Why People Procrastinate: The Psychology and Causes of Procrastination

If you’re a procrastinator, then you’ve probably asked yourself at some point “why do I procrastinate?” or “why do I keep procrastinating even though I know that it’s bad for me?”. These are important questions, since understanding why you procrastinate is crucial if you want to figure out how to stop doing it.

The following article will give you the answers to those questions.

First, you will see some useful background information on procrastination. Then, you will see a long and comprehensive list of the reasons why people procrastinate, which is based on decades of research on the psychology of procrastination. Finally, you will see how this information can help you figure out why you procrastinate, and how you can use this knowledge in order to successfully overcome your procrastination.

 

What is procrastination

Procrastination is the act of postponing decisions that you need to make or tasks that you need to complete. For example, if you need to write an essay, but end up wasting time on the internet even though you know you should be working, that means that you’re procrastinating.

At its core, procrastination occurs as a result of people’s inability to self-regulate their behavior, which means that there is generally a gap between how they intend to act and how they act in reality. This phenomenon represents a form of short-term mood repair, where people prioritize their feelings in the present, and choose to do things that will help them feel better right now, even if it comes at the expense of feeling worse later, and failing to achieve their long-term goals.

Accordingly, procrastination can be detrimental to people’s ability to pursue their goals, which is evident, for example, in the fact that having a procrastination problem is associated with having worse grades and a lower salary. Furthermore, procrastination is also associated with other issues in terms of wellbeing, such as increased levels of stress and worse physical and mental health.

 

Why do people procrastinate

People often assume that procrastination is simply a matter of willpower, but in reality, the situation is more complex than that.

When faced with a decision to make or a task to complete, we usually rely on our self-control in order to push ourselves to get things done. Furthermore, our motivation, which is based on the expectation of receiving some reward for our efforts, can provide support to our self-control, and make it more likely that we will get things done in a timely manner.

However, there are also various negative factors that we can experience, which have an opposite effect than our motivation, meaning that they make us more likely to procrastinate. For example, anxiety and fear of failure can cause us to put off getting started on a task, as can having a task which is unpleasant, or having to work in an environment which is filled with distractions.

Furthermore, there are some hindering factors that interfere with our self-control and motivation directly, which also makes us more susceptible to procrastination. For example, mental exhaustion, which occurs as a result of having to work all day, can make it more difficult for us to exert self-control if it’s already late at night. Similarly, a large gap between the time when we complete a task and the time at which we receive the reward for completing it can cause us to discount the value of this reward, which means that its motivational value will be significantly reduced.

As long as our self-control and motivation outweigh the effects of negative factors, despite the influence of various hindering factors, we manage to get our work done in a timely manner. However, when the negative factors outweigh our self-control and motivation we end up procrastinating, by putting off our work either indefinitely, or until some point in time when the balance shifts back in our favor.

Overall, the reason why people procrastinate is that our self-control and motivation, which might be hindered by factors such as lack of energy or delay between the present and the time when we expect to be rewarded for our efforts, are outweighed by one or more negative factors, such as anxiety or task aversion.

There are some exceptions to this, in cases where a person’s procrastination is driven by some other factor, such as the desire to add excitement and challenge to otherwise boring work, but, for the most part, the reason outlined above is the main reason why people procrastinate.

If you’re wondering why you yourself procrastinate, look through the following list of possible reasons, and try to figure out which of these causes of procrastination apply to you. Try to be reflective and honest with yourself while you do so, since figuring out the true underlying cause of your procrastination is crucial if you want to be able to successfully overcome it.

 

Reasons why people procrastinate

Abstract goals

People are more likely to procrastinate when it comes to goals that are vague or abstract, compared to when it comes goals that are concrete and clearly-defined.

For example, goals such as “get fit” or “start exercising” are relatively vague, and are therefore likely to lead to procrastination. Conversely, a goal such as “go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday right after work, and spend at least 30 minutes on the treadmill, running at high speed” is concrete, and is therefore much more likely to lead to action.

Note that in addition to practical consideration, there are also some cognitive factors that can make a goal feel more abstract. For example, according to construal-level theory, goals that are perceived as highly improbable are also perceived as more abstract. This means that if a person finds it unlikely that they will attain a certain goal, this could cause them to view that goal in a more abstract manner, which in turn can increase the likelihood that they will procrastinate on it.

 

Rewards that are far in the future

People tend to discount the value of rewards that are far in the future, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting or delay discounting. This means that if a person has a task that they need to perform, but they know that they will only receive the reward for completing the task a long time from now, then they are likely to procrastinate on it.

For example, it’s easier to discount the value of attaining a good grade on an exam while that exam is still weeks away as opposed to when it’s only days away, which is one of the reasons why people wait until right before the deadline to complete necessary tasks.

This means that people often displaypresent bias when they choose to engage in activities that give them satisfaction in the short-term, at the expense of working on tasks that would lead to better outcomes for them in the long term.

Note that the relationship between time and the value of outcomes is usually inconsistent, as the rate of discounting decreases over time. Essentially, this means that the farther into the future an outcome is, the less the increase in time matters, when it comes to lowering that outcome’s value.

For example, while there is a big difference in how we value an award that we can receive in 5 seconds compared to an award we can receive in a week, there is a negligible difference in how we value an award we can receive in a week compared to an award we can receive in a week and 5 seconds. Similarly, while there is a big difference between receiving an award in a day compared to in a year, there is less of a difference between receiving an award in a year compared to receiving it in two years.

This phenomenon is called hyperbolic discounting, and it is contrasted with exponential discounting, which is a time-consistent model of temporal discounting, where an increased delay always has the same effect on outcome valuation, regardless of how far in the future it is.

 

A focus on future options

People sometimes avoid taking action in the present because they intend or hope to pursue a more attractive course of action in the future. This mindset can lead to long-term procrastination, and can persist even in cases where the person who is procrastinating never ends up following through on their intended future plan.

For example, a person might avoid starting to exercise on their own at home, because they plan to join a gym and start a detailed workout plan later, despite the fact that getting started now would still be beneficial and wouldn’t prevent them from switching to a more serious exercise plan in the future.

 

Overestimating future abilities

People often procrastinate on tasks at the present because they overestimate their ability to perform those tasks in the future.

For example, a procrastinator might decide to postpone a task that they need to complete to tomorrow, because they believe that tomorrow they will be able to get themselves to work on it, even if they have postponed the same task in the exact same manner many times in the past, and have continued to delay doing it each time.

 

Being disconnected from the future-self

People sometimes experience a temporal self-discontinuity, which means that they view their future-self as being disconnected from their present-self. This phenomenon can cause people to procrastinate, by causing them to think that they are not responsible for their future, since their future-self will be the one who has to handle any tasks that they postpone or deal with any consequences for failing to complete those tasks on time.

For example, someone might consistently delay starting to eat better, even if their doctor told them that it’s important, because the harmful impact of their present diet will only start affecting them in a couple of years, which they wrongly view as someone else’s problem (i.e. as the problem of their future-self).

 

Indecisiveness

The inability to make decisions in a timely manner is one of the leading causes of procrastination. Essentially, this occurs when a person can’t decide which course of action to engage in, which leads them to not do anything at all, a phenomenon which is sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis or choice paralysis.

For example, a person might delay getting started on their research paper, because they keep getting stuck when it comes to picking a topic to write about.

There are several factors that make it more likely that someone will end up procrastinating due to an inability to make a decision. The main ones to consider, from a practical perspective, are the following:

  • The more options you have, the harder it will be for you to choose. Essentially, the more options you have to choose from, the harder it will be for you to evaluate them all and decide which one is preferable.
  • The closer your options are to each other, the harder it will be for you to choose. Essentially, the more similar the different options are to each other, or the closer they are in value, the harder it will be for you to decide which one is better, especially in cases where there isn’t a single option that is clearly preferable to the others.
  • The more important the choice is, the harder it will be for you to choose. Essentially, the greater the consequences of making a decision, the harder it will be for you to finalize your decision, so that you are generally more likely to delay before making a major decision than you are before making a minor one.

In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that each time you have to make a decision, you end up spending some of your mental resources, especially if you are prone to indecisiveness. Accordingly, the more decisions you have to make during a certain time period, the more you deplete your capacity for self-control, and the more likely you are to procrastinate in making future decisions, at least until you have a chance to recharge yourself mentally.

Finally, note that this form of procrastination is known as decisional procrastination, since it involves a delay in making a decision. It is therefore contrasted with behavioral procrastination, which involves a delay in performing a task once you’ve decided on your preferred course of action.

 

Feeling overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed can sometimes cause people to procrastinate. Essentially, if someone feels that a certain task is too big for them to tackle, they might end up being paralyzed, and avoiding it instead of taking action.

For example, if you need to clean up your entire house, the fact that the task will take so long and involve so many components might cause it to feel overwhelming, in which case you might avoid getting started.

 

Anxiety

Feeling anxious about a certain task can sometimes cause people to procrastinate.

For example, someone who feels anxious about checking their bills might repeatedly postpone looking at them, even though doing so won’t make the problem go away.

This can be especially problematic in cases where a person’s anxiety increases as a result of their procrastination, which can lead to a feedback loop where someone feels anxious about a certain task, so they procrastinate instead of doing it, which makes them even more anxious, which in turn causes them to procrastinate even further.

 

Task aversion

People often procrastinate because they are averse to the tasks that they need to perform. Essentially, the more people find a certain task unappealing, the more likely they are to procrastinate before performing it.

For example, if you need to make an important phone call to someone you dislike, you might end up procrastinating instead of just getting it done, because you don’t want to talk to them.

Note that there are many things which could make a person averse to a task, such as the task being frustrating, tedious, or boring. A common reason why people procrastinate on tasks is that they believe there is a discrepancy between the difficulty of the task and their own competence, which means that they feel that the task is too difficult for them to handle.

 

Perfectionism

Perfectionism can sometimes cause people to procrastinate. This can happen, for example, in cases where they are so afraid of making a mistake that they end up not taking any action at all, or not releasing a practically finished product.

For example, someone might delay working on their book, because they want every line that they write down to be perfect from the start, which causes them to not write anything at all. Similarly, someone who has finished writing their book might repeatedly delay sending it out for feedback, because they keep going over it, again and again, to make sure that it’s absolutely flawless.

Of course, it’s reasonable to want to create and publish high-quality work. The problem comes when perfectionists aim for unattainable flawlessness instead of aiming for high quality, which causes them to procrastinate by giving them a seemingly valid excuse for unnecessary delays.

Finally, note that perfectionism doesn’t always lead to procrastination, and there are even situations where a person’s perfectionism can make them less likely to procrastinate, because they want to do their job right, so their perfectionism serves as motivation to work on tasks in a timely manner. As such, perfectionism isn’t always a negative thing, and only leads to issues when it causes people to delay working because they’re overly worried about making mistakes.

 

Fear of evaluation and negative feedback

The fear of being evaluated or receiving negative feedback from others can sometimes cause people to procrastinate.

For example, someone might delay publicizing a project that they worked on, because they’re worried about what other people are going to say.

Keep in mind that even though it can sometimes be valid to worry about receiving negative feedback from others, in many cases this fear is exaggerated or unjustified, either because the chances of receiving negative feedback are low, or because the consequences of that feedback aren’t notable.

Finally, note that in some cases, it’s possible that fear of evaluation will have an opposite effect, and serve as a motivator, which encourages people to avoid procrastinating, in an attempt to receive a positive evaluation from others. The exact influence of fear of evaluation likely depends on many factors, such as how anxious a person feels about an upcoming evaluation, and how confident they are in their ability to successfully handle the task at hand.

 

Fear of failure

People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing, which causes them to either avoid publishing their finished product or to avoid getting started in the first place.

For example, someone might be so worried that their business idea will fail, that they end up continuing to work on it indefinitely, without ever making it available to the public.

How afraid people are of failure is strongly related to how important a given task is, so that more important tasks are often associated with higher levels of procrastination, in cases where fear of failure is the driving cause behind the person’s procrastination. Furthermore, certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem and low self-confidence, are associated with an increased fear of failure, which makes people who have these traits more likely to procrastinate. Moreover, fear of failure is an especially serious issue among those who suffer from high levels of self-doubt, and particularly among those who are prone to having negative, irrational beliefs about their abilities.

Keep in mind that fear of failure, perfectionism, and fear of negative feedback are all strongly related to each other, but a person might be influenced by one of these factors and not the others. For example, someone might be confident in their ability to perform well on a task and still worry about receiving unjustified negative feedback from others, or they might worry about failing at something even if no one else will know about it.

Finally, note that fear of failure doesn’t always cause people to procrastinate. Rather, fear of failure promotes procrastination primarily when people feel incapable of properly dealing with a task, or when the fear of failure reduces a person’s sense of autonomy. Conversely, when people feel that they are well-equipped to deal with a certain task, fear of failure can serve as a motivating factor, that encourages them to avoid procrastinating.

 

Self-handicapping

Self-handicapping occurs when people procrastinate in order to place barriers in their own way, so that if they fail their failures could be attributed to their procrastination, rather to their abilities, which is a way to protect their ego.

For example, a student might procrastinate instead of studying for a test even if it means that they will do badly on it, because they prefer knowing that they failed due to their procrastination rather than because they weren’t smart enough.

Due to this defense mechanism, certain procrastinators spend more time procrastinating if they believe that they are likely to fail, especially when they think that a failure will reflect badly on them.

 

Self-sabotage

People sometimes procrastinate due to their tendency to engage in self-defeating behavior, which means that they actively try to sabotage their own progress.

For example, a person might delay applying for a new job, even though they knew that it represents a great opportunity for career advancement, because they have a pathological tendency to do things that they know will prevent them from improving their life.

There are various reasons why people engage in self-sabotage, and individuals who procrastinate for this reason tend to engage in other types of related behaviors, such as pushing away people who treat them well.

 

Low self-efficacy

Self-efficacy reflects a person’s belief in their ability to successfully achieve their goals. In some cases, having a low degree of self-efficacy can cause a person to procrastinate.

For example, if someone is given a task that they don’t think they can handle, they’ll often avoid getting started on the task, because they don’t think there’s even a point to trying, or because they don’t want to experience an unpleasant failure.

Note that people can have different levels of self-efficacy with regards to different domains in their life. For instance, a person might have low levels of academic self-efficacy, but high levels of financial self-efficacy. Furthermore, self-efficacy can relate to specific abilities, such as to the ability to successfully self-regulate your behavior in order to avoid procrastinating.

 

A perceived lack of control

A person’s locus of control is the degree to which they believe that they have control over events in their life. The locus of control is described on a spectrum of internality and externality:

  • Individuals who are internally oriented believe that they have a high degree of control over their life.
  • Individuals who are externally oriented believe that they have a low degree of control over their life, since they think that external factors, such as other people or their circumstances, influence them more strongly.

Individuals who are internally oriented tend to get started and complete tasks on time, while individuals who are externally oriented tend to procrastinate more, perform worse on tasks, and experience more anxiety.

 

Depression

Some people procrastinate because they suffer from depression, which leads to issues such as constant fatigue and difficulty in concentrating.

For example, someone who is depressed might repeatedly postpone cleaning their room or going out to get groceries, because they don’t have the energy to do so, even when they know that they should.

 

Lack of motivation

People often procrastinate because they are not motivated enough to work on a given task.

For example, a student might procrastinate on studying for a test, because it’s in a subject that they don’t find interesting or important.

This is often an issue when the main motivation for performing a task is perceived as external, as in the case of someone who is pressured by their parents to do well in a class, rather than internal, as in the case of someone who simply wants to feel that they’ve done well in the class.

Accordingly, when people are driven to complete a certain task by an internal and autonomous source of motivation, they generally display lower levels of procrastination than when they are driven by an external source of motivation.

Furthermore, there are various other reasons why people can be unmotivated to work on tasks.

For example, in some cases, people are unmotivated because they don’t value the reward for performing the task enough, or because they experience a disconnect between the task that they need to perform and the reward that is associated with it. This can be an issue for various reasons, such as because they simply don’t care about the reward for performing the task, or because there is a large temporal delay between the time when they perform the task and the time when they enjoy its outcome.

 

Lack of energy

Having low energy levels can often cause people to procrastinate more.

For example, someone who is tired because they’re chronically sleep deprived might find it harder to concentrate on their work, and will therefore end up dragging things out instead of just getting them done.

 

Low conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is the trait of being self-driven, disciplined, and organized. In general, the less conscientious someone is, the more likely they are to procrastinate.

For example, a person who is not conscientious might procrastinate because they failed to prepare properly for the task that they need to perform, or because they were too careless to pay close attention to important deadlines.

 

Lack of perseverance

Perseverance is the ability to persist in following your goals despite encountering difficulties. A lack of perseverance can cause people to procrastinate when they have to deal with any sort of obstacles during the course of their work

For example, a lack of perseverance could cause someone to stop working on their side project, because they felt that marketing it to others in order to get users was too difficult.

 

Laziness

Laziness reflects a person’s unwillingness to work or to put in any effort. In some cases, a person’s laziness can be one of the driving forces behind their procrastination.

For example, a student might avoid starting to work on their paper, because they simply don’t care enough to put in the effort needed to sit down and work.

Note that in some cases, people might assume that their procrastination is driven by laziness, when in reality it is actually occurring due to some other underlying reason, such as anxiety or fear of failure.

In addition, note that although there is a general association between laziness and lack of motivation, the two are not identical. For example, despite the fact that a lack of motivation can increase the likelihood that someone will be unwilling to put in the necessary work to perform a certain task, it’s possible to be highly motivated to accomplish something and still procrastinate as a result of laziness.

 

Impulsivity

Impulsivity is the tendency to act on a whim, without planning ahead or considering the consequences of your actions. Impulsivity is strongly associated with the tendency to procrastinate, since the decision to procrastinate is often an impulsive one, and occurs when people ignore the long-term consequences of their actions, or when they fail to plan their work ahead of time.

For example, an impulsive person might end up procrastinating on an assignment that they have to complete by suddenly deciding to go out with friends, even though the assignment is due soon and they really need to work on it.

 

Preference for appealing tasks

People sometimes procrastinate on tasks that they need to complete because give in to their desire for instant gratification, and therefore end up engaging in behaviors that are satisfying in the short-term, instead of working on the tasks that will benefit them in the long-term.

For example, a person might delay working on an assignment that they should complete by wasting hours on meaningless activities, such as surfing the internet, browsing social media, playing video games, or watching TV, while constantly telling themselves that they will get started on their work soon.

This form of procrastination, which is referred to as hedonistic delay, relates to the concept of the pleasure principle, which is the tendency to seek out pleasurable activities and avoid unpleasant ones. While this is a natural and instinctive behavior, it becomes a serious issue when a person is unable to control it, since it causes them to continuously pursue short-term satisfaction, at the expense of long-term success and development.

Furthermore, in many cases this tendency can lead people to engage in behaviors that are easy and accessible, even if they are not inherently appealing, instead of engaging with tasks that are more inherently appealing, but which would necessitate more effort. For example, this could lead people to browse social media instead of working on their favorite project, even if they don’t derive much pleasure from doing so.

 

Distractibility

Distractibility is the inability to focus your attention on one thing at a time, which promotes the tendency to constantly switch from one locus of attention to another. Distractibility can sometimes be one of the causes of a person’s procrastination.

For example, a person who is studying for a test might end up procrastinating because they are constantly distracted by the notifications on their phone. Similarly, someone might delay finishing a crafting project that they started working on, because they keep getting distracted by ideas for new projects.

 

Sensation seeking

People sometimes procrastinate because they like to wait until right before the deadline to start working on tasks, in order to add pressure, challenge, and excitement to those tasks.

For example, a student might wait until the night before a class presentation is due to start working on it, because they feel that doing so will make the otherwise boring act of preparing for the presentation more exciting.

In some cases, this type of delay can lead to positive outcomes, such as when it motivates a person to work hard on a task that they would otherwise find tedious. However, postponing tasks for this reason can often increase the amount of stress that people experience, and can also hinder their performance in situations where the delay means that they don’t have enough time to deal with any unexpected issues that they encounter in their work.

Note that some researchers refer to procrastination that occurs for this reason as arousal procrastination, in contrast with avoidant procrastination. However, this distinction has been criticized, and it’s not crucial to understand it from a practical perspective, as long as you understand that this is a reason why some people procrastinate.

 

Rebellion

Sometimes people procrastinate as an act of rebellion, often against an authority figure, by delaying working on a task that they resent being given.

For example, an office worker might procrastinate on an assignment that they got at work, because they dislike their boss, and because they resent the fact that their boss sets their tasks and deadlines for them.

 

How to stop procrastinating

In this article, you saw a comprehensive list of reasons why people procrastinate.

This knowledge is valuable from a practical perspective, because understanding why people procrastinate can help you understand why you yourself procrastinate, and because once you understand that, you can successfully figure out how to solve your procrastination problem.

For example, if you notice that you procrastinate because you use abstract goals, you can make sure to define more concrete goals for yourself. Similarly, if you notice that you procrastinate because you feel overwhelmed by the tasks that you have to deal with, you can break those large tasks apart into a set of actionable items that you feel more comfortable handling.

Since the topic of overcoming procrastination requires an in-depth explanation by itself, it’s covered in a separate article, titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“. You should read it in order to understand the process of overcoming procrastination, and to learn about various techniques and strategies that you can use in order to beat your procrastination.

 

Summary and main takeaways

  • People often procrastinate because they have abstract goals, because they have goals that are too distant, because they are overly focused future options, because they overestimate their future abilities, or because they don’t care about their future self.
  • People also procrastinate due to their indecisiveness, feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, task aversion, perfectionism, fear of negative evaluation, or fear of failure.
  • In some cases, people procrastinate because they feel that events are out of their control, or because they lack the necessary motivation or energy, often due to an underlying depression.
  • People sometimes procrastinate because they keep getting distracted, engaging in tasks that are appealing in the short term, or giving up as soon as they encounter any obstacles.
  • Other reasons for procrastination include people’s tendency to self-handicap and self-sabotage, as well as their tendency to seek the excitement of doing things right before the deadline, and their desire to rebel against authority figures who give them tasks and set deadlines for them.

 

In conclusion

There are many reasons why people procrastinate, and a person might procrastinate for any number of them.

Understanding why people procrastinate is beneficial, since it can help you figure out why you yourself procrastinate, which in turn can help you figure out how to deal with your procrastination. To see how this knowledge can benefit you, and to learn how you can overcome your procrastination, read the follow-up guide on how to stop procrastinating.