Why People Procrastinate: The Psychology and Causes of 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 reason, even though they know that it would be better for them to start earlier, that person is procrastinating.

Procrastination is a common problem, which chronically affects around 20% of adults and 50% of college students, and which can lead to issues such as worse performance, missed opportunities, and increased stress.

Many procrastinators are aware of their behavior and know that it’s bad for them, but keep doing it even though they want to stop. Accordingly, if you’re a procrastinator, you may have asked questions such as “why do I procrastinate so much?” or “why do I keep procrastinating even though I know that it’s bad for me?”. Likewise, if you’re trying to help someone else stop procrastinating, you may have wondered something similar.

Answering these questions is important, because in order to overcome procrastination, it helps to understand what causes it in the first place. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the psychology and causes of procrastination (i.e., its etiology), as determined based on decades of research, and see how this knowledge can help you stop procrastinating in practice.

 

Why people procrastinate

People procrastinate because their drive to delay is irrationally stronger than their drive to act. This generally happens because their self-control and motivation are weakened by issues such as exhaustion and delayed outcomes, and are opposed by a preference for feeling better in the short term, as well as by emotional issues such as anxiety and fear.

Specifically, the drive to act represents how strongly driven people are to take action at the moment. It depends primarily on people’s self-control and motivation, which are influenced by various factors. For example, at any given moment, a person’s self-control can be influenced by how tired they are, while their motivation can be influenced by how long they will have to wait before being rewarded for taking action. Accordingly, issues such as exhaustion and delayed outcomes can interfere with self-control and motivation, and consequently reduce people’s drive to act, as can many other issues, such as depression, ADHD, and low self-efficacy.

Conversely, the drive to delay represents how strongly people feel pushed to avoid taking action at the moment. It depends primarily on the desire to feel better in the short term, by avoiding negative emotions (e.g., anxiety and fear that are associated with a certain task), and by increasing positive emotions (e.g., enjoyment from digital entertainment), a behavior described as “giving in to feel good”. This drive can involve various underlying issues, such as perfectionism, which are often also rooted in the desire to feel better in the short term from an emotional perspective.

The issues that cause procrastination can lead to problematic cycles. For example, this can happen when someone is anxious about a task, so they procrastinate on it, which causes them to do badly, which makes them more anxious about similar tasks, which makes them likely to procrastinate again for the same reason in the future. Similarly, this can happen when a disconnect from one’s future self causes someone to repeatedly promise themselves that they’ll start working soon (e.g., in a few minutes or days), despite having broken many such promises in the past, which means that they keep suffering from repeated intention-action gaps.

Below, you will find a list explaining the common reasons why people procrastinate. This is based on the psychological mechanism that’s outlined in this section, which can be viewed as the root cause of procrastination.

 

Reasons for procrastinating

 The following are the key reasons for procrastination in practice:

  • Prioritization of short-term mood (i.e., preferring to feel better now even if this will lead to feeling worse later).
  • Task aversiveness (i.e., finding a task to be frustrating, boring, or unpleasant in another way).
  • Anxiety and fear (e.g., due to concerns of being criticized for your work).
  • Feeling overwhelmed (e.g., due to having so many things to do that it’s unclear where to start).
  • Perfectionism (e.g., due to refusing to publish work that has any flaws).
  • Disconnect from the future self (e.g., viewing the consequences of your delay as something that someone else will experience).
  • Delayed outcomes (e.g., due to discounting of rewards that will only be given in the far future).
  • Low motivation (e.g., due to low-value outcomes).
  • Expected effort (e.g., due to hard tasks).
  • Inertia (i.e., the tendency to keep procrastinating once you’ve started).
  • Abstract goals (i.e., ones that aren’t clear and well-defined).
  • Cognitive biases (e.g., a bias that makes you unreasonably pessimistic about your odds of success).
  • Time-management issues (e.g., failure to prioritize tasks).
  • Problematic traits (e.g., impulsivity).
  • Underlying behaviors (e.g., rebellion against an authority figure).
  • Underlying conditions (e.g., depression).
  • Low energy (e.g., due to lack of sleep).
  • Low capacity for self-control (e.g., due to exhaustion).
  • Problematic environment (e.g., one that’s filled with distractions).

In the sub-sections below, you will find more information about all these reasons.

Note that people can procrastinate for different reasons. For example, one person might procrastinate only due to underlying anxiety, while someone else might procrastinate due to a combination of perfectionism, abstract goals, and delayed outcomes. Furthermore, even the same person can procrastinate for different reasons at different times and under different circumstances, and all these differences are sometimes reflected in the type of procrastination that people engage in.

In addition, many of the causes of procrastination are interrelated. For example, depression can cause lack of energy, which can exacerbate anxiety, which can increase task aversiveness, which can cause procrastination due to prioritization of short-term mood. Similarly, the effect of anxiety on procrastination can be influenced by various factors, such as people’s self-efficacy and mindfulness.

Finally, the relationship between these issues and procrastination is complex for other reasons. For example, while some types of perfectionism and fear generally increase procrastination, others generally decrease it (by increasing the motivation to act). Accordingly, the exact way in which these issues influence people’s behavior can vary across situations.

 

Prioritization of short-term mood

People sometimes procrastinate because they prioritize their short-term mood over their long-term achievement and wellbeing. For example, a student might delay doing an important assignment that they find stressful, because this helps them feel better in the short term.

This primarily happens when people postpone doing something that they expect will cause them negative emotions. However, this can also happen when people postpone something to create, increase, or prolong positive emotions, usually by engaging with appealing alternatives (e.g., digital entertainment),

This phenomenon is a form of mood repair. It’s closely associated with the concepts of hedonistic delay (postponing things due to prioritization of enjoyable activities or lack of caring), instant gratification (preferring things that are immediately satisfying even if this is disadvantageous in the long term), and the pleasure principle (tending to seek out pleasurable activities and avoid unpleasant ones).

 

Task aversiveness

People sometimes procrastinate because they perceive their tasks as unpleasant. For example, someone might delay making an unpleasant phone call, to delay the negative emotions that this phone call will involve.

Task aversiveness depends on people’s subjective perception. For example, introverts might find a certain social task unpleasant, while extroverts might find it enjoyable.

A task can be seen as aversive (i.e., unpleasant) due to many issues, such as being frustrating, boring, monotonous, or involving uncertainty (e.g., because its instructions are incomplete or unclear).

 

Anxiety and fear

People sometimes procrastinate because they are anxious about or afraid of something. For example, someone might delay checking their bills because they feel anxious about seeing how much they need to pay. Similarly, an author might delay getting feedback on their book, because they’re afraid of being criticized.

People can be anxious about or afraid of many things, such as failure or being negatively evaluated by others. These concerns are often—though not always—irrational, for example because they’re unjustified or exaggerated.

 

Feeling overwhelmed

People sometimes procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed. For example, someone might delay cleaning their house because there are so many things to do that they don’t know where to start.

People can feel overwhelmed for many reasons, such as that a task seems too hard or too complicated. In the context of indecision and analysis paralysis (or choice paralysis), a common issue is that people experience choice overload (or overchoice), because they have too many options to choose from.

 

Perfectionism

People sometimes procrastinate because of their perfectionism. For example, a researcher might not accept the possibility of having any flaws in their paper (even if those flaws are inconsequential), and consequently keep going over the paper’s draft, even after it’s good enough to submit.

This is sometimes associated with a desire or intent to pursue a better option later, for example when someone delays starting to exercise at home, because they plan to eventually join a gym, even though it would still be better for them to start exercising now.

 

Disconnect from the future self

People sometimes procrastinate because they feel disconnected from their future self. For example, someone might delay improving their diet, because they view the consequences of a bad diet as a problem that someone else (i.e., their future self) will need to deal with.

This phenomenon is known as temporal self-discontinuity or temporal disjunction, and can exacerbate other issues, such as the prioritization of short-term mood.

 

Delayed outcomes

People sometimes procrastinate because they discount the value of future outcomes. For example, someone might delay working on a project whose rewards they will only receive in a month, because those rewards are so far away that they don’t feel motivating.

Delay reduces people’s perceived value of outcomes, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting (also as future discounting and delay discounting), which reduces people’s motivation to act. This applies both to positive outcomes (e.g., rewards) and negative outcomes (e.g., punishments).

Greater delay can lead to greater discounting, but this association tends to plateau, since the further in the future an outcome is, the less an additional delay matters (a phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting, which is contrasted primarily with the time-consistent exponential discounting). For example, this means that the difference between a 1-day and a 1-week delay generally leads to greater outcome discounting than the difference between a 1-week and a 2-week delay.

In addition, delay can involve other issues, such as making outcomes feel more abstract. It’s also associated with related phenomena, such as the present bias, which causes people to prefer outcomes that are closer to the present more than outcomes that are far in time.

 

Low motivation

People sometimes procrastinate because their motivation to act is low. For example, a student might delay studying for a test if they don’t care about getting good grades.

Various issues can reduce people’s motivation, including:

  • Low-value outcomes.
  • Delayed outcomes.
  • High sensitivity to delay of outcomes.
  • Low expectancy of achieving positive outcomes (e.g., due to low self-efficacy as a result of impostor syndrome, or due to low belief in one’s agency and ability to control outcomes).
  • Perceived inability to influence outcomes (e.g., due to feeling helpless, and that only luck matters).
  • Underlying conditions (e.g., depression).
  • Difficulty in associating tasks with their outcomes.
  • Motivators that are extrinsic and controlled, rather than intrinsic and autonomous (e.g., being pushed to get good grades by parents rather than an internal desire); this can include cases where a goal is falsely internalized as being self-generated even though it isn’t.
  • Outcomes and actions that are incompatible with a person’s self-identity (e.g., because they don’t match what a person thinks is typical of them).
  • Low achievement motivation (i.e., a weaker innate drive to pursue one’s goals).

 

Expected effort

People sometimes procrastinate because taking action requires effort that they’re reluctant to exert. For example, someone might postpone a task because they expect it to take a lot of hard work, which they don’t want to do now. They might also engage in effort discounting, by devaluing outcomes that require effort to achieve.

The more effort people think is required, and the more reluctant they are to exert effort, the more likely they are to procrastinate. Effort can take various forms, like physical or mental exertion.

 

Inertia

Inertia is people’s tendency to keep doing what they’re already doing, which can lead them to keep procrastinating once they’ve started. For example, if someone goes out to socialize when they should be studying, inertia can make them likely to keep procrastinating, since to study they’ll now also have to return home, which requires extra effort.

In addition to practical considerations, inertia as a cause of procrastination can involve various psychological mechanisms. For example, it can involve reduced motivation to act, if the task being out of sight makes its outcome feel less important. It can also involve inaction inertia, whereby skipping an initial opportunity to take action decreases the likelihood of taking action under similar future opportunities. This can happen, for example, when people avoid engaging with a task, to avoid feeling unpleasant regret by being reminded of prior failures to act.

 

Abstract goals

Goals that are unclear can make people more likely to procrastinate than goals that are concrete and well-defined. For example, goals such as “get fit” or “start exercising” are vague, and are therefore more likely to lead to procrastination than a concrete goal such as “be able to run on the treadmill’s medium setting for 30 minutes straight”.

Concrete goals are especially effective when they’re associated with a plan of action (i.e., an implementation intention), such as “go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday right after work, and spend at least 20 minutes running on the treadmill each time”.

 

Cognitive biases

Various cognitive biases can lead to procrastination. For example, the pessimism bias can lead to procrastination if someone incorrectly assumes that their project is likely to fail, which discourages them from getting started.

The following are examples of other biases, heuristics, and related phenomena that can cause procrastination:

  • The optimism bias can lead to procrastination if someone incorrectly assumes that they won’t run into any issues while working, which makes them wrongly comfortable to delay starting until right before the deadline. This ties in to the planning fallacy, which occurs when people underestimate how long it will take to complete a future task, despite knowing that similar past tasks took longer to complete than expected.
  • The bandwagon effect can make someone more likely to procrastinate if they see their peers doing it.
  • Moral self-licensing can make someone more likely to procrastinate if they just acted in a way that they perceive as positive, for example when they feel comfortable delaying going to the gym because they followed their diet properly earlier today.
  • The projection bias (and the associated empathy gap) can encourage procrastination cycles, for example if someone feels motivated right before they fall asleep, and are sure they’ll also feel as motivated tomorrow, which causes them to fail to adequately prepare for their upcoming procrastination.

Other cognitive phenomena can also cause procrastination, for example by influencing people’s perception of reward and effort.

 

Time-management issues

Some time-management issues can lead to procrastination. For example, someone might procrastinate on an important task if they fail to prioritize their tasks properly, and consequently fail to realize how important it is to finish that task on time.

These issues are often driven by underlying issues with emotion regulation. For example, if someone is afraid of a task because they doubt their ability to complete it, then they might convince themselves that the task is easier than it really is, to protect their feelings in the short term.

 

Problematic traits

Some personality traits can increase the likelihood of procrastination. For example, two such key traits are impulsivity (the tendency to act on sudden whims without thinking ahead), and distractibility (difficulty in maintaining attention and the tendency to be easily diverted from matters).

In addition, various other problematic traits can make it more likely that people will procrastinate, including proneness to boredom, sensitivity to outcome delay, impatience, laziness, low perseverance, insecurity, low confidence, and low self-compassion. Other traits, such as extraversion and neuroticism, may also matter, primarily by influencing how people procrastinate.

 

Underlying behaviors

Some underlying behaviors and desires can drive people to procrastinate. For example, a student might procrastinate on studying as a way to engage in self-handicapping, by placing barriers in their own way so that if they do badly they can attribute it to procrastination rather than their abilities.

Other underlying behaviors may be involved in procrastination, such as:

  • Self-sabotage, when people procrastinate to hinder their own success and wellbeing, for example because they don’t think they deserve it.
  • Sensation seeking, when people procrastinate because they want to add challenge and excitement to tasks, especially by working on them under intense time pressure before an upcoming deadline.
  • Seeking distraction, when people procrastinate to give themselves a manageable problem that they can focus on instead of more threatening issues in their lives.
  • Seeking control, when people procrastinate to feel in control of their life and schedule.
  • Rebellion, when people procrastinate as a way to rebel or get revenge, for example against an authority figure they resent.

In addition, other behaviors may also make people more likely to procrastinate, such as multi-tasking.

 

Underlying conditions

Some underlying conditions can make people more likely to procrastinate. For example, ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) can make it harder for someone to concentrate on work, and consequently more likely to be distracted away from it. Similarly, depression can also cause someone to procrastinate, by making them feel tired, making it harder for them to concentrate, and reducing their interest in activities.

 

Low energy

Low levels of mental and physical energy can lead to procrastination. For example, someone might delay washing the dishes when they get home, because they’re tired from having worked hard all day.

Low energy levels can be caused by various issues, such as lack of sleep, burnout (a form of emotional exhaustion), and depression,

 

Low capacity for self-control

Self-control (also known as self-discipline and willpower) reflects people’s ability to guide their behavior in order to pursue their goals, especially in the face of things such as temptations. Accordingly, being able to exert self-control is crucial to successfully self-regulating one’s behavior and avoiding procrastination, and procrastination is sometimes said to be due to akrasia, which is a state of mind where someone acts against their better judgment, due to a lack of sufficient self-control.

Various issues can lead to low self-control, such as genetic predisposition and exhaustion. Decision fatigue due to previous decision-making and depletion due to previous exertion of self-control may also play a role, but this is controversial.

 

Problematic environment

Various aspects of the environment and situations that people operate can make people more likely to procrastinate. For example, a student may be more likely to procrastinate if there are many available distractions and temptations in their environment (e.g., access to social media platforms, such as Reddit), or if they’re in a noisy environment that makes it hard to concentrate.

Many aspects of one’s environment and situation can make procrastination more likely, such as clutter, problematic timing of shifts at work, unclear directions, unstructured work, and poor organizational fit. Many relevant aspects are social, such as whether work takes place as part of a team, whether teammates depend on each other’s work, what sort of peer influence a person experiences, and whether a person receives emotional support from others.

 

Overcoming procrastination

Understanding why you procrastinate can help you overcome procrastination, by helping you identify the most appropriate anti-procrastination techniques to use in your particular situation.

Specifically, to stop procrastinating, you should do the following:

  1. Set specific and realistic goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, a good goal might be “manage to run for 1 mile straight by the end of the month”, while bad goals might be “do some running” (unspecific) and “run a marathon by the end of the month” (unrealistic).
  2. Assess your procrastination. First, identify situations where you delay unnecessarily, to figure out what exactly you procrastinate on (e.g., studying) and how you do it (e.g., by browsing social media). Then, think about those situations to also figure out where and when you procrastinate (e.g., at home or the library, on starting or finishing tasks, in the morning or evening). Finally, figure out why you procrastinate (e.g., due to perfectionism, fear, or abstract goals), based on the information you saw in this guide.
  3. Create an action plan based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques, while accounting for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
  4. Implement your plan, and then monitor your progress and refine your approach, primarily by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.

The following are key anti-procrastination techniques you can use as part of your plan:

  • Break tasks into manageable steps (e.g., sub-tasks you can easily complete).
  • Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., working for just 2 minutes).
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work will be imperfect).
  • Make it easier to do things (e.g., by preparing everything you need in advance).
  • Make tasks more enjoyable (e.g., by listening to music).
  • Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by eliminating potential distractions).
  • Delay before indulging the impulse to procrastinate (e.g., by counting to 10 first).
  • Set deadlines (e.g., by deciding that you’ll complete a certain task by tomorrow evening).
  • Plan how you will deal with obstacles (e.g., by deciding that if X happens, then you’ll do Y).
  • Identify and address your fears (e.g., by considering what advice you would give to a friend).
  • Increase your motivation (e.g., by marking streaks of days on which you achieve your goals).
  • Increase your energy (e.g., by taking necessary breaks).
  • Improve your environment (e.g., by adding reminders of your goals).
  • Use social techniques (e.g., emulating a role model).
  • Use time-management techniques (e.g., alternating consistently between work and rest).
  • Create starting rituals (e.g., counting down from five to zero).
  • Start with your best or worst task (e.g., your easiest or hardest one).
  • Develop self-efficacy (e.g., by reflecting on your successes).
  • Develop self-compassion (e.g., by reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes).
  • Treat underlying conditions (e.g., ADHD).

For more information about these techniques and how to use them effectively, see the guide on how to stop procrastinating.

You can use any combination of techniques that you want, but should start by focusing on a few that seem most relevant to your situation.

Note that you will likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, such as helping you think more clearly and making your decisions feel more concrete.

In addition, remember that imperfect action is generally better than no action, so you’ll benefit more from trying to do just some of the above, than from getting stuck doing nothing at all. Furthermore, the longer you delay, the more likely you are to do nothing, so you should start right now, while understanding that you’ll probably get some things wrong at first, but that you’ll be able to improve your approach over time.

Finally, if you feel overwhelmed, start by just identifying the smallest possible step you can take to make progress toward your goals, and then try to start with just that tiny step, while giving yourself permission to make mistakes during the attempt. In addition, you can also make it easier to get started, for example by preparing everything that you need for your work without yet trying to start the work itself, and also make it harder to procrastinate, for example by eliminating potential distractions from your environment.