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The Psychology of Procrastination

Why We Avoid the Things We Must Do

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published about a year ago Updated about a year ago 7 min read
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The Psychology of Procrastination
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Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill. — Christopher Parker

Procrastination is (regrettably) a phenomenon that is familiar to most people. At some point, everyone has put off doing something that they know they should be doing. While procrastination can be a minor inconvenience in some cases, it can also have serious consequences, including decreased productivity, increased stress, and negative impacts on mental and physical health.

But what is the psychology behind procrastination? What causes us to behave this way even when it causes us distress? And, what represent effective strategies for overcoming this bothersome habit?

One of the main causes of procrastination is a lack of motivation. Motivation can be defined as the driving force that initiates, directs, and sustains behavior (Deci & Ryan, 2000). When we are motivated to do something, we are more likely to take action and persevere in the face of challenges. On the other hand, when we are not motivated, we are more likely to put things off or avoid them altogether.

While that seems logical and straightforward, human motivation itself is complex and multifaceted. There are several factors that can contribute to low motivation, including a lack of interest in the task, a lack of confidence in one’s ability to complete the task, and a lack of rewards or incentives for doing the task. In some cases, procrastination can be a way of avoiding tasks that are perceived as unpleasant, overwhelming, or somehow threatening (Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995).

Another factor that can contribute to procrastination is a lack of self-regulation, or the ability to manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to achieve a goal. People who struggle with self-regulation may have difficulty setting goals, prioritizing tasks, and managing their time effectively. They may also have difficulty controlling their impulses or distractions, which can lead to procrastination.

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An often overlooked, but fundamental aspect of the psychology of procrastination is the role of emotions. Negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, and insecurity can lead to procrastination by making it difficult for individuals to focus on tasks or make decisions . For example, someone who is anxious about their ability to complete a task may put it off in order to avoid the associated negative emotions. Similarly, someone who is insecure about their skills may put off a task until they feel more confident in their ability to complete it.

Procrastination can also be driven by a desire to avoid negative emotions associated with inherently difficult or unpleasant tasks (Steel, 2007). This is known as “emotion-focused coping,” in which individuals engage in behaviors that help them avoid or reduce negative emotions rather than directly addressing the source of those emotions (Carver & Scheier, 1998).

A related factor that can contribute to procrastination is the way that individuals think about tasks and goals. People who have a fixed mindset, or a belief that their abilities and characteristics are fixed and cannot be changed, may be more likely to procrastinate on tasks that they perceive as challenging or beyond their abilities (Dweck, 2006). They may avoid these tasks in order to protect their self-esteem and avoid the negative emotions associated with failure.

On the other hand, people who have a growth mindset, or a belief that their abilities and characteristics can be developed through effort and learning, may be more likely to embrace challenges and persist in the face of setbacks (Dweck, 2006). They may be more motivated to take on difficult tasks and more resilient in the face of setbacks and failures.

Conversely, in addition to negative emotions, procrastination can also be fueled by positive emotions, such as a desire for pleasure or enjoyment. People may put off tasks that they find tedious or unenjoyable in favor of activities that provide more immediate pleasure, even if those activities do not contribute to their long-term goals. This can be a form of “avoidant coping,” in which individuals engage in behaviors that help them avoid difficult tasks or situations rather than facing them head-on (Carver & Scheier, 1998).

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The effects of procrastination can be significant. People who procrastinate are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and feelings of guilt and remorse (Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995). They may also experience lower levels of productivity and performance, as well as negative impacts on their mental and physical health. In some cases, procrastination can lead to missed deadlines and opportunities, as well as damage to personal and professional relationships.

There are several strategies that can be effective for overcoming procrastination. One strategy is to set specific, achievable goals, and to break those goals down into smaller, more manageable tasks . This can help to make the tasks seem more manageable and increase motivation to take action.

A related approach involves creating a plan of action, including setting aside dedicated blocks of time for specific tasks, and minimizing distractions and interruptions. It can also be helpful to enlist the support of a friend or accountability partner to help stay on track and stay motivated.

There are also strategies that can be effective for managing emotions related to procrastination. One tactic is to identify the underlying emotions that are driving procrastination and to address those emotions directly. For example, someone who is anxious about their ability to complete a task may benefit from seeking support or guidance, building their skills and knowledge, or setting achievable goals. Someone who is avoiding a task because it is unpleasant may benefit from finding ways to make the task more enjoyable or rewarding.

Working to develop a growth mindset can help reduce the tendency to procrastinate, including reframing the way that tasks and goals are perceived. Rather than viewing tasks as threats to one’s abilities or self-esteem, individuals can try to see them as opportunities for learning and growth (Dweck, 2006). This can help to increase motivation and reduce the negative emotions that can lead to procrastination.

A key step is identifying and modifying any unhelpful beliefs or thought patterns that may be contributing to procrastination (Beck, 2011). For example, individuals may benefit from challenging and replacing thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t do this” with more helpful and realistic thoughts such as “I’m learning and improving” or “I can do this with effort and practice.”

Another strategy is to focus on the process of achieving goals rather than the outcome. Instead of stressing about the end result, individuals can try to enjoy the journey and the learning that takes place along the way (Dweck, 2006). This can help to reduce pressure and anxiety, and increase motivation and enjoyment.

Finally, individuals can try to develop healthy coping mechanisms and self-care practices to manage stress and improve overall well-being (American Psychological Association, 2019). This can include activities such as exercise, meditation, and social support, as well as finding ways to balance work and leisure. The use of mindfulness techniques can further assist in managing emotions and staying focused on tasks. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental manner, and has been shown to be effective for reducing stress and increasing well-being. By practicing mindfulness, individuals can become more aware of their emotions and better able to manage them, which, in turn, can help to reduce the triggers that lead to procrastination.

By Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Procrastination is a common phenomenon that can have serious consequences. The psychology behind the behavior is complex and influenced by a variety of factors. By understanding these factors and using effective strategies for managing them, it is possible to overcome procrastination and improve productivity and well-being. This can include seeking support from a mental health professional, modifying unhelpful beliefs or thought patterns, and developing healthy coping mechanisms and self-care practices. By taking these steps, individuals can learn to manage stress, improve time management and executive functioning skills, and build resilience in the face of challenges.

References:

American Psychological Association. (2019). Stress in America: Coping with change. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2019/coping-with-change

Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34–48.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Ferrari, J. R., Johnson, J. L., & McCown, W. G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

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About the Creator

Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer, psychologist and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and industrial/organizational psychology

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