If you’re asking yourself “Why do people procrastinate?,” you may start by looking at your own behavior. Despite having plenty of time to complete tasks, why do you end up doing them last minute — feeling stressed and out of control?
Let’s take a look at how it all starts.
Opening your laptop in the morning, you’re not too worried about the workday ahead. Even though you have an important project to tackle, you start with smaller tasks. You tell yourself that there’s more than enough time in the day.
As the day progresses, you chip away at your project, but keep coming back to activities that provide instant gratification: chatting with your co-worker, checking social media, having yet another coffee. Before you know it, it’s the afternoon, and it becomes really obvious: You spent all morning procrastinating.
Instead of blaming yourself for it, a more effective way to stop procrastinating is to understand why it happens. That’s what this article is for. We’ll cover the psychological mechanisms and causes behind procrastination as well as some proven techniques to change your unhelpful behavior patterns.
What Is Procrastination, and What Does It Look Like?
Although the psychological reasons behind procrastination take up entire books, the behavior itself is quite easy to spot.
Procrastination happens when you postpone an important task to the point that it has negative consequences on your long-term productivity and well-being. It can be work-related but may also apply to your relationships, personal projects, house chores, and other domains.
From a psychological standpoint, procrastination is often a form of emotional self-regulation. People procrastinate as a means of escaping discomfort — either real or projected — connected to the thing they dread doing. That’s why we’re most prone to postponing unpleasant tasks. We worry that they’ll make us feel bored, tired, frustrated, devoid of purpose, etc.
It’s important to highlight that procrastination is not the same as laziness. While being lazy implies that you don’t care about something, procrastination often signals the opposite.
Often, we procrastinate on things precisely because they are important. We want to do them, but we fail at self-control when it comes to following through. This happens due to various psychological, emotional, and environmental factors.
Why Do People Procrastinate? 10 Most Common Reasons
A helpful way to understand procrastination is that it’s an emotional problem rather than a time management problem. Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois defined it as a “form of self-regulation failure that involves the primacy of short-term mood repair and emotion regulation over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.”
This means that the underlying cause of procrastination is trying to alleviate discomfort: boredom, fear, anxiety, frustration, or another negative emotion connected to the task. People procrastinate because they want to avoid one or more of these emotions short term. However, this often happens at the expense of long-term goals and wellness.
This underlying cause of procrastination can manifest in a number of ways. Here are 10 of the most common reasons people procrastinate.
1. Personality Traits
Some scientists speak about different types of procrastinators. But, it also seems like there are some characteristics most procrastinators share.
A meta-analysis of procrastination’s possible causes and effects revealed that some strong predictors of procrastination were low self-efficacy, task aversiveness, impulsivity, low self-control, and distractibility. These are personality traits that make a person more prone to emotional discomfort — and hence, to avoiding it by procrastinating.
2. Fear of Failure
The fear of failure is a frequent reason behind procrastination. When you worry that the project you’re about to start will go wrong, one defense mechanism is to avoid engaging in it altogether. That’s a way of avoiding psychological discomfort you imagine will happen in the future.
Interestingly, researchers found that when you feel competent to tackle a task, the fear of failure won’t make you procrastinate. Believing in yourself seems to be a good antidote to procrastination.
3. Fear of Success
The fear of success may sound like it’s not a real thing. But you’d be surprised how many people subconsciously hold themselves back because of it.
This can include how other people will react to your success, new responsibilities connected to it, worrying that you’ll be discovered as a fraud, and so on. All those projected changes may feel uncomfortable and make you procrastinate.
4. Feeling Overwhelmed
Feelings of overwhelm and not knowing where to start on a task are commonly cited reasons for procrastination. This is often connected with the task seeming either too big or too abstract.
In both cases, the uncertainty around how to take the first step causes discomfort. You may be unsure whether you’re “doing it right,” and even if you have a person who could potentially help, you may not even know what question to ask. Or, you worry that you’ll be seen as silly for asking.
In that scenario, putting the task off can seem like the safest bet. The trouble is, this inevitably leads to procrastination.
5. Novelty Bias
Another reason people tend to procrastinate — especially on mundane, repetitive, and predictable tasks — is novelty bias. Novelty bias is the built-in function of the brain (or more precisely of the prefrontal cortex) that makes us look for new stimuli at the expense of focusing on the old ones.
This used to serve an important survival function in prehistoric times. When humans were subject to danger from predators, the ability to switch focus rapidly was more important than keeping it on a task at hand.
Today, novelty bias still encourages us to look for new stimuli, such as social media notifications, emails, or looking outside the window. The side effect is often procrastination and neglecting the tasks we know we should be doing.
6. Lack of Motivation
Sometimes, the reason behind procrastination can be very obvious. This is the case when an individual is putting off a task simply because they have no motivation to do it.
According to the reinforcement theory of motivation, a person is more likely to engage in a behavior when they know it brings them something positive. At work, this could involve a financial bonus, promotion, praise from the team, or feelings of fulfillment and purpose.
When you know you’re not getting any of those as a reward for completing the task, your motivation drops. Procrastination then becomes a natural response.
Sirois and colleagues found that, at least in some cases, perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate on tasks. Why? Because they fear that what they produce won’t be good enough. Therefore, they often feel more comfortable not engaging in it at all.
Perfectionism is similar to the fear of failure or success because it prevents a person from action based on imagined future outcomes. A perfectionist finds it hard to accept that what they do could be less than ideal — and so they’re likely to withdraw and procrastinate.
8. Mental Health Condition
Sometimes, the discomfort connected to doing a task isn’t situational, but it stems from a mental health condition. When someone suffers from a generalized anxiety disorder or depression, even small tasks may seem insurmountable. Procrastination then becomes a defense mechanism.
Feelings of shame often perpetuate those reasons for procrastinators. A person with social anxiety may procrastinate on making a stressful phone call because they feel like they can’t talk about their feelings to anyone. In this case, procrastination seems like their only option.
Procrastination may seem like a learned behavior — but it isn’t always. Some studies show that the tendency to procrastinate can also be inherited through our genes. What’s more, it’s often connected to genetically conditioned impulsiveness.
A well-known example of this is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Psychological science knows that this condition is largely genetic. It often causes difficulty in focusing on one thing at a time, which can manifest as procrastination.
10. Environmental Factors
While many of the reasons behind procrastination lie with the individual, we can’t forget about the environmental factors. Some circumstances make it harder to get to the task, and this needs to be acknowledged.
Those circumstances may include a noisy office, a company culture that promotes being late, chatty co-workers who don’t notice when you’re trying to focus, a cluttered desk, a buzzing phone, etc. Some of those factors are fairly easy to change. Others, like office culture, can take years to transform — and meanwhile, it may make you more prone to procrastination.
What Can You Do to Stop Procrastinating?
If you procrastinate from time to time, this may not be destructive. But if procrastination has become a habit, this simply leads to dumping more and more tasks on your future self.
While it may feel gratifying in the moment, in the long run it’s a self-defeating behavior that causes distress. Some of the negative consequences of procrastination may include:
- Higher levels of stress in the future
- A smaller amount of time to complete tasks
- Wasting time on activities that bring little to no value
- A drop in your personal productivity
- Increased self-doubt and questioning your abilities
- Low self-esteem because of not doing what you said you would
Fortunately, you don’t need to suffer all these consequences. You can change your relationship with procrastination and the negative feelings it alleviates by using these science-backed techniques below.
Practicing mindfulness is a technique that directly addresses the emotional discomfort you’re trying to escape. It will work particularly well if your procrastination is related to the fear of success or failure, perfectionism, or mental health problems. It may also help to ease stress, anxiety, and depression.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be an advanced meditation technique. At the core, it’s about cultivating self-awareness in those moments when you know you’ll be prone to procrastinating. Rather than habitually escaping discomfort, noticing and accepting it can help you move through your day in a more productive way.
Science shows that the more mindful people are, the less they tend to procrastinate. So next time you notice yourself resisting a task, take a few conscious breaths. Bring your awareness to the present moment and check in with your feelings, even when they’re uncomfortable. This may help you see that, for example, your fear of failure isn’t grounded in reality. When you acknowledge this, the fear will probably lose some of its power.
Block Out Time for Specific Tasks
Sometimes, procrastination can be addressed by simple time management techniques. If your reasons for postponing tasks are connected to feeling overwhelmed or a lack of motivation, what may work for you is blocking out time for specific tasks in your schedule.
Time blocking allows you to remove quite a few obstacles to getting started. First off, the uncertainty around when the task begins and finishes is gone. For example, you now have your report-writing time booked into your calendar between 12 and 2 p.m. Even just seeing it in a visual form gives you added accountability. It also encourages you to single-task instead of multi-task. Besides, it gives you a deadline which, as studies have found, improves performance.
An interesting element you can add to your time blocking is “the nothing alternative.” The idea comes from writer Raymond Chandler. When blocking out his writing time, Chandler only gave himself two options: either write or do nothing. There wasn’t any alternative; he only allowed himself to do one or the other.
When you frame it like that, you’re less likely to procrastinate. Most people would rather be doing something than nothing with their time.
Optimize Your Environment
It’s scientifically proven that the work environment influences employees’ productivity and level of focus. As discussed before, certain factors in the workspace will make you more prone to procrastination. Others, however, will make it easier to tackle your work head-on.
You may not be able to change all aspects of your work environment. But, it may be enough if you change some. Here are a few ideas of those changes that might be within your reach:
- Consider moving your workstation closer to the window: Studies show that natural light contributes to better health, fewer headaches, and decreased eye strain. This means you may find work more enjoyable and, therefore, procrastinate less.
- Bring some plants to the office: Working in spaces with more natural features has been shown to increase employees’ wellbeing by 15%, productivity by 6%, and creativity by 15%.
- Declutter your desk: When you have a lot of objects lying around, your brain gets distracted by them. Having clean, empty space on your desk supports focus because it gives you less possibilities for procrastination.
- Use noise-canceling headphones: When you work in a noisy office, this may be a real game-changer. The headphones won't just cancel the noise and, therefore, reduce distractions. Wearing them also signals to your co-workers that you’re busy and that they shouldn't bother you, unless they have something important to say.
- Keep your phone in silent mode and out of sight: Even if your phone isn’t buzzing and actively distracting you, just having it within sight reduces your ability to focus. So make it a point not to have your phone within reach, especially if you want to stop procrastinating.
Finally, there’s one more thing you can do to reduce procrastination — and this one has to do with how you treat yourself. Many people have internalized negative self-talk. Their inner critic feels like their second nature.
However, beating yourself up for procrastinating won’t help you change that behavior in the future. In fact, self-compassion and self-forgiveness are way more constructive responses.
One study investigated a group of students who were preparing for two midterm exams. The researchers found that among the students who procrastinated on studying for the first exam, those who forgave themselves were more likely to prepare better for the second one. Not getting hung up on failing seemed to have helped them make a positive change.
Remember, self-forgiveness isn’t about giving up the idea of change. It’s not about sugarcoating procrastination. Rather, it’s about letting go of the feelings of guilt and self-loathing because they’re not helpful.
Instead, you can grant yourself a possibility for a fresh start. The fact that you procrastinated yesterday doesn’t mean you have to do it today.
Stop Procrastinating With Time Tracking
The causes for procrastination may be internal or external. Some of them are rooted in hidden fears, mental health struggles, or personality traits. Others have more to do with how you schedule your days and what kind of environment you work in.
In order to address procrastination, you first need to understand the ways in which you procrastinate as well as when it happens. Many people are unaware of how they really spend their time. They think they’ve only been procrastinating for a few minutes, but in reality, it’s been closer to an hour.
It’s hard to gain insight into your procrastination patterns, unless you have a good time tracker. That’s where Rize comes into play. We’ve built a user-friendly, customizable time tracker. It runs automatically in the background and helps you see exactly how you spend your workday.
Sign up for a free 14-day trial, with no credit card required.