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 a bit of useful background information on procrastination. Then, you will see an explanation of the primary mechanisms behind procrastination, followed by a comprehensive list of the reasons why people procrastinate, which is based on decades of research on the topic. Finally, you will see how this information can help you figure out why you yourself procrastinate, and how you can use this knowledge in order to successfully overcome your procrastination.
What is procrastination
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. 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.
Procrastination is often detrimental to people’s ability to successfully pursue their goals, which is evident, for example, in the fact that procrastination is associated with receiving worse grades and earning a lower salary. Furthermore, procrastination is also associated with a wide range of secondary issues, such as increased levels of stress and worse physical and mental health.
Why people procrastinate
People often assume that procrastination is simply a matter of willpower, but in reality, the situation is far 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 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, which also makes us more susceptible to procrastination. For example, mental exhaustion, which occurs as a result of having to work hard 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 will 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 negative 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 future point in time when the balance shifts in our favor.
Overall, we procrastinate when 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 negative factors, such as anxiety or task aversion. When this happens, we fail to self-regulate our behavior, which causes us to postpone things unnecessarily, even when we know we should be doing them, which is why procrastination often leads to a gap between how we intend to act and how we act in reality.
There are some possible exceptions to this, in cases where procrastination is driven by some other factor, such as rebelliousness or the desire to add excitement and challenge to otherwise boring work. However, for the most part, the mechanism outlined above is the one which explains why people procrastinate.
The next section contains a comprehensive list of specific reasons why people procrastinate, based on this underlying mechanism. If you’re wondering why you yourself procrastinate, look through this list, 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 underlying causes of your procrastination is crucial if you want to be able to successfully overcome it.
Reasons for procrastination
People are more likely to procrastinate when their goals are vague or abstract, compared to when their goals 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 you to take action.
Note that, in addition to a lack of a clear definition, there are other factors that can make a goal feel abstract.
For example, according to construal-level theory, goals that are perceived as highly improbable are perceived as relatively 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 as abstract, 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 relatively 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 compared 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.
Accordingly, people often display a present 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 the time it takes to receive a reward and the perceived value of that reward is usually inconsistent, as the rate of discounting decreases over time. Essentially, this means that the farther into the future a reward is, the less the increase in time matters, when it comes to lowering that reward’s perceived value.
For example, while there is a big difference in how we value a reward that we can receive now compared to a reward we can receive in a week, there is a much smaller difference in how we value a reward we can receive in a year compared to a reward we can receive in a year plus a week. Similarly, while there is a big difference between receiving a reward in a day compared to in a year, there is less of a difference between receiving a reward in a year compared to receiving it in two years.
This phenomenon is called hyperbolic discounting, and it’s contrasted with exponential discounting, which is a time-consistent model of temporal discounting, where an increased delay before receiving a reward always has the same effect on its perceived value, regardless of how far in the future it is.
Finally, note that the same concept can also apply to punishments, in addition to rewards. Essentially, this means that the farther in the future a potential punishment is, the less it motivates people to take action.
A disconnect from the future-self
People sometimes procrastinate because they view their future-self as being disconnected from their present-self, a phenomenon known as temporal self-discontinuity or temporal disjunction. Essentially, this disconnect between the present and future selves can cause people to procrastinate, by leading them to think that their present self is 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 being a serious issue in a couple of years, which they view as someone else’s problem (i.e. as the problem of their future-self).
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 persist even in cases where the person who is procrastinating never ends up following through on their intended 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.
Optimism about the future
People sometimes procrastinate on tasks because they are optimistic about their ability to complete those tasks in the future. This optimism can pertain to two main things, and namely to the amount of time which will be available for the completion of the task, or to the person’s inherent ability to complete the task.
For example, a student might decide to postpone getting started on an assignment that is due a few weeks from now, because they feel that there will be plenty of time to get it done later. In many cases, this form of optimism might occur as a result of underestimating the time it will take to complete the tasks in questions. This phenomenon is known as the planning fallacy, and it can lead both procrastinators as well as non-procrastinators to assume that they will finish upcoming tasks earlier than they actually will.
Similarly, a person might decide, after struggling to get started on a task, to postpone it to the next day, because they believe that tomorrow they will be able to bring themselves to work on it, even if they have postponed the same task in the exact same manner many times in the past. In many cases, this form of optimism involves an overestimation of future abilities, and it’s important to note that people who procrastinate often are more likely to promise to themself that “things will be different next time”, when it comes to procrastinating on tasks.
People sometimes procrastinate because they are unable to make decisions in a timely manner. This can be an issue either when a person can’t decide which course of action to engage in, or when they need to make a decision before they are able to move ahead with their general plan of action.
For example, a person might delay starting to diet, because they can’t decide which diet plan to follow. Similarly, a person might delay getting started on their research paper, because they can’t decide what topic to write about.
There are various factors that generally make it more likely that someone will get stuck while trying to make a decision or over-think it without ever taking action, a phenomenon which is sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis or choice paralysis. The main factors 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 in value, 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 depleting your mental resources to some degree, 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 referred to 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.
People sometimes procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed with regards to the tasks that they need to handle. A feeling of overwhelm can occur due to a variety of reasons, such as having a single task that feels huge in terms of scope, or having a large number of small tasks that add up. When this happens, a person might simply decide to avoid or postpone the tasks in questions, or they might attempt to handle them, but then end up feeling paralyzed and not taking any 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 you to feel overwhelmed, in which case you might avoid getting started on it in the first place.
For example, someone who feels anxious about checking their bills might repeatedly delay doing so, even though this avoidance won’t make the problem go away.
This issue can be especially problematic in cases where a person’s anxiety increases as a result of their procrastination, which can lead to a positive feedback loop where someone feels anxious about a certain task, which causes them to procrastinate instead of doing it, which makes them even more anxious, which in turn causes them to procrastinate even further.
People often procrastinate because they are averse to the tasks that they need to perform. This is because, in general, the more people find a certain task unappealing, the more likely they are to want to avoid it, and therefore the more likely they are to procrastinate.
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 that could make a person averse to a task. For example, a person might procrastinate because they perceive a task as frustrating, tedious, or boring, or they might procrastinate because they believe there is a gap 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.
People sometimes procrastinate as a result of their perfectionism. Perfectionism can lead to procrastination in a number of ways, such as by making someone so afraid of making a mistake that they end up not taking any action at all, or by making someone so worried of publishing something with any flaws that they end up reworking their project indefinitely instead of releasing it when it’s ready.
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 want to make sure that it’s absolutely flawless first, so they keep going over it, again and again.
While it’s reasonable to want to create and publish high-quality work, the problem starts when perfectionists aim for unattainable flawlessness, which causes them to procrastinate by giving them a seemingly valid excuse for unnecessary delays.
In that regard, 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, by pushing them to do a good job and complete their tasks in a timely manner. As such, perfectionism isn’t always a negative thing, and only leads to issues when it causes people to unnecessarily delay things because they’re overly worried about their work not being flawless.
Fear of evaluation or negative feedback
For example, someone might delay publicizing a project that they worked on, because they’re worried about what other people are going to think about it.
In many cases, people’s fears in this regard are exaggerated or unjustified, either because the chances of receiving negative feedback are low, or because the consequences of that feedback aren’t as significant as they feel.
In addition, note that in some cases, it’s possible for fear of evaluation or fear of negative feedback to make people less likely to procrastinate, by motivating people to get their work done in a timely manner. Whether the influence of this fear is positive or negative depends on a variety of factors, such as how anxious a person feels about the 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 at the tasks that they need to complete. This fear of failure can promote procrastination in various ways, such as by causing people to avoid finishing a task, or by causing them to avoid getting started on a task 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 someone is of failing is generally related to how important the task in question 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.
In addition, note that fear of failure doesn’t always cause people to procrastinate. Rather, fear of failure promotes procrastination primarily when it reduces people’s sense of autonomy, or when people feel incapable of dealing with a task that they’re afraid to fail at. 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.
Finally, keep in mind that fear of failure, perfectionism, and fear of negative feedback or negative evaluation are all strongly related to each other, but one doesn’t necessitate the others, and a person might be influenced by any combination of these factors. For example, someone might be confident in their ability to perform a task well but 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.
People sometimes procrastinate as a way of placing barriers in their own way, so that if they fail their failures could be attributed to their procrastination rather to their abilities, a behavior which is referred to as self-handicapping.
For example, a student might procrastinate instead of studying for a test, because they prefer knowing that they failed due to their procrastination rather than because they were unable to understand the material well.
As a result of this defense mechanism, certain procrastinators spend more time procrastinating if they believe that they are likely to fail when it comes to the task at hand, especially if they feel that a failure will reflect badly on them.
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 feel that they don’t deserve to be at a better place in life.
There are various reasons why people engage in self-sabotage, and individuals who procrastinate for this reason tend to also engage in other types of related behaviors, such as pushing away people who treat them well.
For example, if someone is given a task that they don’t think they can handle, they might delay getting started on it, because they feel that they will most likely fail to complete it anyway.
Note that people can have different levels of self-efficacy with regards to different domains in their life. For instance, a person might have high levels of academic self-efficacy, but low levels of social self-efficacy, which means that they believe in their abilities when it comes to tasks that are academic in nature, but not when it comes to tasks that are social in nature.
Furthermore, self-efficacy can relate to specific tasks or abilities. The most notable among these, in this context, is the ability to successfully self-regulate your behavior, in order to get yourself to complete tasks in a timely manner. This is because believing that you will be unable to avoid procrastinating could increase the likelihood that you will end up doing so.
A perceived lack of control
People sometimes procrastinate when they feel relatively unable to control the outcomes of events in their life.
For example, a person might delay getting started on an assignment at work, if they feel that their boss will criticize it regardless of how much effort they put into it.
Though this perceived lack of control can play a role in specific, isolated cases, some people are more predisposed to feeling a lack of control than others. This is operationalized through the concept of the locus of control, which is the degree to which people 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 feel that external factors, such as other people or their environment, 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.
Some people procrastinate because they suffer from depression, which leads to issues such as constant fatigue and a 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 when it comes to studying for a test, because they don’t care about getting a good grade on it.
This is often an issue when the main motivation for performing a task is perceived as extrinsic, as in the case of someone who is pressured by their parents to do well in school, rather than intrinsic, as in the case of someone who simply wants to feel that they’ve successfully learned the material. 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 a task. For example, in some cases, people are unmotivated because they don’t value the reward for performing the task, or because they experience a disconnect between the task that they need to perform and the reward that is associated with it.
Finally, note that people have different levels of general achivement motivation, which means that some people are more driven and motivated than others to pursue their goals in life. Accordingly, those who have low levels of achievement motivation are more likely to procrastinate on various tasks.
Lack of energy
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.
Laziness reflects a person’s intrinsic unwillingness to put in the effort needed to achieve their goals, even when they are able to do so. In some cases, a person’s laziness can be one of the driving forces behind their procrastination.
For example, someone might procrastinate when it comes to washing their dishes, because they simply don’t feel like getting up and doing it.
However, note that in many situations, people might assume that their procrastination is driven by laziness, when in reality it’s actually occurring due to some other underlying reason, such as anxiety or fear of failure.
In addition, note that although laziness and lack of motivation might appear similar, these are two separate issues. For example, it’s possible for someone to be highly motivated to pursue a certain goal, but at the same time not make any progress toward it because they’re unwilling to put in the necessary work.
Prioritization of short-term mood
People often procrastinate because they prioritize their feelings in the present, and focus on doing things that will help them feel better right now, even if doing so comes at the expense of taking action that aligns with their long-term goals, a phenomenon which is known as short-term mood repair.
For example, a student might delay getting started on an assignment by wasting hours on activities such as browsing social media, playing video games, and watching TV, because doing so is more pleasant in the short-term than working on the task at hand.
Essentially, this form of procrastination, which is referred to as hedonistic delay, occurs when people give in to their desire for instant gratification, and engage in behaviors that are satisfying in the short-term, instead of working on the tasks that will benefit them in the long-term.
This kind of behavior 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 achievement and development.
Low capacity for self-control
Self-control reflects a person’s ability to self-regulate their behavior in order to bring themself to follow through on their intentions, and take action that is in their best interest, particularly in the long-term. A lack of self-control makes people much more likely to procrastinate, which is not surprising, given that procrastination occurs when people fail to self-regulate their behavior properly.
For example, a person low on self-control might browse social media for hours, while continually telling themself that they’ll get started on their work in just a few minutes, despite the fact that they there is no reason for them to delay.
Lack of self-control can cause people to procrastinate in itself, and can also make them more likely to procrastinate as a result of other issues, such as task aversion or fear of failure.
Note that, in many cases, insufficient self-control can lead people to engage in behaviors that are easy and accessible, even if they are not inherently appealing, instead of working on 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, and even if they would feel better if they were working on their preferred project.
Lack of perseverance
Perseverance is the ability to maintain goal-driven behavior, especially in the long-term and in the face of obstacles. A lack of perseverance makes people more likely to procrastinate, when it comes to finishing tasks that they’ve already started working on.
For example, a lack of perseverance could cause someone to stop working on their side project, because they felt reached a stage of development that they felt was difficult for them to handle.
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’re currently working on, by suddenly deciding to go out with friends, even though the assignment is due soon and they need to work on it now if they want to turn it in on time.
Distractibility is the inability to focus your attention on one thing at a time, or the inability to stay focused for long, which promotes the tendency to constantly switch from one locus of attention to another. High levels of distractibility can make a person more likely to procrastinate.
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 crafting projects that they started working on, because they keep getting distracted by ideas for new projects.
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 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.
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 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 small, actionable items, that you feel more comfortable handling.
If you want to learn more about this concept, and about how you can overcome your procrastination, take a look at the follow-up guide on the topic, titled “How to Stop Procrastinating“. It contains an in-depth explanation of the process that you should use in order to beat procrastination, and of the various anti-procrastination techniques that you can take advantage of.
Summary and main takeaways
- We rely primarily on our self-control in order to get things done in a timely manner, though our motivation to be rewarded for our efforts can often provide our self-control with a helpful boost.
- There are various negative factors that have an opposite effect than our motivation, meaning that they make us more likely to procrastinate; this includes, for example, factors such as anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, and task aversion.
- Furthermore, there are also negative factors that interfere directly with our self-control and motivation, meaning that they too make us more likely to procrastinate; this includes, for example, factors such as goals that are abstract, goals that are distant in time, and a disconnect between our present and future selves.
- When negative factors outweigh our self-control and motivation, we end up procrastinating either indefinitely, or until some point in the future when the balance between them shifts in our favor.
- In some cases, we might also be driven to procrastination by other factors, such as self-sabotage, sensation-seeking, or rebelliousness.
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.