Procrastination: The Complete Guide

Almost everyone struggles with procrastination at some point, and we all want to be able to stop procrastinating when that happens. However, few people take the time to learn about procrastination, despite the fact that doing so is crucial if you want to figure out how to deal with it successfully.

If you want to learn more on the topic, the following article will show you everything you need to know about procrastination, and about why we experience it. Then, you will see an outline for the steps that you should follow when it comes to tackling your procrastination problem, together with some beneficial tips on how you can get yourself to stop procrastinating.


What is procrastination

Procrastination is the act of delaying making decisions or taking actions that are necessary in order to achieve your goals. For example, if someone has a week to finish an assignment, but keeps avoiding it and doing unimportant things until right before the deadline, that person is procrastinating.

Procrastination occurs as a result of a person’s inability to self-regulate their behavior, and it is associated with the concept of akrasia, which is a state of mind where someone acts against their better judgment, due to a lack of sufficient self-control. Accordingly, procrastination is generally unintentional and irrational, meaning that people procrastinate even when they realize that doing so is bad for them, and even when they want to stop.

From a psychological perspective, the main driving force behind procrastination is the prioritization of short-term mood repair and emotion regulation over long-term achievement and wellbeing. Essentially, this means that when people are averse to a task for some reason, such as because they’re anxious or because they find it boring, they tend to focus on maximizing their gratification in the present. Accordingly, they end up postponing the task, in order to avoid suffering from these negative emotions right now, despite the fact that this will prevent them from achieving their goals, despite the fact that this could cause them to experience more negative emotions in the long-term.


Examples of procrastination

People procrastinate in different ways and in different areas of life, by engaging in various types of dilatory behaviors, either intentionally or unintentionally. The following are some common examples of procrastination:

  • Browsing social media at work instead of getting started on important tasks.
  • Repeatedly putting off a homework assignment until the night before it’s due.
  • Wanting to start eating well or exercising, but constantly delaying it while telling yourself you’ll start sometime in the near future.
  • Deciding to start a website or a business, but wasting time looking up inspirational material and unimportant information instead of actually setting something up.

As you can see from these examples, and as you will continue to see in the following sections, procrastination is a complex phenomenon, which means that different people can experience it in completely different ways and for completely different reasons.


Prevalence of procrastination

Procrastination is a widely prevalent phenomenon. Research indicates that approximately 20% of the adult population and around 50% of the student population perceive themselves as being severe and chronic procrastinators, meaning that they experience significant difficulties in their everyday life as a result of their procrastination.

Furthermore, the number of people who procrastinate in general is even higher. For example, though approximately 50% of college students consider themselves to be chronic procrastinators, around 75% of students consider themselves to be procrastinators in general, and approximately 80%-95% of students say that they engage in procrastination to some degree.

This also demonstrates the fact that even though procrastination is prevalent in general, there are certain populations where it is especially common. For example, procrastination is such a commonplace issue among students that the tendency to procrastinate on tasks until right before they are due is sometimes referred to as student syndrome.

Note that there are some indications that the rate of procrastination in the population is increasing over time, which is consistent with the growing prevalence of similar issues, such as overeating and gambling, that involve people’s failure to self-regulate. However, procrastination is far from a new phenomenon, and it has been documented by various people throughout history, as evident, for example, in the writing of the following Greek poet:

“Do not put your work off till to-morrow 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.”

– From Hesiod’s “Works and Days”, circa 700-800 BC


Correlates of procrastination

There are various personal background factors which are associated with the likelihood that a person will be predisposed to procrastination.


Demographic factors and procrastination

A meta-analysis of studies on the topic showed that a person’s age is negatively correlated with the likelihood that they will procrastinate, since people tend to procrastinate less as they grow older. Furthermore, this analysis showed that gender also influences the likelihood that a person will procrastinate, since women tend to procrastinate less than men.

In addition, there are various other factors which are associated with the tendency to procrastinate, such as a person’s nationality, education level, and marital status. However, while these factors do play some role, overall they only affect the frequency and severity of people’s procrastination to a relatively small degree, and procrastination is common across most types of populations, which is why it’s viewed as a universal human behavior.


Personality traits and procrastination

Research shows that there is a significant relationship between some personality traits and people’s tendency to procrastinate:

  • Conscientiousness, which is the trait of being organized, disciplined, and self-driven, is the personality trait that is most strongly associated with people’s ability to avoid procrastination. Simply put, the more conscientious someone is, the better they are able to self-regulate, and the less likely they are to procrastinate.
  • Impulsiveness, which is the tendency to act without planning or considering the consequences of one’s actions, is the second most important personality factor to consider when it comes to procrastination. Specifically, people who are impulsive are more likely to procrastinate, since the decision to procrastinate is often an impulsive one.
  • Agreeableness, which is the tendency to agree with others, is a personality trait that is associated with the tendency to procrastinate in some cases, and specifically in situations where people who are low in agreeableness procrastinate as a form of rebellion against authority figures who give them tasks to complete.
  • Sensation seeking is a personality trait that is associated with the tendency to procrastinate in some cases, and specifically in situations where people procrastinate in order to make tasks that they have to complete more exciting, by waiting until the last minute to get them done.

Note that neuroticism, which is the tendency to be prone to negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, is generally not directly associated with the tendency to procrastinate, so that neurotic people aren’t necessarily more likely to procrastinate.

However, neurotic people are in some cases more likely to suffer from negative emotions such as anxiety and depression as a result of their procrastination. Furthermore, there are some specific situations where a person’s neuroticism could be one of the causes of their procrastination, such as when they are so anxious about making a mistake or failing that they end up avoiding necessary tasks.


Cognitive abilities and procrastination

In general, there is no significant correlation between people’s intelligence and the tendency to procrastinate.

However, when procrastinators work and study, they tend to use less cognitive strategies, such as rehearsal and elaboration, as well as less metacognitive strategies, such as preplanning and self-monitoring. This can have a negative effect on procrastinators’ performance when it comes to tasks that require a significant cognitive effort.


ADHD and procrastination

Research shows that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with procrastination in some ways.

For example, one study found a significant correlation between ADHD scores and the tendency to procrastinate, meaning that the more ADHD-based behaviors a person displays, and the more severe those behaviors are, the more likely that person is to procrastinate.

This is in line with the fact that many ADHD-based behaviors can contribute directly to procrastination, as in the case of the difficulty to maintain attention while working, or the tendency to be easily distracted by the environment. Furthermore, procrastinatory behavior is sometimes used to help diagnose ADHD directly, as in the case of the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale, which asks people how often they delay getting started when they have a task that requires a lot of thought.

Accordingly, procrastination is generally viewed as an associated symptom of ADHD, and interventions aimed at treating ADHD often address people’s tendency to procrastinate.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are different types of ADHD, which are associated with procrastination to different degrees.

For example, one study found that symptoms of ADHD which are related to inattention are correlated with procrastination, while symptoms which are related to impulsivity and hyperactivity are not. Though there are some limitations to the study, meaning that it’s entirely possible that impulsivity and/or hyperactivity are in fact associated with procrastination, this does indicate that different types and symptoms of ADHD are associated with procrastination to different degrees.

Finally, note that research on the topic also shows that students with learning disabilities tend to procrastinate more than students without learning disabilities, and also tend to suffer more as a result of their procrastination. However, since there is a wide range of issues that are categorized as “learning disabilities”, it’s difficult to generalize these results across all students with learning disabilities, and it’s possible that only some disabilities, such as ADHD, are associated with procrastination, while other disabilities, such as dyslexia, are not.


The genetics of procrastination

There is a strong genetic component to procrastination, which means that the tendency to procrastinate is moderately heritable, as shown by longitudinal studies on twins. The heritability of a person’s tendency to procrastinate is strongly associated with the heritability of their tendency to be impulsive, and the heritability of these two factors is linked primarily to the heritability of people’s ability to self-regulate their actions by focusing on their goals.

There are various neurobiological mechanisms which could explain the genetic component of procrastination. For example, one such mechanism is a gene which affects dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter, which in some cases plays a role in people’s ability to exert self-control and avoid impulsive behavior. Some people have a version of this gene that causes them to have lower baseline levels of dopamine, which makes it more difficult for them to regulate their behavior and avoid procrastination.


Environmental factors and procrastination

Though people’s tendency to procrastinate is strongly affected by various personal factors, as we saw above, there are also environmental factors that increase people’s tendency to procrastinate.

For example, when people’s sleep schedule is disrupted as a result of the timing of their shifts at work, they become much more likely to procrastinate, compared to when they have a proper sleep schedule.

Similarly, when a person feels that they don’t fit well in the organization where they work, due to a mismatch in terms of their skills, abilities, needs, or values, they also become much more likely to procrastinate, compared to when they feel that they have a good fit in their work environment.


The negative effects of procrastination

Procrastination can negatively affect people in various ways.

First, procrastination can hinder people’s ability to achieve their long-term goals. For example, among students, procrastination is associated with worse exam scores and worse grades, as well as with increased rates of course withdrawals and course failures.

Procrastination is also associated with issues in the workplace, since high levels of procrastination are associated with lower salaries, shorter periods of employment, and a higher likelihood of being either unemployed or under-employed (as opposed to working full-time).

Furthermore, procrastination can also cause people to experience various negative side effects. For example, procrastination can cause people to be more stressed, which in turn leads to worse outcomes for them in terms of their physical and mental health.

In addition, another common issue that is associated with procrastination is sleep insufficiency, which is prevalent in cases where people engage in bedtime procrastination, by going to sleep later than they intended, as a result of procrastination. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that a lack of sleep is associated with increased levels of procrastination, which can lead to a cycle where a person’s tendency to procrastinate causes them to be sleep-deprived, which in turn causes them to procrastinate more, and so on.

Procrastination can also lead to other types of problematic cycles. For example, people who display depressive symptoms are more likely to develop an internet addiction if they are prone to engaging in procrastination. This addiction can then increase the likelihood that they will use the internet in order to procrastinate when avoiding unpleasant but necessary tasks, which, in turn, can cause their depressive symptoms to worsen, while also increasing their internet addiction and their tendency to procrastinate.

Finally, procrastinators are also less likely to seek support for their mental health issues, and are more likely to delay when it comes to getting help or engaging in behaviors which are necessary in order to solve their long-term issues, such as going to the doctor or setting up a personal retirement plan.

Note: some factors can help reduce the negative impact that procrastination has on people. For example, mindfulness, which involves focusing on events as you are experiencing them, while accepting negative emotions and self-critical thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, can help reduce the stress and health problems that people experience as a result of their procrastination, while also reducing the likelihood that they will procrastinate in the first place.


Why people procrastinate

The following are some of the most common reasons why people procrastinate:

  • A hedonistic preference for instant gratification.
  • A tendency to be easily distracted.
  • An interest in the excitement of completing things right before the deadline.
  • An aversion to tasks that need to be completed.
  • A fear of failing or receiving negative feedback from others.
  • A lack of perseverance and an inability to cope with obstacles.
  • A lack of concrete goals to pursue.
  • A lack of motivation.
  • A lack of energy.

Note that though these represent some of the most common reasons why people procrastinate, there are additional reasons why people do so. If you would like to read more about the topic, take a look at the article titled “Why People Procrastinate“.


How people cope with their procrastination

There are various coping mechanisms that people use in order to deal with their procrastination. These include, most notably:

  • Avoidance. Avoiding anything related to the task that you need to complete. For example, not going to the kitchen if there are dishes that you need to wash.
  • Denial. Pretending that you’re not actually procrastinating, by claiming that the activities that you’re engaging in don’t constitute procrastination. For example, spending hours baking cookies and saying that it’s important for you to have a snack for when you actually start studying.
  • Distancing. Trying to create emotional distance between yourself and the tasks that you need to complete, or the goals that you are trying to pursue. For example, saying that you don’t care about how you’ll do on an exam, in order to reduce the degree to which you care about the fact that you’re not studying.
  • Trivialization. Pretending that the tasks that you need to complete aren’t important. For example, trying to convince yourself that it’s not important to hand in a certain assignment on time, because it only accounts for a small portion of your final grade.
  • Justification. Trying to make it seem as if the way in which you’re procrastinating is the best way to achieve progress on the task that you need to perform. For example, telling yourself that spending weeks researching different exercise plans is the best way to get yourself to start exercising.
  • Bargaining. Attempting to explain how you can still achieve your goals, despite your procrastination. For example, saying that it’s okay that you wasted half the time that you had for completing a project, because you can still get it done on time if you work twice as fast from now.
  • Comparison. Comparing your procrastination issues to someone else’s problems or to your past behavior, in an attempt to downplay your current actions. For example, saying that your procrastination is acceptable, because someone else that you know procrastinates even more.
  • Valorization. Taking pride or pretending to take pride in how much you procrastinate. For example, boasting to your friends about how much you procrastinated before an exam.
  • Humor. Using humor to downplay or validate your procrastination problem, either through self-deprecating humor or through the mockery those who are more productive than you. For example, laughing with your friends about how you’re not able to get things done in college despite the fact that you’re spending so much money on your degree.
  • Distraction. Engaging in unrelated behaviors that distract you from the task that you need to complete. For example, browsing social media or playing video games instead of working on your project.
  • Wishful thinking. Focusing on what you wish you could accomplish, instead of on what you’re accomplishing in reality, as well as promising yourself that things will be different in the future. For example, going to bed after having wasted an entire day, and promising yourself that tomorrow will be different, even though you said the same thing the night before.
  • Exaggerating accomplishments. Focusing on the things that you did accomplish, in an attempt to ignore how much you’ve procrastinated. For example, saying that even though you didn’t actually start writing your paper, at least you thought of an outline in your head.
  • Anger. Being upset at the source of the task or of the associated deadlines. For example, being mad at a professor for assigning a difficult research assignment that you ended up procrastinating on.
  • Externalization. Blaming your procrastination on external causes, that are out of your control. For example, claiming that you can’t start working out, because the gym that was closest to your house just shut down.
  • Rumination. Fixating on your mistakes and constantly thinking about how you procrastinate. For example, spending hours feeling guilty while thinking about how you aren’t able to get anything done, despite the fact that you promised yourself that you will be productive.
  • Self-blame. Criticizing yourself for your procrastination and for your inability to accomplish your goals. For example, lying in bed feeling depressed because you know that you’re failing to accomplish anything, despite wanting to make progress in life.
  • Self-isolation. Avoiding others, and avoiding letting others know how bad your procrastination is. For example, pretending that you’re able to keep up with your studies, even though in reality you are rapidly falling behind because you just can’t bring yourself to get started on assignments.

Note that many of these coping mechanisms are not necessarily specific to procrastination, and can serve as coping mechanisms for other types of similar behaviors. Furthermore, note that these coping mechanisms are mostly maladaptive, which means that they are largely viewed as a negative way to deal with your procrastination.

However, you can also use adaptive coping strategies in order to deal with your procrastination in a positive and productive way. Such strategies include, for example, identifying the reason why you procrastinate, improving your time-management skills, and seeking social support.

To learn more about these strategies and about how you can use them, take a look at the guide titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“, or scroll down to the section in this guide on how to stop procrastinating.


Determining whether you have a procrastination problem

How to tell whether you’re prone to procrastination

Most of us already know intuitively whether or not we procrastinate, and if you’re reading this article, odds are high that you believe that you’re a procrastinator, and that procrastination is affecting you in a negative way.

If you’re not sure whether you’re a procrastinator, the most important question that you need to ask yourself is simply “do I tend to delay making decisions or working on tasks that I need to complete?”. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then that means that you tend to procrastinate.

If you’re still unsure after asking yourself that question, try answering the following short questionnaire, which represents the Screening version of the General Procrastination Scale:

For each of the following statements, ask yourself “how characteristic is this behavior for me?”. Answer intuitively, and try to not overthink your response.

  1. I often find myself performing tasks that I had intended to do days before.
  2. I do not do assignments until just before they are to be handed in.
  3. Even with jobs that require little else except sitting down and doing them, I find they seldom get done for days.
  4. In preparing for some deadline, I often waste time by doing other things.
  5. I am continually saying “I’ll do it tomorrow”.

Essentially, the more characteristic these behaviors are of you, the more likely it is that you are indeed a procrastinator.


How to tell if your procrastination is hurting you

Some people procrastinate by continually delaying tasks that they need to perform, but are able to do this in a way that doesn’t cause them to experience any negative side effects, which is why they are referred to as well-adjusted procrastinators.

As such, there is an important difference between active procrastination and passive procrastination:

  • Active procrastination involves making a deliberate decision to procrastinate, in order to use the pressure of acting under a deadline as motivation to complete a task. This form of procrastination leads to positive outcomes, since it helps people be more efficient while they work.
  • Passive procrastination involves procrastinating due to an inability to act in a timely manner. This form of procrastination is associated with a variety of direct and indirect negative outcomes, such as reduced performance and increased stress, as we saw so far in the article.

People who engage in active procrastination are generally more similar to non-procrastinators than to procrastinators in terms of factors such as time management and overall performance on tasks. Because of this, and because of the positive nature of this procrastination, the classification of active procrastination as a form of procrastination has been challenged by some researchers, and in some cases, this form of behavior is referred to as purposeful delaystrategic delay, or wise delay.

Nevertheless, the important thing to understand is that even though delaying getting started on tasks is generally a sign of procrastination, when trying to determine whether your tendency to procrastinate is a problem for you, there are two important questions that you should ask yourself:

  • Is my procrastination hurting my performance? For example, is my procrastination causing me to miss deadlines, or to submit subpar work?
  • Is my procrastination causing me to experience negative side effects? For example, is my procrastination causing me to experience stress, or to get into fights with others?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, that indicates that your tendency to delay is classified as a dysfunctional form of procrastination, which is actively harming your life.

If the answer to both of these questions is “no”, this indicates that you’re able to delay getting started on tasks in a strategic manner, that allows you to function properly, which means that your procrastination isn’t necessarily a problem. However, it’s important to be truly honest with yourself if you think that this might be the case, and to make sure that you aren’t simply trying to justify your bad habits to yourself.


How to stop procrastinating

So far in this article, we saw what procrastination is, why it can be problematic, and how you can tell if it’s an issue for you. However, research on the topic also shows that it’s possible to learn how to manage your procrastination problem, and reduce your tendency to procrastinate.

As such, in the following sections, we will see the steps that you should follow in order to deal with your procrastination. These steps include setting clear goals for yourself, assessing the nature of your procrastination problem, and implementing a comprehensive plan of action, which relies on various cognitive and behavioral anti-procrastination techniques.


Set clear goals

The first step to overcoming your procrastination is to clearly set your goals. This is important, because doing this allows you to figure out what you are trying to accomplish, and because you are more likely to pursue goals that are clearly defined than those that are vague or abstract.

This means that you should write down what you want to accomplish, in as much detail as possible. For example “do better in my classes” is vague, and therefore likely to promote procrastination, while “hand in all assignments at least one day before the deadline and study for at least a week before each exam” is more clearly defined, and therefore more likely to be accomplished.


Assess your procrastination problem

Once you know what your goals are, you need to identify the nature of your procrastination problem. This means that you should look at the way you act, and once you figure out when and how you procrastinate, you need to analyze your behavior in order to determine why you do it.

For example, you might notice that during the weekend, even though you want to be productive, you end up sitting in front of your computer in your room and simply wasting hours on social media or gaming instead of getting things done, because you feel overwhelmed with all the tasks you have to do and you don’t know how to get started.

Note that one tool that can help you figure out why you procrastinate is the guide titled “Why People Procrastinate“, which outlines all the possible reasons why people procrastinate.

Going over it can be highly beneficial, because we often tend to simply attribute our procrastination to factors such as laziness, when in reality our underlying problems are completely different, and involve things such as perfectionism or anxiety. Taking this into account and identifying the exact nature of your procrastination is crucial, because this is what will allow you to find the appropriate solution for your problem.


Create a plan of action

The final step to dealing with your procrastination, once you’ve set your goals and identified how procrastination is preventing you from reaching them, is to figure out which techniques you can use in order to stop yourself from procrastinating.

There are many behavioral and cognitive techniques that you can use in order to accomplish this. You can, for example:

  • Break large goals into small, actionable tasks.
  • Set deadlines for completing tasks.
  • Tailor your schedule to your daily productivity cycles.
  • Establish a consistent work routine.
  • Gamify your behavior and create productivity streaks.
  • Remove distractions from your work environment.
  • Use nudges that make it easier for you to get started.
  • Get into work mode by starting with a tiny step.
  • Reward yourself for progress.
  • Visualize your future-self for motivation.
  • Strategically switch between tasks when necessary.
  • Limit the time available for decision-making.
  • Deal directly with irrational fears regarding your performance.

Beyond the various techniques that are listed here, there are many techniques that you can use in order to help yourself avoid procrastination. These are all listed, together with comprehensive explanations and examples, in the guide titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“.

Finally, note that when implementing this approach for dealing with procrastination, you can benefit from writing everything down, including your clearly-defined goals, your insights into the nature of your procrastination problem, and your preferred techniques for dealing with your procrastination.

This will take a bit more work than just keeping all the information in your head, but will pay off greatly in the long term, because it will improve your ability to keep things organized as you analyze your situation and create an effective plan of action that you can modify as you go along.


Summary and main takeaways

  • Procrastination is the act of delaying making decisions or taking actions that are necessary in order to achieve your goals.
  • Procrastination is a prevalent phenomenon, that can affect people in every area of life, and which is associated with a variety of issues, such as worse grades, lower salaries, increased stress, and a higher rate of physical and mental health problems.
  • People procrastinate for various different reasons, including lack of motivation, task aversion, fear of failure, distractibility, impulsivity, and a preference for tasks that are appealing in the short term.
  • The three factors that determine whether you have a procrastination problem are whether you tend to delay working on tasks that you need to complete, whether your performance suffers as a result of your delays, and whether you experience any negative side effect as a result of your delays.
  • In order to successfully overcome your procrastination, you must first set clear goals for yourself, and then determine the exact nature and causes of your procrastination problem, in terms of when, how, and why you procrastinate, before choosing the best strategies that you can use to deal with your specific strand of procrastination.


In conclusion

Procrastination is a detrimental and widespread phenomenon, that causes us to delay when it comes to working on tasks that we need to complete.

If your goal in reading about procrastination is to figure out how to successfully overcome your own procrastination problem, check out this guide, which will give you all the tools that you need in order to figure out how to stop procrastinating.