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.

Many procrastinators know that this behavior hurts them, but keep doing it even though they want to stop. Accordingly, if you’re a procrastinator, you may have asked questions like “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 asked 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 happens when their self-control and motivation are weakened by issues like exhaustion, and are opposed by issues like fear.

Specifically, the drive to act represents how strongly people can push themselves 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 like exhaustion and far-future outcomes can interfere with self-control and motivation, and consequently reduce people’s drive to act, as can many other issues, like 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., fear of a certain task), and by increasing positive emotions (e.g., through digital entertainment), a behavior described as “giving in to feel good”. This drive involves various issues, like anxiety and perfectionism, which people want to avoid in order to protect their emotions in the short term.

These issues mean that procrastination often involves intention-action gaps, where people procrastinate despite intending to act. For example, this happens when someone promises themselves that they’ll start working soon, but keeps breaking this promise, because their self-control and motivation are overwhelmed by issues like fear of failure.

These issues can also cause repeating procrastination 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.

Below, you’ll find a list of common reasons why people procrastinate. It’s 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 people procrastinate:

  • Prioritization of short-term mood (i.e., preferring to feel better right now even if this will lead to feeling worse later).
  • Task aversiveness (i.e., thinking a task is frustrating, boring, or unpleasant in another way).
  • Anxiety and fear (e.g., due to concerns over being criticized).
  • Feeling overwhelmed (e.g., due to having so many things to do that it’s unclear where to start).
  • Perfectionism (e.g., due to refusal to publish work with 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 doing what you’re already doing).
  • Abstract goals (i.e., ones that aren’t clearly defined).
  • Cognitive biases (e.g., being 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).

You’ll find more information about these issues in the sub-sections below.

Note that the relationship between these issues and procrastination is complicated. For example, although some types of perfectionism and fear generally increase procrastination, other types generally decrease it (by increasing people’s motivation to act).

In addition, many of these issues are interrelated. For example, depression can cause lack of energy, which can exacerbate anxiety, which can increase task aversiveness. Similarly, the effect of anxiety on procrastination can be reduced by factors like high self-efficacy and mindfulness.

Finally, people can procrastinate for different reasons. For example, one person might procrastinate due to anxiety, while someone else might procrastinate due to a combination of perfectionism and abstract goals. Furthermore, a person can procrastinate for different reasons at different times and under different circumstances, sometimes leading to differences in how they procrastinate too.

 

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, like 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 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 could bring.

A task can be seen as aversive (i.e., unpleasant) due to many issues, like being frustrating, boring, or monotonous, or involving uncertainty (e.g., because its instructions are unclear). Aversiveness depends on people’s subjective perception; for example, introverts might find a certain social task unpleasant, while extroverts might find it enjoyable.

 

Anxiety and fear

People sometimes procrastinate because they’re 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, like failing or being negatively evaluated. These concerns are often—though not always—irrational, for example because they’re 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), this is often due to choice overload (or overchoice), where people have too many options to choose from.

 

Perfectionism

People sometimes procrastinate because of their perfectionism. For example, a researcher might keep going over a paper’s draft even once it’s good enough to submit, because they’re unwilling to accept that it might have any flaws (even inconsequential ones).

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 want to eventually join a gym, even though it would still be better for them to start exercising now regardless.

 

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 called temporal disjunction (or temporal self-discontinuity), and can increase 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’ll only receive in a month, because those rewards are so far away that they don’t feel real.

Essentially, outcome delay reduces people’s perceived value of outcomes, which reduces people’s motivation to act. This phenomenon, called temporal discounting (and also future discounting and delay discounting), applies to both positive outcomes and negative ones (i.e., to both rewards and 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 leads to greater 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, like the present bias, which causes people to prefer outcomes that are closer to the present over ones 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:

 

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.

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. People can also engage in effort discounting, by devaluing outcomes that require effort.

 

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 a 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 like “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 specific plan of implementation, like “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 cause someone to incorrectly assumes that their project is likely to fail, which can discourage them from even trying.

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

  • The optimism bias can lead to procrastination if it causes someone to incorrectly assumes that they won’t run into any issues while working, which makes them feel confident delaying 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 the same.
  • 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 exercising because they followed their diet properly earlier today.
  • The projection bias (and associated empathy gap) can exacerbate 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 upcoming obstacles.

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 due to the tendency to be easily diverted from matters).

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

 

Underlying behaviors

Some underlying behaviors and tendencies 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, and therefore protect their self-esteem.

Other relevant underlying behaviors include:

  • Self-sabotaging, 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 to forget about 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 that they resent.

In addition, other behaviors, like multi-tasking, may also lead to procrastination.

 

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 stop engaging with it. Similarly, depression can also cause someone to procrastinate, by making them feel tired and reducing their interest in outcomes.

 

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, like 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 pursuit of their goals, especially when faced with harmful temptations. Exerting self-control is crucial to self-regulating one’s behavior and avoiding procrastination. Accordingly, procrastination is sometimes said to occur because of akrasia, 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, like genetic predisposition and exhaustion. Other factors that may play a role in this are decision fatigue due to previous decision-making and depletion due to previous exertion of self-control, though 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 when there are many distractions in their environment (e.g., access to social media platforms like Reddit), or when they’re in a noisy environment.

Many situational factors can make procrastination more likely, including clutter, problematic timing of shifts at work, unclear directions, unstructured work, and poor organizational fit. There are also many social factors, like 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

To stop procrastinating, do the following:

  1. Set specific and realistic goals. For example, if you want to start exercising, a good goal might be “be able to run a full mile 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 cases in which 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. It should involve using relevant anti-procrastination techniques, which account for the goals that you set and the nature of your procrastination problem.
  4. Implement your plan. Make sure to reflect on 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., into sub-tasks that you can easily complete).
  • Commit to a tiny first step (e.g., to working for just 2 minutes).
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes (e.g., by accepting that your work won’t be perfect).
  • 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 while you do them).
  • Make it harder to procrastinate (e.g., by removing 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 noon tomorrow).
  • Plan how you’ll handle 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’d 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., by emulating a role model).
  • Use time-management techniques (e.g., by alternating consistently between work and rest).
  • Create starting rituals (e.g., by counting down from five before taking action).
  • Start with your best or worst task (e.g., with 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’ll likely benefit from writing things down, such as your goals and plan. This can have various benefits, like 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. Also, 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.

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. Potentially, you can also make it easier for yourself to get started, for example by preparing your tools without yet trying to start working, and make it harder to procrastinate, for example by removing distractions from your environment.