Why Do We Procrastinate?

Tomorrow (n.): A mystical land where 99% of all human productivity, motivation and achievement is stored.

This definition aptly sums up something all of us tend to do at some point or the other in our lives: procrastinate. Those boring college assignments, tedious office projects, filing of important papers – everything is put away to watch just one more episode of your favourite television show. It is a practice mankind has endured since the start of civilisation – some Egyptian hieroglyphs translate to “Friend, stop putting off work and allow us to go home in good time.” Today’s century is no different.

A recent study among University students found that nearly thirty-two percent of students tend to be severe procrastinators – making it not just a bad habit but an actual problem. Another study found that an average employee tends to delay important work each day by an hour and twenty minutes. This accounts to a massive economic loss of about nine thousand dollars per worker per year.

Procrastination is the gap between intention and action – we intend to do an activity, but delay translating that intention into action. We know we ought to do something now – that it is of absolute importance to execute that action. But we don’t do it because we don’t feel like it. We waste time we know we cannot afford to. Why does this happen? Why do we procrastinate, that too repeatedly?

One reason is the feeling of pleasure it offers, though short-lived. While procrastinating, we often engage in other distracting activities that are more appealing. This results in a small dose of dopamine which modifies the activity our brain and makes us experience pleasure. This chemical reward, though short-lived, makes it more likely for us to repeat this behaviour.

Cognitive distortions also play a major role in our tendency to procrastinate. Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown found that students tend to engage in procrastination because of four main reasons: first, they overestimate how much time they have left to perform tasks. Second, they overestimate how motivated they will be in the future. Third, they underestimate how long certain activities will take to complete. And lastly, they mistakenly assume that they need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project.

There are also certain fixed habits that allow us to rationalise procrastination. Tuckman, Abry, and Smith found that the one of the most common rationalisations is our belief that we perform best under pressure. Procrastination and the eventual need to meet a deadline force us to work under pressure. Once we have successfully accomplished a task under such conditions, we rationalise every subsequent procrastination as our tendency to work best under pressure.

There also exist individual differences in procrastination. While every person has procrastinated at some point in their lives, some people are more susceptible to this tendency than others. Individuals who display impulsive tendencies are more likely to be distracted by things they find appealing in the short term. This leads to a delay in activities that they must accomplish in the long run. Thus, while it does not mean that every procrastinator is an impulsive person, there exists a correlation between procrastination and impulsivity.

Both impulsivity and procrastination are a breakdown of self-regulation. Impulsivity is doing now what should wait. Procrastination is not doing something that should be done. This breakdown in self-control counts for seventy percent of observed procrastination behaviours. This leads to another interesting correlation – those who are low in self-control and more likely to give into temptation are more likely to delay going to bed – what is known as bed procrastination.

However satisfying procrastination may initially seem, it eventually has severe consequences. A study among college students found that those who procrastinated reported lower amounts of stress at the start of the term, presumably because of pursuing more pleasurable activities. Towards the end of the term, however, the procrastinators reported higher levels of stress and illnesses as well as poorer quality of work. It is also often accompanied by feelings of guilt and anxiety. This pursuit of short term pleasure, thus, comes at a big cost.

Given these consequences, ninety-nine percent procrastinators want to get over this habit. And the bright side is that the behaviour is very alterable – one only needs to get started! Taking an initiative, however small, is the one of the most effective ways of dealing with procrastination. The first attempt need not be perfect; it only needs to be made.

On a more interesting note, procrastination showcases man’s fluid relationship with time. Time is a commodity of utmost value, one that man attempts to utilise to its fullest. Somewhere in this pursuit though, man loses his way. And before he knows it, time has passed. Most of us are often left with a question Dr. Seuss once asked, ‘How did it get so late so soon?’

Chinmayee Kantak