Procrastinator: A Guide to Understanding the People Who Procrastinate

Almost every person procrastinates to some degree.

Around 90% of college students, for example, say that they engage in procrastination in general, and around 50% of them say that they procrastinate in a chronic manner. This number is lower among the general population but is still significant, since roughly 20% of adults view themselves as being chronic procrastinators, and procrastination is prevalent even among high-status groups such as college professors and lawyers.

If you want to figure out how to stop procrastinating, you need to start by learning about procrastination as a general concept, since in order to figure out how to overcome your procrastination problem, you must first understand the nature of your procrastination.

As such, in the following article, you will learn what it means to be a procrastinator, what types of procrastinators exist, and how to tell if you yourself are a procrastinator, before seeing what you can do in order to get yourself to stop procrastinating.

 

What is a procrastinator

A procrastinator is a person who delays making decisions or working on tasks that they need to complete. For example, a procrastinator might constantly postpone choosing a topic for an essay that they need to write, or they might delay getting started on an assignment that they have to complete until right before the deadline.

Procrastinators can procrastinate in every area of their life, and some people procrastinate in certain domains but not in others. For example, one person might be a procrastinator when it comes to school, while someone else might be a procrastinator when it comes to their health.

Furthermore, procrastinators can use various methods in order to procrastinate. For example, one procrastinator might distract themselves from their main task by browsing social media, while another procrastinator might try to avoid dealing with important tasks that they have to complete by constantly dealing with trivial matters.

 

The problem with being a procrastinator

As most procrastinators know, procrastination can be detrimental.

First, procrastinators often suffer from worse performance in various domains compared to non-procrastinators with the same abilities, because postponing work causes procrastinators to submit subpar work and miss important deadlines. This means, for example, that procrastinators tend to have worse grades and lower salaries than non-procrastinators, due to their inability to properly regulate their behavior.

Furthermore, procrastinators also tend to experience various negative side effects as a result of their procrastination, including increased stress and an increased lack of sleep, which in turn can cause them to experience a large range physical and mental issues.

This is especially problematic, since these side effects often increase people’s tendency to procrastinate. This means that there are situations where people feel bad as a result of their procrastination, which causes them to procrastinate more, which causes them to feel worse, and this all leads to a continuous downward spiral, which doesn’t end unless they manage to successfully break out of the procrastination cycle.

Finally, procrastinators are also less likely to seek help for their problems than other people, or to delay in doing so, which can further exacerbate the downward spiral that occurs as a result of having a procrastination problem.

Overall, procrastination can negatively affect people in a variety of ways. Though for some people procrastination might be only a minor issue which causes them to be slightly less productive, for others procrastination can be a serious problem that is ruining their life and preventing them from accomplishing their goals.

 

The personality traits of procrastinators

Research shows that there are certain personality traits that are characteristic of procrastinators:

  • Low conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is the tendency to be organized, disciplined, and self-driven. The less conscientious someone is, the more likely they are to procrastinate, and this trait is the strongest predictor of the likelihood that someone will be a procrastinator.
  • Impulsivity. Impulsivity is the tendency to act on a whim, without planning ahead and without considering the future consequences of your actions. Impulsivity is strongly associated with procrastination, since the decision to procrastinate is often impulsive, and since procrastinators often give in to the impulse to focus on pleasurable tasks first.
  • Low self-efficacy. Procrastinators often doubt their ability to complete necessary tasks, which means that they have a low degree of self-efficacy. This can cause them to procrastinate further in some cases, such as in situations where they delay working on a certain task because they believe that it is too difficult for them to handle.
  • Low self-esteem. Procrastinators often believe that their inability to perform tasks in a timely manner means that they are inadequate as a person. This can cause them to procrastinate further in some cases, such as in situations where they end up feeling completely unmotivated to work due to their previous failures to take action in time.
  • Neuroticism. Neuroticism is the tendency to be prone to negative emotions and psychological stress. Though neuroticism is generally not associated with the tendency to procrastinate, there are cases where specific aspects of neuroticism could cause someone to procrastinate, and neurotic people can sometimes experience increased levels of stress and anxiety as a result of their procrastination.
  • Sensation seeking. In some cases, procrastinators’ actions are driven by their desire to add excitement to otherwise boring tasks. This usually occurs in cases where people procrastinate because they like the challenge and excitement of getting things done right before the deadline.
  • Low agreeableness. In some cases, procrastinators’ actions are driven by their tendency to be oppositional to others. This usually occurs in cases where people procrastinate as an act of rebellion against an authority figure, because they resent being given tasks or deadlines by that person.

Note that other personality traits, such as extraversion (the trait of being outgoing and social), are generally either unassociated with procrastination, or are very weakly associated with it. The same is true for intelligence, which is generally unassociated with the tendency to procrastinate.

However, it’s important to note that though these associations aren’t generally significant when examining people on a large scale, there might be individual cases where a person’s procrastination could be affected by these factors.

 

The brains of procrastinators

The brains of procrastinators are different in some ways from the brains of non-procrastinators.

This difference is evident, for example, in the fact that procrastinators generally have lower levels of neural activity in areas of their brain which are associated with self-control and emotion regulation, which causes them to prioritize short-term mood regulation over long-term achievement. Accordingly, procrastinators tend to indulge their impulses by engaging in behaviors that are pleasant in the short-term, even when they know that these behaviors will make them feel worse in the long-term compared to other, more meaningful behaviors, that involve working on important tasks that they need to complete.

Furthermore, there are additional neural mechanisms which could explain why some people are more likely to procrastinate.

For example, procrastinators tend to have brain structures which make them less future-oriented, which means that they are more focused on the present than on the future compared to non-procrastinators. Accordingly, procrastinators are less willing to engage in tasks that are unappealing in the short-term, in situations where the main incentive for doing so is a reward that they will only get later on in the future.

In addition, there are also neurobiological differences between the brains of procrastinators and those of non-procrastinators.

For example, researchers have identified a gene which is associated with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in people’s ability to regulate their behavior.

Non-procrastinators have a version of this gene that causes them to have relatively high baseline levels of dopamine, which allows them to consistently self-regulate their behavior, and start working on tasks early on.

Conversely, procrastinators have a version of this gene which causes them to have relatively low baseline levels of dopamine, but which prompts the release of extra dopamine under stress. This causes procrastinators to postpone tasks until right before they are due, at which point procrastinators become stressed enough that their brain release the extra dopamine which they need in order to bring themselves to get started.

This issue can be especially problematic in situations where a procrastinator has no concrete deadline, since the lack of a deadline in this case generally means that the procrastinator never gets the necessary dopamine boost which they need in order to get themselves to start working. This can happen, for example, when people have personal goals such as exercising, eating better, starting a new business, or taking up a new hobby.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the way in which these neurobiological mechanisms influence procrastination is highly complex. For example, when it comes to dopamine, research suggests that the way in which dopamine affects impulsivity, which often plays a key role in people’s procrastination, depends on a variety of factors.

 

Types of procrastinators

In this section, you will learn about the various criteria which can be used in order to differentiate between the different types of procrastinators, and see what common types of procrastinators exist.

 

Passive vs. active procrastinators

One way to differentiate between different types of procrastinators is to use the distinction between passive procrastinators and active procrastinators:

  • Passive procrastinators are procrastinators who procrastinate due to an inability to make decisions or act in a timely manner, which causes them to suffer from negative outcomes in their work. An example of a passive procrastinator is a student who delays getting started on their essay until the night before the due date and who ends up submitting a low-quality paper a few hours after the deadline has passed, simply because they can’t bring themself to get started earlier.
  • Active procrastinators are procrastinators who make a deliberate and calculated decision to postpone tasks that they know they can complete later, which allows them to achieve positive outcomes in their work. An example of an active procrastinator is a student who delays getting started on their essay until a few days before the due date and who ends up submitting a high-quality paper on time and who ends up submitting a high-quality paper on time, because they know exactly how long they need in order to write the paper.

Accordingly, active procrastination is viewed as a positive and adaptive form of procrastination, which is associated with effective time-management and with the ability to work at a state of optimum efficiency. For example, one notable benefit of active procrastination is that it can help people achieve peak experience, which is a mental state that occurs when someone is completely focused on their work.

As such, even though active procrastinators tend to procrastinate to the same degree as passive procrastinators, they are more similar to non-procrastinators in terms of factors such as productivity, self-efficacy, ability to cope with stress, and overall performance on tasks.

However, it’s important to remember that the line between positive and negative procrastination can be thin, and procrastinators sometimes convince themselves that what they are engaging in is a positive form of procrastination, when in reality their procrastination is hurting their performance and causing them to experience negative side effects. Furthermore, positive procrastinators are relatively rare, and account for only a small portion of procrastinators.

In addition, that some researchers argue that active procrastination should not be viewed as a form of procrastination, since it lacks many characteristics that they view as being fundamental to procrastination, beyond the simple delay of necessary actions. Such characteristics include, among others, being needless, being irrational, involving an intention-action gap between people’s intended actions and their actions in reality, and leading to negative outcomes in terms of performance or emotional discomfort, all of which are things that are not characteristic of active procrastination.

However, whether or not active procrastination constitutes a form of procrastination isn’t crucial from a practical perspective. Rather, the most important thing to understand is that postponing tasks isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the decision to do so is rational, and doesn’t cause you to experience issues in terms of performance or in terms of secondary factors such as stress.

 

Pessimistic vs. optimistic procrastinators

Similarly to the concept of passive procrastinators and active procrastinators, the concept of pessimistic procrastinators and optimistic procrastinators can also be used to distinguish between different types of procrastinators:

  • Pessimistic procrastinators are procrastinators who tend to worry about their tendency to postpone tasks that they need to complete, and who are concerned that they won’t be able to complete those tasks on time.
  • Optimistic procrastinators are procrastinators who do not worry about their tendency to postpone tasks, and who are confident in their ability to complete those tasks on time.

Though there is some similarity between this construct and that of passive/active procrastination, the two are considered to be distinct from one another. For example, a procrastinator might be unrealistically optimistic about their ability to complete, in a timely manner, tasks that they procrastinate on, despite the fact that their procrastination causes them to experience negative outcomes.

 

Mild, average, and severe procrastinators

Some researchers categorize procrastinators based on the degree to which their procrastination affects them. Based on this criterion, there are three main groups of procrastinators:

  • Mild procrastinators. A mild procrastinator is someone who experiences only minor issues as a result of their procrastination. For example, someone who only delays getting started on assignments from time to time but who starts working on them before the deadline can be said to be a mild procrastinator.
  • Average procrastinators. An average procrastinator is someone who is moderately affected by their procrastination. For example, someone who consistently delays gettings started on assignments until right before they are due can be said to be an average procrastinator.
  • Severe procrastinators. A severe procrastinator is someone whose procrastination problem is so extensive that it causes them to suffer from an extensive range of issues. For example, someone who always delays getting started on tasks to the point where they frequently miss important deadlines can be said to be a severe procrastinator.

Of these groups, average procrastinators are the most common, followed by mild procrastinators and then by severe procrastinators. However, the difference in prevalence between these types of procrastinators isn’t large, and can be influenced by various background factors, such as age and gender.

In addition, note that when determining the severity of a person’s procrastination problem, it’s important to look not only at how much and how often they procrastinate, but also at how their procrastination affects them from a mental perspective.

For example, someone who manages to hand in their assignments on time despite their procrastination might be categorized as an average procrastinator, unless their procrastination causes them to suffer from a lot of stress and anxiety, which might mean that they should actually be classified as a severe procrastinator.

 

Reason for procrastination

Different people procrastinate for different reasons, and there are some common reasons for procrastination that can be used to categorize procrastinators.

For example, many procrastinators procrastinate as a result of an underlying depression. These procrastinators are generally less susceptible to distractions and temptations than others, which signals that their procrastination is driven by a lack of interest in activities, as well as by other symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, indecisiveness, and difficulty in concentrating.

In addition to depression, there are many other common reasons for procrastinators’ behavior, which can be used in order to differentiate between different types of procrastinators. These reasons include, among others:

  • Being easily distracted by unimportant activities.
  • Preferring to engage only in tasks that are enjoyable in the short-term.
  • Seeking the excitement of doing things right before the deadline.
  • Being interested in future options that are viewed as more appealing than present ones.
  • Believing, often without justification, that you will be better able to complete the necessary tasks in the future.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, which often leads to difficulty in deciding how to act in the first place.
  • Having exaggerated or irrational fears over making mistakes or receiving negative feedback from others.
  • Self-handicapping in order to justify possible future failures.
  • Having a tendency to self-sabotage and hinder your own progress.

Though these represent some of the most common reasons for procrastinators’ behavior, there are various other reasons why people procrastinate. If you want to read more about the topic, take a look at the relevant guide, titled “Why People Procrastinate“.

 

Manner of procrastination

People procrastinate in various different ways. Some common forms of procrastination include:

  • Wasting time by engaging in appealing but ultimately unsatisfying activities.
  • Spending an excessive amount of time and effort on unimportant aspects of a task or project.
  • Avoiding anything relating to tasks that you need to complete.
  • Ruminating about your inability to take action and being angry at yourself in an unproductive way.
  • Wasting time being upset at the reason why you have to complete the task at hand.
  • Fantasizing about what you will be able to accomplish in the future, once you stop procrastinating.

Furthermore, procrastinators differ in terms of which stage of a task they struggle with the most. This means, for example, that some people procrastinate more when it comes to getting started on their tasks, while others procrastinate more when it comes to completing tasks that they’ve already started.

 

Common types of procrastinators

Based on the criteria that we saw so far, it’s possible to describe some common types of procrastinators:

  • The anxious procrastinator. This type of procrastinator is so anxious about making a mistake or receiving negative feedback, that they tend to avoid tasks that they need to complete. For example, an anxious procrastinator might repeatedly postpone bringing up an important issue at work, because they worry too much about people’s reaction to them mentioning it.
  • The perfectionist procrastinator. This type of procrastinator is so worried about their work being imperfect that they tend to delay making their work public once it’s ready. For example, a perfectionist procrastinator might keep revising a paper over and over again, even when it’s ready to be sent out for review, because they worry that it might still have some flaws.
  • The overwhelmed procrastinator. This type of procrastinator feels so overwhelmed by the magnitude or number of tasks that they need to complete, that they end up procrastinating because they’re not sure where to start. For example, an overwhelmed procrastinator might want to make a lot of positive changes in their life, but end up not doing anything because they don’t know which one to start with.
  • The depressed procrastinator. This type of procrastinator suffers from depression which makes them tired and unmotivated to take action. For example, a depressed procrastinator might be unable to bring themself to get out of bed or to do anything for days at a time, because they feel that there just isn’t any point to any of it.
  • The thrill-seeking procrastinator. This type of procrastinator delays getting started on tasks intentionally, because they enjoy the thrill of working on tasks right before they are due. For example, a thrill-seeking procrastinator might delay writing a research paper until the end of the semester, at which point they’ll focus all their mental resources on getting it done on time.
  • The last-minute procrastinator. This type of procrastinator simply can’t bring themselves to get started on tasks until right before the deadline, no matter how hard they try, and will usually waste time doing unrelated activities, even if they don’t really enjoy them. For example, a last-minute procrastinator might repeatedly put off studying for an important exam until the night before they take it, at which point they’ll enter panic mode and finally manage to bring themself to start studying.
  • The impulsive procrastinator. This type of procrastinator keeps putting off tasks that they need to complete because they keep giving in to the impulse to do other, less important things. For example, an impulsive procrastinator might decide to simply get up while working on an important paper that is due tomorrow, and go hang out with their friends instead.
  • The hedonistic procrastinator. This type of procrastinator delays working on tasks that they need to complete because they constantly choose to engage in tasks that are more appealing in the short term, despite those tasks having no value in the long term. For example, a hedonistic procrastinator might continuously put off starting to work on a project that they’re interested in, because it’s more appealing, in the short term, to waste time browsing social media.
  • The lazy procrastinator. This type of procrastinator just doesn’t care much about long-term achievement, or at least doesn’t care enough to justify working towards it. For example, a lazy procrastinator might continuously put off starting to exercise, because it’s easier to just sit on the couch and watch TV instead.
  • The full-of-excuses procrastinator. This type of procrastinator always finds excuses for why they should wait before working on their tasks. For example, a full-of-excuses procrastinator might manage to spend a whole semester without studying properly or doing their assignments, while constantly justifying their behavior with empty excuses about other things that they have to do.
  • The daydreaming procrastinator. This type of procrastinator likes to fantasize about everything that they’ll manage to accomplish later, once they stop procrastinating. For example, a daydreaming procrastinator might frequently end up lying in bed before they go to sleep, and think about how much they will get done tomorrow, even though they will likely just procrastinate again.
  • The rebellious procrastinator. This type of procrastinator procrastinates as a way to rebel against the authority figure who is giving them tasks or who is setting deadlines for them. For example, a rebellious procrastinator might put off completing tasks that they were given by their boss, because they resent the way their boss treats them.

Note that this list does not represent a formal classification system of the different types of procrastinators. Rather, it is an informal list, which is based on the different reasons for procrastination and on the different ways in which people procrastinate, and it’s meant to serve as a convenient tool that you can use in order to understand your own procrastination.

In addition, keep in mind that a person might display the characteristics of more than one type of procrastinator. For example, a person might be both an anxious and overwhelmed procrastinator, or they might be both a hedonistic procrastinator and impulsive procrastinator.

 

How to tell whether you’re a procrastinator

Most procrastinators are well aware that they have a procrastination problem. Essentially, if you tend to postpone things that you need to do, whether they’re decisions that you need to make or actions that you need to take, then it’s likely that you’re a procrastinator.

However, if you’re not sure whether or not you are a procrastinator, the following questionnaire can help you figure it out:

Background: this questionnaire is adapted from the material in the Tuckman Procrastination Scale and the Screening version of the General Procrastination Scale (GPS-S).

Instructions: for each of the following statements, ask yourself “how characteristic is this behavior for me?” The more characteristic these behaviors are for you, the more likely it is that you are a procrastinator, and the more serious your procrastination problem is.

Statements:

  1. I often find myself performing tasks that I had intended to do days before.
  2. I get stuck in neutral even though I know how important it is to get started.
  3. Even with jobs that require little else except sitting down and doing them, I find they seldom get done for days.
  4. I promise myself I’ll do something and then drag my feet instead of doing it.
  5. In preparing for some deadline, I often waste time by doing unnecessary things.
  6. I am continually saying “I’ll do it tomorrow”.
  7. I needlessly delay finishing jobs, even when they’re important.
  8. I postpone working on things I don’t like to do.
  9. When I have a deadline, I wait till the last minute before I get started.
  10. I delay before making tough decisions.
  11. I constantly put off improving my work habits.
  12. I always manage to find excuses for not doing things.
  13. When a task looks hard, I tend to delay before I get started on it.
  14. Even though I hate myself if I don’t get started, I find it hard to do so.

If you’re sure that you are indeed a procrastinator, there are two more factors that you should consider:

  • How your procrastination is affecting your performance. ‘Performance’ can be measured using various relevant criteria, such as the grades that you’re getting in your classes, or your ability to complete your assigned tasks on time. The more procrastination is affecting your performance, the worse your procrastination problem is.
  • How your procrastination is affecting aspects other than your performance. There are various factors beyond performance, such as any stress or anxiety that you experience as a result of your procrastination, which are important to take into account when assessing the impact that procrastination has on you. The more procrastination is affecting these aspects of your life, the worse your procrastination problem is.

Overall, when it comes to determining whether or not you’re a procrastinator, the main question you should ask yourself is “do I often delay doing things when I shouldn’t?”. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then that means that you’re a procrastinator. Furthermore, the more often you delay getting started on things, the longer you delay for, and the more you suffer as a result of your procrastination, the worse your procrastination problem is.

 

How to stop being a procrastinator

In this article, we learned a lot about what it means to be a procrastinator.

If you’re reading about this topic, odds are that you yourself are a procrastinator, and that you’re interested in learning how to overcome your procrastination problem.

However, since the current article is already quite long, and since learning how to stop being a procrastinator justifies an in-depth discussion by itself, you can read more about it in a separate guide, titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“.

 

Summary and main takeaways

  • A procrastinator is a person who delays making decisions or working on tasks that they need to complete.
  • Certain personality traits are common among procrastinators, including impulsivity, low-self-efficacy, low self-esteem, and low conscientiousness.
  • There are distinct neuroanatomical and neurobiological differences between the brains of procrastinators and the brains of non-procrastinators, which make procrastinators worse at things such as self-control, emotion-regulation, and planning for the future.
  • There are many different types of procrastinators, and a person’s procrastination can be categorized based on factors such as the reason why they procrastinate and the manner in which they do so.
  • When it comes to determining whether you’re a procrastinator, you should consider whether you tend to delay things unnecessarily, and if so, how often you do that, how long you do it for, how much your performance suffers as a result, and whether you experience any other negative effects, such as stress and anxiety, as a result of your procrastination.

 

In conclusion

There are many different types of procrastinators, but what almost all of them have in common is the fact that they suffer as a result of their tendency to delay getting started on tasks that will help them achieve their goals in life.

If you are reading about what it means to be a procrastinator because you are one yourself and because you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, check out the follow-up guide, titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“, which will give you all the tools that you need in order to stop procrastinating and start getting things done.