The Science of Procrastination: What Causes It and How to Beat It

When the English writer, Edward Young, coined the phrase, “Procrastination is the thief of time,” he was on to something. It feels like he meant it for me and all the other people in the world that procrastinate.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe I am quite organized and manage time and tasks well, but even I have fallen victim to the thief of time.

While it’s okay to drag your proverbial feet on getting tasks completed, a problem can arise for those who do so habitually. That habit is called chronic procrastinating and, believe it or not, there is a science of procrastination that tries to explain it.

Also, not everyone who procrastinates is a procrastinator. It must be a trait. It must be chronic.

According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of “Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done,” an estimated 20% of U.S. adults are chronic procrastinators.

The question is, are you a chronic procrastinator, and if so, how can you overcome it?

There is no shortage of definitions for the word “procrastination”. However, there is a mutual consensus that to procrastinate means to voluntarily delay important tasks regardless of the consequence. It’s an act of not acting.
UMPC HealthBeat describes procrastination as avoiding work or important tasks by focusing on activities that appear to be more satisfying.

Experts also attribute this human vice to laziness, wasting time, lack of self-control, the poor concept of time, self-deception, and an inability to control one’s emotions. Interestingly, many procrastinators are aware of what they’re doing and the potential consequences, yet they struggle to change their habits.

What Causes Procrastination?

The science of procrastination seems to suggest that there are biological and psychological reasons why people put their priorities on the back burner.

Biological Causes

The biological explanation surrounds the function of the limbic system and prefrontal cortex in the brain. The limbic system is a set of brain structures that contain the pleasure and reward center, while the prefrontal cortex helps regulate thinking, planning, and decision making.

According to scientific researchers, the limbic system is stronger than the prefrontal cortex, therefore it often dominates leading you to engage in activities that make you feel good. Of course, the prefrontal cortex and its logics about staying on task lose the battle a lot of times.

But if the natural wiring of the brain is a cause, then how much control do we really have over prioritizing tasks and getting them done ahead of time?

Saying that procrastination is cerebral also trumps the idea that those who wander off to more pleasurable activities are deliberately looking for distractions.

Psychological Causes

In terms of the psychological perspective, Eric Jaffe, author of the article “Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination”, suggests the root cause is a lack of emotional regulation and not an issue of time-management.

Jaffe referred to the work of Timothy Psychl Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) who said “Emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination, because to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task.”

Tying procrastination to lack of emotional regulation may explain why a person does not learn to be early the next time around despite having faced the consequences of habitually regarding important duties as a low priority.

Meanwhile, a study on Self-Regulation and Academic Procrastination published by the Journal of Social Psychology found that the students in the study procrastinated for reasons such as fear of failure, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and depression. These students had a motivational problem, not a problem with laziness or poor time-management skills.

Another possible reason why we put off doing certain things perpetually is that our brain becomes addicted to pleasurable activities and avoiding tasks that may seem overwhelming, difficult, or unpleasant. The “addiction” happens because the pleasurable tasks stimulate dopamine production in the brain and provide the satisfaction we don’t get from the job at hand.

Nevertheless, I think that some people drag their feet on finishing a task that they like. They don’t want it to end, so they’ll let it sit and marinate until it’s time to let it go.

Other Reasons for Procrastination

Pamela D. Garcy, Ph.D., also cited the following contributing factors of procrastination:

  • A lack of self-compassion
  • Internal bias against a specific task
  • Believing you cannot perform well on the job
  • Learned behavior from parents or role models
  • The task is or seems uncomfortable
  • Believing it won’t take much time to get the “chore” done
  • Feeling physically or psychologically uncomfortable

Types of Procrastinators

If you think you’re a procrastinator, you may fall into the 5 groups of procrastinator identified by psychologist, and author of Awaken Your Strongest Self, Neil Fiore. They are as follows:

  1. The Perfectionist: This procrastinator has a fear of making mistakes or being judged, so they spend too much time focusing on the details of one aspect of the project. Failing to manage their time well, they end up rushing to finish the project at the last minute. Interestingly, the results may still leave much to be desired.
  2. The Overwhelmed: Having too much to do, real or perceived, paralyze the process of getting anything done. These procrastinators feel there is so much to do that they don’t know where to start. So, they ignore the duty at hand, trading it in for doing something else or nothing at all.
  3. The Dread-Filled: This type puts off their to-do’s because they appear so unpleasant or boring, they dread getting to them.
  4. The Imposter: An imposter procrastinator is one who is afraid of being discovered as inferior or unqualified. Consequently, they engage in task aversion to avoid risk.
  5. The Lucky One: They are the ones who believe they perform at their best when there is just enough time left to complete the assignment. The risk-taking followed by the sense of accomplishment feels more like a reward for procrastinating.

So, there are people who get things done right away and those that wait until the eleventh hour to finish the task. Typically, the “delayers” are now rushing helter-skelter, adrenaline pumping, heart racing to get a project submitted by the deadline. These are likely the ones who miss deadlines, although there is an exceptional group of chronic procrastinators that perform well under pressure.

Chronic procrastinators are often excited by the euphoria of the delay and, in some cases, it tends to bring out the best in them when they are rushing to the finish line. Many of them may tell you that they get a whole lot more done in less time by waiting until the last moment. For these individuals, it’s like delayed gratification and certainly not wasting time.

Interestingly, I also came across literature that suggests procrastination is something you can embrace. For example:

  • Organized procrastinators get more done
  • Procrastinators make better decisions
  • Procrastination brings out creativity
  • Unnecessary tasks are pushed aside when you procrastinate

This seems to suggest that what matters is that the to-do list gets done, not when it is done.

Stanford philosopher, John Perry, and author of the book, The Art of Procrastination, submits that people can adjust their to-do lists to continuously accomplish something of value. Of course, his idea supporting procrastination was met with rebuttals by other experts on the subject.

Notwithstanding, the habit of letting work or assignments wait can be risky, particularly in your professional or academic life where missed deadlines are met with penalties and being tardy is frowned upon. Your personal relationship can also suffer, you may experience higher levels of stress or anxiety, or sabotage your potentials for success.

How to Overcome Procrastination

Do you find that tough tasks become more important as the deadline approaches, while pleasurable tasks appear more important earlier on?
For example, choosing to study for an exam the day before while you spend the entire week hanging out with friends. Even if procrastination seems to work in your favor, it may still impair your true potentials, chances for success, and even your quality of life.

You can change this perpetual habit of switching your priorities. You’ll likely experience less physical and emotional stress and have more time to accomplish other goals.

Here are five tips you may find helpful:

  1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a brain training technique that helps you to accept what is before you. It can teach you how to recognize when you’re intentionally putting off things that must get done. It helps you process your feelings about performing a certain task and allows you to act regardless of your current thoughts and emotions. By doing this you’re also practicing self-control and emotion regulation, as you’re able to push aside distracting thoughts and feelings.
  2. Awareness: As mindfulness helps bring awareness of the problem, try to figure out what’s the cause. Are you indecisive, anxious, fear failure, struggle with perfectionism, find the task unpleasant, or feel overwhelmed? Once you determine the why, you can take steps, such as planning or scheduling, to stay ahead of your work.
  3. Scheduling: Planning out the time to start and finish tasks is another way to help you overcome the habit of delaying. This approach helps you to prioritize your to-do’s, manage your time effectively, and allows you to tackle priorities head-on according to their level of urgency.
  4. Self-compassion: Be kind to yourself and believe in your ability to complete a project. Accept that no one can perform with perfection all the time. Tell yourself it’s okay to have high standards, but you shouldn’t allow them to cripple your progress.
  5. Block out environmental distractions: Increase productivity by removing distractions such as from your cellphone or email frequently pinging in the background. Ditch the social media and online activities that appear more pleasurable than work. Set your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and tell yourself, “This is my ‘block out”’ period,” and hold yourself accountable for staying on task.

Time Lost Is Never Regained. The Time to Do It Is Now.

Chronic procrastination can be self-defeating in some way or the other. However, many people are not aware the problem exists.

Those who are conscious of it may not know why they stall on their to-do list. Understandably, the brain and the emotions are involved, but once you become aware, you’re empowered to take steps to counteract brain functions and feelings that encourage delaying important responsibilities.

Through self-awareness, practicing mindfulness, holding yourself accountable, and other self-regulation techniques, you may eventually beat procrastination.


About the Author

Joonas Jokiniemi has a background in IT Consulting and Cognitive Neuroscience. He is also a barbecue enthusiast and runs his own website related to grilling and smoking.


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