The psychology of procrastination: procrastination types and how to overcome them
By Dr Thomas MacCarty
Sep 07, 2023
Procrastination is a behavior in which people delay or postpone tasks or actions. It’s likely that everyone has procrastinated on a task they really did not want to do, however there are some people that would fit into the chronic procrastinator category.
Research has shown that 15-20% of adults procrastinate in a manner that negatively impacts their lives. Procrastination is especially common among college students with 80-95% who procrastinate when it comes to doing their assigned coursework.
To understand why people procrastinate it’s important to look at the most common reasons behind the behavior. The reasons will vary from person to person, but there are some very general factors seen in most people who procrastinate routinely.
“It’s the job that’s never started that takes longest to finish.”
Why people procrastinate
James Clear, a best-selling author on human behavior, uses the “present you vs. future you” argument to explain procrastination. He argues that people enjoy immediate gratification in the present, especially when the cost of their choices does not become apparent until far in the future.
This is in line with the reasons explained by Richard Sima, a neuroscientist turned science journalist. Sima argues that a root of procrastination may be explained by cognitive bias. Procrastinators believe that tasks will magically become easier in the future, rather than doing them now.
The more perceived effort needed to complete a task, or the less rewarding, the more likely a task will be put off into the future. Sima also states that the more an individual’s brain discounts the amount of effort needed to complete a task in the future, the more likely that task will be put off into the future.
The psychological factors of low self-efficacy and impulsiveness also come into play. If a person doesn't have the ability to start and complete a task, then the likelihood of procrastinating goes way up.
If a person has difficulty maintaining focus, and is vulnerable to lots of distractions, the individual will have a hard time resisting those distractions. The person in this situation is much more likely to procrastinate.
The value placed on a task also comes into play. The more enjoyable a task is perceived to be, the less likely procrastination to start and complete will take place. Evidence has shown that the mildly painful or boring tasks are most likely to be delayed rather than the more difficult ones. It is why busy work is routinely put off, according to Sima.
Types of procrastination
There are different types of procrastinations based on the frequency and situation of a given event.
Chronic procrastination is when a person starts to continually put things off. It becomes the go-to solution for handling tasks. Unfortunately, chronic procrastination has an effect on the procrastinator’s mental and emotional health, and there are usually other real-world consequences for not getting work done in a timely manner.
Situational procrastination depends on the domain in which the procrastination takes place. It could involve putting off academic or work tasks or not going to bed when it really is time to sleep.
Decisional procrastination is a form of cognitive thinking that helps the procrastinator put off deciding on a task to face a more stressful situation, thus reducing the pressure in the procrastinator’s mind to deal with other situations at hand.
Behavior avoidant procrastination is a continuity of decisional procrastination, according to research by Jeremy Kristanto and Abraham Juneman.
Procrastination is usually associated with negative connotations. Everyone does it from time to time, but most people don’t routinely use procrastination as a tool to avoid tasks. There are many famous individuals that were well known procrastinators though.
The Dalai Lama, despite being the leading voice of the Tibetan people, was not always the most motivated individual and eager to get to work. In his student days, he was known as being quite the slacker and most often put off his assignments.
Bill Clinton was also a notable procrastinator and was known for failing to follow through and being cursed by distraction. His vice president, Al Gore, once called him “punctually challenged.”
Leonardo DaVinci was known for struggling with staying focused. The Mona Lisa, one of his most famous paintings, took 16 years to complete, while the painting of Virgin of the Rocks took 13 years. The other thing these three famous people had in common besides their tendency towards procrastination is they did not let it define them.
“Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.”
Ways to stop procrastinating
There are things people who procrastinate can do to minimize the impact it has on their lives. First, it is important to admit that you procrastinate and to know why it happens.
It is important to make time for time management by creating schedules for your work to be completed.
Break tasks down
It can help to break up large projects into smaller, more manageable components. Try to keep your goals realistic and frequently reassess them and the strategies needed to accomplish your work.
It’s also important to find meaning in the work you’re doing and to think of productive reasons to keep working on tasks that are difficult or boring. If there are tasks you prefer not to do, try to tackle them first. Otherwise, those tasks will continue to be put off until you’re facing a deadline that can lead to anxiety and shabby work.
There are many suggestions to help deal with procrastination.
The 5-Minute Rule
Justin Bariso, a well-known author on procrastination, advises committing to a task for five minutes with the stipulation that you can quit after that time if the task seems too difficult to complete. Chunking can also work, breaking tasks into doable portions.
Writing about a UCLA Anderson School of Management study, Alina Dizik suggested that a visualization can be effective. She suggests visualizing your “future self” finishing a project or cleaning up work that is piling up.
The theory behind this is that most of us are not very good at looking at how your immediate actions will have a long-term impact on our lives. However, if you continuously imagine yourself at a future time in life and think about how the decisions made today will affect this future you (the person you want to be), it can help you make better immediate decisions and recognize their impact going forward.
Dr. Timothy Pychyl, Department of Psychology, Carleton University (2014) argues that mindfulness is effective in helping with self-regulation which relies on emotional regulation. Research has also shown that mindfulness is related to less procrastination.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being highly cognizant of what you are feeling and sensing in the moment without making value judgements.
The effects of procrastination
It is important to recognize the fact that chronic procrastination does have negative impacts on the procrastinator. Beyond the psychological and emotional stress, it can cause damage to your reputation.
People will not depend on you if you are constantly late, or your work is subpar because you’re rushing at the last minute. Procrastinators may wish to blame others or make excuses for their behavior but ultimately, it is the responsibility of the person to get their tasks completed and no one else.
It is never easy to change a behavior that has become ingrained. Procrastination does not become a problem overnight and most procrastinators know they have difficulty starting and finishing tasks. It is important though for the procrastinator to take steps to help him/herself. No one can do it for them.