Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it is more than just voluntarily delaying. Procrastination also comes from the ancient Greek word akrasia, which means doing something against our better judgment.
To understand what causes procrastination (outside of conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, where executive functioning issues might interfere with task completion), it is important to be clear about what it is, and is not.
Procrastination is different from delaying a task because you need to talk to someone who is not available or because you have an appointment. As defined by Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, procrastination is: “The voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so.”
Moreover, procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.
Procrastination is clearly irrational, as it does not make sense for people to do something that is going to negatively affect them. There is not a common reason people tend to fall into this behavior, but the most known one has to do with emotional self-regulation and with an inability to manage negative moods around a certain task. Procrastinators usually do not procrastinate on fun things, but they do a lot on tasks they find difficult, unpleasant, aversive, or just plain boring or stressful. If a task feels especially overwhelming or provokes significant anxiety, it is often easiest to avoid it. Another reason people tend to procrastinate is low self-esteem and a constant thought inside their minds clearly is “I’m never going to do this right”.
Therefore, the particular nature of procrastinators aversion depends on the given task or situation.
But how does the process of procrastination work?
The thing that neither the dictionary nor fake procrastinators understand is that for a real procrastinator, procrastination is not optional: it is something they do not know how to not do. Therefore, it is completely useless to suggest avoiding procrastination to someone who is used to put off until tomorrow.
It seems the rational decision-making process in the procrastinator’s brain coexist with an instant gratification will. Very often, this will wins over our duties and things to do; nowadays it is even more difficult to face the instant gratification will, as discretionary goods and social media causes huge risk of distraction. It is only at the very last moment that procrastinators begin to panic and understand that they have very few time left to be able to achieve what they have to do, therefore, very often failing to accomplish their commitments on time.
To make things worse, people are even less able to make thoughtful, future-oriented decisions in the midst of stress. When humans are faced with a task that makes them feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala — the “threat detector” part of the brain — perceives that task as a genuine threat, in this case to their self-esteem or well-being. Even if they intellectually recognize that putting off the task will create more stress for themselves in the future, people’s brains are still wired to be more concerned with removing the threat in the present. Researchers call this “amygdala hijack.”
Severe procrastinators clearly have to face tough times and they should find any feasible way to get out of this unhealthy lifestyle, because of the following reasons:
- It is unpleasant
- It creates low conscientiousness and impulsivity
- The procrastinator ultimately sells himself short
- The Have-To-Dos may happen, but not the Want-To-Dos.
There are many different types of procrastinators: passive ones, who procrastinate due to the inability to make decisions or act in a timely manner, or active ones, who make deliberate decision to postpone tasks that they know they can complete later; mild procrastinators, who experiences only minor issues as a result of their procrastination, average ones, who are moderately affected by their procrastination, or severe procrastinators, whose procrastination problem is so concerning that it causes them to suffer from an extensive range of issues; pessimistic procrastinators, who tend to worry about their tendency to postpone tasks that they need to complete, or optimistic ones, procrastinators that do not worry about their tendency to postpone tasks, and who are confident in their ability to complete those tasks on time. What almost all of them have in common is the fact that they suffer as a result of their tendency to delay getting started on tasks that will help them achieve their goals in life.
Whatever type of procrastinator you are considering, pushing off tasks repeatedly is a risk factor for poor mental and physical health, experts say. Chronic procrastinators have higher levels of stress and a greater number of acute health problems than other people, Sirois has found.
The mental health implications include experiencing general psychological distress and low life satisfaction (particularly regarding work and income), as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
As it is not easy to stop procrastinating when people are told to do so, what could procrastinators do?
There are several main steps that procrastinators should follow in order to stop, or at least diminish, putting off until tomorrow:
- Outline the goals, in as much detail as possible.
- Identify the nature of the procrastination problem, in terms of when, how, and why they procrastinate.
- Create a plan of action that will allow to deal with the specific type of procrastination.
- Implement a plan of action and refine it as they make progress.
Defeating procrastination is the same thing as gaining control over your own life. So much of what makes people happy or unhappy, of their level of fulfillment and satisfaction, of their self-esteem, of the regrets they carry with them, of the amount of free time they have to dedicate to their relationships, are severely affected by procrastination. So, it is worthy of being taken dead seriously, and the time to start improving is now.
Urban, T., 2014. Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | TED. [online] Youtube.com. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU&ab_channel=TED>
Urban, T., 2013. Why Procrastinators Procrastinate — Wait But Why. [online] Wait But Why.
Available at: <https://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html>
Shatz, I., n.d. Procrastinator: A Guide to Understanding the People Who Procrastinate – Solving Procrastination. [online] Solvingprocrastination.com.
Available at: <https://solvingprocrastination.com/procrastinator/>
Lieberman, C., 2019. Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control) [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self control.html#:~:text=It%20may%20be%20due%20to,%2Desteem%2C%20anxiety%20or%20insecurity>
Haupt, A., 2021. Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop? Experts have answers. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/procrastinate-why-stop-advice/2021/07/09/13b7dc2c-e00e-11eb-9f54-7eee10b5fcd2_story.html>