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Centuries before the serious overachiever Benjamin Franklin said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” the Greek poet Hesiod advised, arguably less poetically, “Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” But it was Mark Twain who best captured procrastinators’ hearts with this zinger, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”
“Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,” says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University. We all wait, delay, or postpone things, Ferrari’s research has shown, but only around 15–20% of people are chronic procrastinators who put things off so regularly it has a serious negative effect on their well-being (Ferrari, 2018).
Procrastination is often blamed on simple laziness, but lack of self-control, negative emotions, and simple disinterest are often behind our stalling. Even perfectionism can fuel the supposedly imperfect trait of procrastination. But in some cases, at least for some people, putting things off might have some advantages.
If you’ve asked yourself the question, “Why do I procrastinate?” keep reading to find out what’s behind the tendency to dally and how you can try to stop procrastinating.
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Why do people procrastinate?
Psychologists will tell you that procrastination is a “voluntary delay” of action even though you know you’ll pay a price for dawdling (Sirois, 2014). A deeper definition goes like this: Procrastination is a failure of self-regulation, leading to “irrational delays” that can significantly lower task performance and overall quality of life (Wypych, 2019).
That’s one way of looking at it.
But before you beat yourself up, know that heredity is at least partly to blame for your heel-dragging (Gustavson, 2014). Also, procrastination can be a helpful form of emotional protection (Sirois, 2014).
Psychologists long ago laid out several common causes of procrastination. One early study, for example, found several reasons why college students procrastinate in starting and completing a project: boredom, frustration, resentment, lack of personal meaning or autonomy, stress, and negative feelings or emotions (Blunt, 2010).
Negative emotions are a biggie. We might procrastinate simply because we’re not in the mood to tackle a particular task. We avoid the task to avoid getting into a bad mood. Such thinking can be useful in the short term, but if we can’t handle the stress of procrastination, it can increase negative emotions (Sirois, 2014).
Perfectionism can also cause procrastination (Kobori, 2020). But there is not a lot of research on this idea. One study tested students on both traits, and the perfectionists procrastinated more (Jadidi, 2011).
There can be other reasons for postponing important things. One small study suggested that people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are more likely to procrastinate than others (Ferrari, 2006). Extroverts are also more prone to procrastinating (Kim, 2017).
Your brain on procrastination
Compared to effective doers, procrastinators have different structures in key parts of the brain that control action, according to brain scans of 264 people. Based differences suggest that procrastinators may be more anxious than non-procrastinators about the negative consequences of their actions, causing them to hesitate doing anything (Schlüter, 2018).
Other research shows procrastination and impulsivity—making rash decisions without thinking—often go together (Wypych, 2019). And both of these behaviors have been linked to less gray matter in one part of the brain (Liu, 2017).
Another study of brain scans suggests people who procrastinate a lot may have some sort of faulty processing in their brains, an impaired ability to correct behavior they know is not good for them (Wypych, 2019).
That’s a key to procrastination: We know we’re doing it, and while we might think it’s just a problem of poor time management, we often can’t seem to do anything but dawdle some more.
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Problems of procrastination
Sitting on our hands can have a range of negative effects, especially when it becomes chronic procrastination.
People who procrastinate tend to have lower levels of self-compassion and higher levels of stress (Sirois, 2014). Procrastination has also been linked to self-doubt and low self-esteem (Hajloo, 2014). Here’s the big concern to watch out for: The stress of procrastinating can set up a vicious cycle of bad moods leading to further procrastination (Sirois, 2014).
The effects of procrastination go beyond mental health. For example, putting off routine doctor appointments and health screenings can lead to worse physical health (Sirois, 2003).
That type of procrastination during the COVID-19 pandemic—understandable as people were wary of seeking health care for fear of catching the virus—is expected to lead to thousands of deaths by 2030, just among people whose cancers were not diagnosed earlier, when they were more treatable (Sharpless, 2020).
Possible benefits of procrastination
Procrastination might not always be a bad thing. A limited number of studies suggest possible advantages to stalling for a while.
Passive procrastinators can indeed become paralyzed by indecision, according to one study. But active procrastinators actually like working under pressure, and they decide on purpose to hold off, but then are efficient at time management and performance once they get started (Chu, 2005).
Putting things off for a while might also foster creativity, a study of Chinese college students found (Liu, 2017).
How to stop procrastinating
While we all procrastinate from time to time, it can be a nuisance if we really need to get things done. Here are a few things you can try to stop procrastinating:
University students who procrastinated about studying before a test did less procrastinating before the next test if they forgave themselves for dragging their heels on the first effort (Wohl, 2010).
Figure out the first step
Rather than focus on an entire project, just identify a small starting point, and perhaps attach a treat or reward to getting that little bit done, and then get going (Webb, 2016).
Visualize the benefits of finishing
It’ll feel great to knock an important task off your to-do list instead of dwelling on it—even something so simple as a phone call or an email. Try to imagine how you’ll feel once it’s behind you. Research shows thinking of your future self can help you get going in the present (Ersner-Hershfield, 2009; Webb, 2016).
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Set a deadline
Deadlines can help us avoid procrastination, too, but not always.
When researchers sent out surveys to people with varying deadlines, people under a one-week deadline were more likely to return the survey than those given a one-month deadline. The researchers think that people given the one-month deadline felt they had “permission to procrastinate” and then simply forgot about the task (Knowles, 2021).
Other research finds the future feels closer when goals and deadlines are set in days, not months or years, and that people tend to procrastinate if the future doesn’t feel imminent (Lewis, 2015).
Announce your commitment
Telling people you’ll do something triggers a sense of social responsibility in the brain (Izuma, 2008; Webb, 2016).
Turn your stress into an advantage
Procrastination (and deadlines) can be stressful. But when adolescents and young adults were taught to see stressful demands as challenges instead of threats, the brain chemistry of their stress response changed, releasing more helpful testosterone and less of the sweaty-palm-inducing hormone called cortisol. By normalizing their stress, they performed better on tests and procrastinated less (Jamieson, 2021).
Improve your focus
If a lack of focus contributes to your procrastination, there are several ways to improve your focus:
- Remove distractions. The easier or less interesting a task is, the easier it is to become distracted. A quiet space to think and work can be a big help.
- Take a break. If you find yourself staring at your project after a lengthy session, it’s time to give your mind a short-term rest. That’s not procrastination. It’s an important way to stay fresh.
- Go for a walk. Just about any other sort of physical activity that gets your heart pumping can help you focus better upon return.
Get inside your own head
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation exercises can help you focus on the here and now, accepting things that come your way without judging. That, in turn, can lessen stress and anxiety and improve decision-making. And yes, mindfulness has been shown to lessen the tendency to procrastinate (Schutte, 2020).
Mindfulness exercises: benefits and where to start
Try cognitive-behavioral therapy
If you are a chronic procrastinator, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) might help. This guided therapy, of which there are many types, helps people replace negative feelings with positive thoughts and actions. Research suggests it can help reduce procrastination (Rozental, 2018).
Just be careful not to take your efforts at overcoming procrastination too far. To get things checked off their to-do lists, people sometimes “pre-crastinate,” rushing to get one of two tasks done quickly even if it involves a poor decision and more work in the end (Rosenbaum, 2014).
Do you procrastinate more than most folks? One unfortunate gauge is how much stress your procrastination causes you. Another could be what your boss or peers think—perhaps you could ask them. Maybe you’ll find out your delay tactics are a lot like those of most people. If not, then you’d be wise to work on ways of overcoming your procrastination. As Benjamin Franklin would have advised, there’s no time like the present to get started.
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