Procrastination makes no sense. Why would a rational person, deciding an assignment is unpleasant or too hard, choose to ignore it and set himself up for a greater chance of failure? Starting immediately would be the logical decision. But, as every college student who’s ever tried and failed to resist the inexorable tug of social media or a good book (my own Achilles’ heel) knows, the logical decision rarely wins out in this scenario.
An activity doesn’t even have to be fun to be tempting. Almost anything—staring at the wall, walking to the water fountain—will do, as long as it’s not the project you’re procrastinating on. The senseless nature of procrastination is captured perfectly by an article defining it as “willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off.”
Perhaps it’s this irrationality that draws scientists to it. A good deal of psychological research has focused on the reasons why people procrastinate, and if there’s one thing that can be learned from surveying the results, it’s that procrastination is exceptionally complex. Studies’ findings overlap to some degree, but each one focuses on a different motive that seems to succeed as well as the next one at explaining procrastinators’ behavior. It’s worth examining these studies, though, because once you know your motives, you can attack your procrastination more effectively. Here are the explanations I found most interesting—which I’ve freed from the academic jargon that turns time-wasting into “quintessential self-regulatory failure” (you’re welcome).
A simple explanation is that people simply fail to value the benefits of acting rationally. One study, reported by an article in the “New Yorker,” discovered that people who were likely to procrastinate were also likely to be impulsive, which suggested that both traits stem from trouble with consistently exercising self-control. Perhaps “self-regulatory failure” isn’t such a bad synonym after all.
Of course, most procrastinators already know they have difficulty disciplining themselves. Another study argues there’s a specific sort of self-control in question here—the sort that deals with delayed gratification. Its research found that, when people consider a situation well in the future, they tend to choose the rational course of action and delay a small pleasure in order to secure a greater pleasure later. This is what would happen if, when you’re faced with a term paper, you denied yourself the small pleasure of procrastinating in favor of the greater pleasure of satisfaction and stress-free relaxation later.
When they’re considering a situation closer to the present, though, people usually opt for the smaller pleasure even though it means sacrificing the greater one. This is what happens when you give in to temptation and ignore that term paper. The needs of the present loom larger than the prospect of a better situation later on, so procrastinators don’t start working until the consequences of inaction are no longer far in the vague future. Then the consequences become part of the needs of the present and panic arrives to provide motivation.
So much for the simplest explanation. Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a major procrastination scholar, cited a more complicated one in an interview with the American Psychological Association: procrastination comes from indecision. While this can be the simple indecision caused by having too many options, Ferrari says it often takes a subtler appearance. Chronic procrastinators—people who procrastinate not just at work but in all areas of their lives—may put off a decision because they’re waiting for other people to take action and decide for them. By their logic, the procrastinator can’t be held responsible for the decision or its outcome since he or she didn’t make the decision. Procrastination, in this view, is a symptom of unwillingness to take responsibility.
Ferrari’s hypothesis dovetails with one of the most common explanations of procrastination, namely that it stems from insecurity. Another article in the “New Yorker,” for example, describes procrastination as a combination of perfectionism, low confidence and fear of failing that leads the procrastinator to conclude it’s better never to start his project. This escalates into a self-fulfilling prophecy if the procrastinator’s delays cause him to fail.
Logical as that sounds, I actually couldn’t find any scientific studies that tested it. A similar thesis exists, though, that also traces procrastination to the procrastinator’s emotional state. An article in “The Wall Street Journal” summarizing the research of Dr. Timothy Pychyl gives several anecdotes from people who said procrastination was a way to make themselves feel better or to avoid unpleasant emotions (like stress over a project). This may sound impossible, given the multitude of studies that have shown a connection between procrastination and greater stress and guilt.
But, in the short run, the interviewees are correct: Procrastinating can make you feel better. It’s been shown to trigger a short elevation in your brain’s levels of a chemical called dopamine that makes you feel happier. Dopamine is best known for its role in drug addiction; in addition to addicts’ physical dependence on a drug, their mental or emotional reliance on the dopamine surge most of them cause makes it harder to stop using the drug.
This doesn’t mean procrastination is addictive in the same way a drug is. It just means that the quick boost of dopamine both makes procrastination immediately rewarding and encourages you to procrastinate again in order to get the temporary emotional benefit. Once it’s impossible to procrastinate any longer, though, the guilt and stress will hit you with greater force. Both Pychyl and “The Wall Street Journal” interviewees agreed that longer-lasting emotional benefit comes from doing the task you’re avoiding. If you face up to it and accomplish at least a little bit, you won’t have to be guilty, there’s less to be stressed about and you’ll have more confidence in your ability to tackle it.
Greater confidence is really the best reason to learn about all these theories. Pure scientific knowledge is excellent, but for laymen, the point of studying procrastination is usually learning how not to do it. Hopefully, as you were reading, you recognized yourself or part of your reasons for procrastinating. I certainly did while I was researching. Now that you know more about why you might procrastinate, you can filter the abundance of anti-procrastination tips the internet offers to find the strategies that will be most effective for you. Good luck!