We procrastinate for more reasons than simply not wanting to do a task. If you don’t know why you procrastinate, it’s impossible to change the behavior.
People procrastinate for more reasons than simply not wanting to do a task. If you don’t know why you procrastinate, it’s impossible to change the behavior.
1. I Should Do This, But I Want to Do That
Example: Although I know I should eat healthy, having a salad right now would bum me out and not be pleasurable, so I’ll have the burger and fries, please.
The should/want scenario is perhaps the most common reason we procrastinate. We do it to avoid pain or discomfort, or to emotionally cope.
Simply put, when what we should do is difficult or unpleasant, we swap it for something we want to do instead.
“I’ll soothe myself with something more pleasant than what I should be doing.”
Researchers in psychology, behavioral sciences, and related fields (Milkman et. al 2013, as well as Timothy Pychyl and Dan Ariely) note that this type of procrastination allows us to negative emotions.
2. Future Self Who?
Example: I’m not saving for retirement because I need the money now.
Another reason people procrastinate is because “the present self fails to connect to the future self” (Peetz and Wilson, 2008). We often know what we should do to make life better for our future self, but because we don’t feel the consequences in the moment now, it’s easy to not take them too seriously.
3. I’m Too Disorganized
Example: I didn’t review what I needed to get done today, so I didn’t plan my day well, and now I guess I’ll put off some of these tasks until another time.
In the mid 1980s, a researcher from University at York (Lay, 1986) ran some studies related to procrastination. He and his team asked subjects to put in an envelope in the mail by a certain date. The subjects also filled out a personality survey. Then, the team looked at the postmarked date on the envelopes to see didn’t make the deadline. They found that people who missed the deadline were more likely to be disorganized.
In other words, some people are more prone to procrastination than others, or it could be that disorganization causes missed deadlines rather than intentional procrastination.
Interestingly, the experiment also looked at whether there might be a connection between people’s self-esteem, energy levels, or their need for achievement. They found none.
4. F*ck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me!
Example: My boss constantly gives me the worst assignments, which I resent. I’m not doing them right now.
Rebellion is another reason people sometimes procrastinate. The same researchers from York who found evidence that disorganized people are more likely to procrastinate then organized people also noticed that people can procrastinate if they feel “resentment based on perceived unfair treatment by others toward oneself.”
5. There’s Plenty of Time for Everything
Example: I’ll go grocery shopping right after I take the dog to the vet, visit grandma as promised, help the kids with their homework, fold the laundry, and clean the fish tank before the fish get sick and die.
Having a poor assessment or time or relying too much of wishful thinking causes procrastination, too. This reason is similar to being disorganized, but it’s slightly different in that you can be highly organized and still not be able to accurately estimate how much time different tasks require. That’s how you find yourself at the end of the day with no food in the house and a tank of dead fish.
Lay, C. H. (1986). At last, My research article on procrastination. Journal of Research in Personality, 20: 474-495. DOI: 10.1016/0092-6566(86)90127-3.
Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2013) Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, Articles in Advance, pp. 1-17, INFORMS.
Peetz, J., & Wilson, A. E. (2008). The temporally extended self: The relation of past and future selves to current identity, motivation, and goal pursuit. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(6): 2,090‐2,106.
Photo by Servando Miramontes, CC.