Psychology of Procrastination (Part 1)

It’s not because we’re lazy, unmotivated, or undisciplined. Science says procrastination is actually much more complicated.
Psychology of Procrastination (Part 1)

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What do Marcus Aurelius, Margaret Atwood, and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? They’re self-proclaimed procrastinators. 

Procrastination definitely gets a bad wrap. But if these famous, accomplished individuals procrastinated, why can’t we? 

Every two out of ten (20%) people label themselves as “chronic procrastinators.” Hell, even the Dalai Lama says he was once a chronic procrastinator. And even pigeons procrastinate

If procrastination is so common, can it really be that bad? The (anonymous) person who once said, “Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried.” was just being abhorrent to all things positive in life, right? 

Not quite. 

Turns out, procrastination—as common as it may be—is not good for us. 

Serious stalling = Serious side effects

Putting things off comes at a cost. Not only does it stress the hell out of your mind, but it also creates chronic stress for your body. Chronic stress can have deleterious effects on your health. 

Chronic stress from procrastination negatively affects:

  • Your heart: Chronic stress makes you more likely to suffer from heart disease and high blood pressure. 
  • Your belly: Chronic stress can make you more prone to digestive issues...peptic ulcers, to be specific. 
  • Your immune system: Chronic stress can impair your immune system. Just type ‘chronic stress immune system’ into the leading medical research database. Hint: the article hits will be over 200k. 
  • Your sleep: 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. has chronic insomnia. You’re likely one of them if you suffer from chronic stress due to procrastination. 
  • Your mood: Chronic stress from procrastination can lead to depression. The relationship between stress and depression is bi-directional, meaning they feed off each other in an endless cycle. 

Constant procrastination can also negatively affect

  • Relationships with others
  • Career and business opportunities
  • Self-confidence
  • Income

So, what gives? Why do we willingly do something so destructive? 

More importantly, how can we put a stop to it? 

The first step in solving any problem is understanding what you’re up against. Once you know the psychology behind why humans procrastinate, it’ll be easier to stop. 

What is procrastination?

Piers Steel, professor at Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics at Calgary, is the global leader in procrastination research. He and his team define procrastination as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.

In other words, procrastination is: 

  • Negative
  • Intentional 
  • Irrational

Four types of procrastinators 

According to Steel and his colleagues, procrastination falls into four categories

  • The thrill seekers: The folks enjoy the rush of just barely finishing a task on time. 
  • The avoiders: These people put off tasks because of fear of disapproval or failure. 
  • The undecided: These procrastinators have trouble making decisions they can stick with. 
  • The impulsive: People in this category have low self-discipline and high distractibility. 

(Curious? You can measure your procrastination type here.) 

So, why do we procrastinate?

It’s not because we’re lazy, unmotivated, or undisciplined. Science says procrastination is actually much more complicated.  

Why we procrastinate: Temporal Motivation Theory

Our day is a long list of decisions, one right after another. Should I write this piece, or should I grab lunch with friends? Should I hit the gym or lounge on the couch?

The temptation to procrastinate is constant, especially in our uber-connected digital world. 

Temporal Motivation Theory suggests we are more likely to work on tasks that bring us pleasure and are likely to complete successfully. And, conversely, we are more likely to procrastinate on difficult and unenjoyable tasks.

According to Temporal Motivation Theory, there are five ‘Ingredients’ to procrastination. These five ingredients interact to determine the likelihood that we will procrastinate on a given task. Some of the ingredients increase the possibility of procrastination, other ingredients decrease its likelihood. 

  1. Competence: Confidence that we can complete the task 
  2. Task value: How important the task is to us 
  3. Distractibility: How easily we are distracted from the task
  4. Time until the deadline. The length of time between now and the deadline 
  5. Temptation value: The value of the temptation (e.g., socializing) 

Baking a procrastination cake

Let’s say you’re making a procrastination cake. The five variables mentioned above (Competence, Task Value, Distractibility, Time, and Temptation Value) are your ingredients. 

If you put varying amounts of each of these five variables into one bowl and then different amounts of these variables into another bowl, you’d end up with two sizes of procrastination cakes (if the size was proportional to the likelihood of procrastination). 

I’ll use this graph to explain. Let’s say this graph represents my tendency to procrastinate.  

Above the graph, we have four of the five variables of procrastination: 

  • “How much value would you attribute to socializing?” = measures the Temptation value 
  • “How confident are you in the task?” = measures my level of Competence
  • “How Sensitive are you to distractions?” = Measures my Distractibility (Squirrel!) 
  • “How valuable is the task for you?” = measures Task value

On the graph: 

  • The curved line in the graph represents Task value (i.e., utility)
  • The horizontal line  = depicts Temptation value
  • The place where the curved line and horizontal line meet = my OSM (aka. My oh shit moment). 

As you can see, when my distractibility level is low (0.03), my OSM comes on day 16. Plenty of time to complete the project. So if I’m not easily distracted, I will start the project when the deadline is 20 days away. I haven’t procrastinated. 

But suppose we increase my distractibility even just a smidge (from 0.03 to 0.07). In that case, my OSM doesn’t happen until I have only eight days left until the deadline. It’s crunch time. I have procrastinated. 

The opposite will happen if we increase my confidence. At low competence (i.e., confidence), my OSM happens at about 6  days until the deadline, thus meaning I have procrastinated. 

But if I increase my competence, then my OSM happens sooner, so I start the project with plenty of time to complete the task.  

(You can interact with the graph created by Christian Burkhart here.) 

So, in sum, the likelihood of procrastination is a complex interplay of these variables: 

  1. Competence. Confidence that we can complete the task decreases the likelihood that we’ll procrastinate. If we feel we can do a bang-up job on an article, we’ll start on that article earlier than if we did not have this confidence. 
  2. Task value. We’re less likely to procrastinate on tasks that are important to us. 
  3. Distractibility. The more swayed you are by distractions, the more likely you are to procrastinate. 
  4. Time until deadline. The more time between now and the deadline, the more likely for procrastination.  
  5. Temptation value: The more valuable the temptation, the more likely we are to procrastinate. 

Now that we know why we procrastinate, it will be easier to stop putting things off. Read the next article in the series “How to stop procrastinating the scientific way” to learn tools and techniques based on Temporal Motivation Theory, to help you get off your bum and hop to it—sooner rather than later. 

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Erica Harrison
Erica Harrison
Erica Harrison is a content and marketing consultant with over 13 years of experience, many of which have she spent as a freelancer. With a leadership background, she has helped countless B2B companies find and maintain their unique and powerful voice. Her expertise and belief that the right words can make anything happen are the perfect ingredients for producing persuasive, authoritative content. Erica artfully covers a broad spectrum of topics and excels with SaaS, technology, and psychology special interest topics.
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