Why it has nothing to do with laziness
Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, just not today. You know how it is: you put off a task for days that could easily be done in 2 minutes. We delay a task that we can do well in time, but we choose to do it last minute. Like many other people who write, I am a master at procrastination. I’ll sit there and scroll on Instagram when I should be working on an assignment with my deadline rapidly approaching. But why is that, why do we procrastinate and what is the psychology behind it?
Procrastination is a perfect example of the present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones. We weren’t designed to think ahead into the future because we had to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now. Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. It refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. The immediate relief from postponing a task is stronger than the long-term consequences.
Definition of procrastination
Procrastination’s etymological root is the Latin verb procrastinare, which means to postpone until later. But, it goes beyond merely postponing voluntarily. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgment. Klassen, Krawchuk, and Rajani (2008, p. 916) define procrastination as “the intentional delay of an intended course of action, in spite of an awareness of negative outcomes.” When we procrastinate, we’re not only aware that we’re avoiding the task in question, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea. And yet, we do it anyway. Therefore, procrastination is essentially irrational. It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences. The behaviour is illogical, you have to do the task after all, but you lose time. So why do we do it?
What are the causes of procrastination?
Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw, a curse on your ability to manage time or laziness, but a way of coping with challenging emotions induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, self-doubt and beyond. Delaying a chore gives you immediate relief because you have benefitted from your delay. And we know from fundamental behaviourism that when we receive a reward, we often repeat the behaviour. When we put off a task because it makes us feel bad — perhaps it’s dull, difficult, or we’re scared of failing — we start doing something else to make ourselves feel better immediately, like scrolling on Instagram. Our brain will keep practising procrastination if we have a habit loop around it. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-time behaviour but a cycle that easily becomes a chronic habit.
Research has shown that procrastination is an issue with managing our emotions, not our time, where deeper, more intricate psychological problems can be the cause. In actuality, delaying tasks is frequently a self-defense mechanism. For instance, if you put off doing something, you can always use the justification that you “didn’t have enough” time, which ensures that your confidence in your abilities is never at risk. Most of the time, we delay and avoid things out of worry and anxiety that we will do poorly, lose control or seem idiotic. We avoid doing a task to avoid our abilities being judged. And if we do succeed, it makes us feel even “smarter.” Almost everybody procrastinates from time to time. It can be a bad habit that can be burdensome in everyday life. But it can also be a deeper symptom of a serious mental illness like depression or an anxiety disorder.
How can we break the cycle of procrastination?
Procrastination is a learned behaviour. It’s also possible to unlearn this behaviour. The extent to which people procrastinate varies from person to person. Therefore, there is also no universal solution that suits everyone. To some, it helps to make a to-do list, others need to minimize every possible distraction and focus on just one task at a time. Recognizing that you are purposefully putting off a task and considering why is the first step. Bariso (2021) suggests a simple technique which he calls the five-minute rule. He recommends committing to the activity for five minutes, but with the condition that you can give up if it becomes too much. This technique, also known as chunking, divides work into manageable chunks. It can help those who procrastinate in overcoming the first hurdle. Often the first step of getting started is the hardest.