can therefore explain and predict it well in some cases. However, this theory has various limitations, and has been criticized on various grounds, including the following:

  • It doesn’t explicitly account for key causes of procrastination. For example, it doesn’t account for how hyperbolic discounting of future outcomes can influence motivation, which is a core aspect of the competing temporal motivation theory (although the emotion-regulation theory does consider the role of the associated temporal disjunction).
  • It doesn’t adequately explain certain patterns of procrastination. For example, it doesn’t explain cases where people procrastinate despite being well-aware that this makes the present self feel worse in the short-term, due to negative emotions such as frustration, guilt, and shame.
  • It illustrates the role of self-control in a problematic way. By explaining procrastination as a form of mis-regulation rather than under-regulation, emotion-regulation theory provides a problematic description of the crucial role of self-control and associated concepts (e.g., willpower, self-discipline, and impulsivity) in procrastination. For example, two key proponents of this theory state the following in a paper about it “…we do not procrastinate because we are impulsive or lack self-discipline, we procrastinate because we are using task avoidance as means to regulate our emotions. Certainly individuals who are more impulsive or who have less self-discipline may give in to this desire for short-term mood repair through procrastination more easily or more frequently, but it is procrastination’s function as an emotion-regulation strategy that best explains why we procrastinate.” Although the proponents of this theory do acknowledge the importance of self-control here and elsewhere, it is misleading to say that “we do not procrastinate because we are impulsive or lack self-discipline”, since even though the low self-control isn’t what necessarily drives people to procrastinate, it is, in practice, a reason why they do so. For example, all things being equal, if two people are faced with the same temptation to procrastinate due to a tempting alternative, and only one of them procrastinates because they have lower self-control and therefore struggle to resist this temptation, then it’s misleading to say that they didn’t procrastinate because of their lower self-control, even if what drove them to procrastinate is emotion regulation. From a practical perspective, this can also lead to misunderstandings, where people assume that procrastination has nothing to do with self-control at all, despite the crucial association between them.
  • It minimizes the role of other important factors, or accounts for them in an unclear way. Notably, due to the way the role of self-control is described in this theory, as outlined above, this theory doesn’t provide a sufficiently explicit discussion of factors that can increase the likelihood of procrastination by reducing people’s ability to exert self-control. This includes, for example, situational factors, such as lack of sleep and a distracting work environment. Such factors are crucial to consider, since they can plan a key role in explaining why people procrastinate in practice. For example, they can explain why a person might procrastinate in some cases but not in others (e.g., due to being exhausted, and consequently having less self-control), despite having a consistent drive in terms of emotion regulation.

 

Temporal motivation theory

According to the temporal motivation theory (TMT), procrastination occurs when people have low motivation to engage in a task.

Under TMT, people’s motivation (or the utility of a given task/choice, meaning how desirable it is to an individual) is captured through an equation (sometimes called the procrastination equation). There, motivation is equal to the value of an outcome times its expectancy (i.e., how much the person expects to achieve it), which are divided by the delay of the outcome times the person’s sensitivity to delay (sometimes described as impulsiveness). In addition, a constant of “1” can be added to the denominator of the TMT equation (i.e., to the part with delay and sensitivity to delay), to prevent motivation from approaching infinity as the remaining delay approaches zero.

Based on this theory and equation, people’s motivation increases the more they value an outcome and the more they expect to achieve it. Conversely, people’s motivation decreases the greater the delay before they will achieve the outcome and the more sensitive they are to delay. This means that people prefer their rewards (i.e., positive outcomes) to be large, likely, and close in time, and their punishments (i.e., negative outcomes), to be small, unlikely, and distant in time.

The components of the TMT equation are themselves influenced by various underlying variables. For example, value can be influenced by need for achievement, expectancy can be influenced by self-efficacy, and sensitivity to delay can be influenced by distractibility. TMT as a whole is described as a meta-theory, which is designed to integrate various other theories of motivation, including hyperbolic discounting, expectancy theory, cumulative prospect theory, and need theory.

TMT captures key aspects of procrastination, and can therefore explain and predict it well in some cases. However, this theory has various limitations, and has been criticized on various grounds, including the following:

  • It assumes that procrastination is driven by rational calculation. As one researcher states: “Rational models [such as TMT] assume that procrastinators use rational calculation, but with irrational or inaccurate input (e.g., value, expectancy) to justify their motivation for their irrational delay… Considering the repeated experience of extremely negative emotions, and the negative perception of their procrastinating behaviours… it can be argued that many procrastinating individuals should reach a point where they are not able to calculate the reoccurrence of their postponement as subjectively rational. That is, if there is no doubt that procrastination is such a self-defeating problem and procrastinators are equipped innately with a rational and mental TMT equation, they ultimately should be motivated and able to choose not to engage in problematic delay. Given the fact that many procrastinators continue their self-destructive behaviour for years, we may then need to question the application of TMT equation in this population.”
  • It minimizes the role of unconscious processes, such as emotion. As one researcher states: “TMT is limited mainly to voluntarily conscious processes of decision making and excludes many possible parallel, interrelated and unconscious processes, particularly emotion. Although some of the components of the model are considered to be subjective (value, expectancy) or conceptualized as predispositions (sensitivity to delay) and therefore susceptible to influence by implicit and explicit processes, the model does not differentiate the effect of these processes. For example, it can be argued that the model does not address clearly whether perceived values and expectancy or actual—and in some cases implicit—values and expectancy should be included in the equation.” This can lead to various issues, such as predicting that someone will take action based on TMT’s mental calculator, whereas in reality, this person will procrastinate due to automatic involuntary emotional inhibition in the face of an aversive task, without the activation TMT’s rationalistic calculator.
  • It minimizes the role of irrational beliefs. For example, proponents of TMT often argue that irrational beliefs, such as perfectionism, have a weak to non-existent association with procrastination, and can even protect against it. However, this view has been criticized on various grounds; for example in the case of perfectionism, researchers have pointed out that this is true only for some aspects of perfectionism, and have pointed out various issues with the research used to make the original claims against the role of irrational beliefs.
  • It minimizes the role of other important factors, or accounts for them in an unclear way. For example, TMT has been criticized for failing to properly account for environmental factors, which play an important role in determining motivation, and for various metacognitive processes. In addition, although proponents of TMT state that it incorporates task aversiveness under the value component (as more aversive tasks have lower value), TMT has been criticized for not explicitly accounting for task aversion. Furthermore, there are conceptual issues with nesting task aversiveness under outcome value, since finding a task to be aversive (i.e., unpleasant) doesn’t necessarily influence the perception of the value of the outcome associated with that task. Similarly, a related issue is that impulsiveness is sometimes used as an alternative name for sensitivity to delay, but is also sometimes described as one of the factors that influence sensitivity to delay (e.g., together with distractibility and lack of self-control). This also raises a related issue, which is that self-control and similar factors may play a role in determining people’s behavior even outside the context of sensitivity to delay.
  • It involves other oversimplifying assumptions, which only apply in certain constrained settings. For example, the application of TMT is sometimes based on the assumption of fixed utility for background temptations, which may not accurately reflect reality (i.e., people might assign different values to tempting activities, such as socializing, at different times). Similarly, applications of TMT often implicitly assume that the deadline of a task corresponds to the time point when the reward for it is received, but that’s not necessarily the case; for example, TMT assumes that a student who’s interested in good grades will be able to overcome their procrastination and start writing an essay shortly before its deadline due to decreased discounting of the associated reward, but it may be the case that the grades will only be given weeks or months later, in which case there will still likely be substantial discounting of the reward by the deadline of its associated task.
  • It focuses on motivation, rather than procrastination. While motivation plays an important role in self-regulation (and consequently in procrastination), it’s only one of several factors that affect it. This leads to issues, such as that TMT fails to properly explain cases where people feel highly motivated to take action, but still procrastinate. In addition, this involves conceptual issues, such as incorporating self-control as a factor influencing motivation (under the sensitivity to delay component), while self-control plays a role in determining people’s actions—and their procrastination—not just by influencing their motivation.

 

Extending the theories of procrastination

Because of the issues with the current theories of procrastination, attempts have been made to develop new theories that will be better able to explain the causes of procrastination.

For example, one such theory is the temporal decision model, which attempts to integrate the emotion-regulation theory and TMT, by adding an explicit task-aversiveness component to the TMT equation. This model operationalizes procrastination (or lack thereof) as the result of repeatedly choosing between to do something or to avoid it as time passes, by comparing the strength of the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid at any given time point. Under this model:

“…the motivation to avoid a task stems from perceived task aversiveness, and would decrease when the task is scheduled further away temporally because perceived task aversiveness would be discounted more by the increase of time delay. In contrast, the motivation to act arises from the delayed incentives the task can yield, and would increase when the task is postponed from now to the future because the effects of delayed outcomes (incentives) are less discounted when the task is closer to the time of outcome delivery. Consequently, people choose to avoid an aversive task in the near future because the strength of motivation to avoid is stronger than the motivation to act, whereas they plan to engage in the task in the distant future because the strength of motivation to avoid would be overtaken by the motivation to act in the distant future (i.e., procrastination).”

However, this model still involves most of the issues associated with TMT, such as assuming that procrastination is driven by rational calculation. Furthermore, it involves other issues, such as incorporating task aversiveness explicitly in a new component, while relying on the TMT framework where task aversiveness is incorporated implicitly under the value component.

In addition, other theories, such as the metacognitive model of procrastination, have been proposed in an attempt to explain procrastination, each with its own focus, strengths, and limitations. These theories sometimes differ in terms of their goals. These pertain not only to the ability of such theories to explain procrastination, but also to their practical value, for example in terms of how simple they are, and consequently how easily they can be used to guide procrastination interventions.

Finally, there are also associated theories, such as the construal-level theory of psychological distance, which were not designed specifically to explain procrastination, but which may nevertheless be used to explain certain aspects of it, often as part of theories of procrastination.

 

The complexity of procrastination

A key issue that makes it hard to develop a comprehensive theory of procrastination is the complexity of this phenomenon. This complexity is due to factors such as the diverse causes of procrastination, types of procrastination, and types of procrastinators,

Furthermore, this complexity is compounded by additional factors. For example, this includes disagreement over what types of procrastination exist, as well as the multifaceted nature of many potential causes of procrastination, such as perfectionism, some facets of which increase procrastination, some of which decrease it, and some of which have no substantial effect on it.

Nevertheless, the following are the key traits that generally characterize procrastination, which theories of procrastination should be able to explain:

  • It involves an unnecessary delay.
  • The delay generally leads to predictably negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as the procrastinator’s performance or emotional wellbeing.
  • The delay is often—but not always—unintentional, meaning that it occurs despite the procrastinator’s intent to do things earlier.

 

Practical approach to reducing procrastination

From a practical perspective, if your goal is to reduce procrastination in yourself and others, the key is to implement appropriate anti-procrastination techniques, preferably after identifying the causes of the procrastination in question. In doing so, you can use the theories of procrastination to help identify some of these causes, while keeping in mind the caveats about these theories.