Why do we procrastinate?

Dr. Tim Pychyl takes us into the quicksand of wasting time and why we do it, instead of facing what really needs to get done.

by Riccardo Coluccini

Culture 10 February 2020

At least once in our lifetimes we have met someone who unequivocally claims to be the best procrastinator in the world. Maybe they are a close friend, or a colleague, or a stranger. If you haven’t met them, you are likely this procrastinator. Whether it’s about making a business call, writing an email, or visiting a friend, we’ve all experienced the spiraling cycle of ignoring the activity we had promised ourselves that we’d complete, and instead deciding, without any logical reason, to do something else—even though we know that we are going to feel guilty about it later. 

Our digital, always-connected age, where we are constantly distracted by push notifications, emails, and messages seeking our attention is the arch-enemy of getting things done. Commonly understood as a time management problem, procrastination is, however, rooted in another problem: the inability to recognize and deal with our emotions. During the 1980s, procrastination was the focus of publications and papers; and there were also some less-empirical studies in the 1970s. Today, procrastination research involves brain activities and modeling.

To better understand why we procrastinate, we need to define procrastination. According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Ottawa’s Carleton University, the prevalent definition of procrastination is “the voluntary delay of an intended act despite expecting it to be worse off for the delay.” And all of those elements are important, says Pychyl. If we are in the middle of a phone call, but a higher priority comes up, we pick up the more important call. This is a purposeful delay. Inevitable delays are for example if a child gets injured, and you have to delay whatever you’re doing. Similarly, if someone is feeling depressed we wouldn’t accuse them of procrastinating when there is a delay, because they have a reasonable excuse.

This is what procrastination is not. Instead, procrastination is when we say that we’re going to the post office at 9 a.m. and we start to come up with excuses, such as “I don’t feel like it,” “I’ll have plenty of time later,” and we, in turn, feel guilty about our behavior. “That’s the second essential part of the definition of procrastination—we know that our choice is going to come back at us: If I said I would do this today, that’s because it is the best time to do it and here I am avoiding it,” says Pychyl.

What seems like a modern phenomenon is instead widespread across cultures and eras. Around 700 BC, Greek poet Hesiod wrote in his poem “Work and Days” addressing his brother: “industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.” Procrastinating, particularly every day, could ruin your life. “Procrastination has been around since the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptians had a notion of a delay that was needless and unnecessary, saying that there was a time to plant your crops, to sow, and to harvest, and if you didn’t follow these systems then there was a problem,” explains Pychyl. He adds that we see procrastination mentioned in early-Christian literature and that all of the world’s major world religions have a concept of a sin of sloth, and this also speaks to procrastination. “It’s not a new phenomenon but, in our modern world, where you can book a flight a year from now, and you know that people are going to show up when they say they will, time has changed in its precision, and procrastination has taken on a different meaning,” says Pychyl.

It seems that every culture has an understanding of needless delays: delays that cause problems, as opposed to other kinds of delays. “Procrastination is not new, and it requires cultural understanding, but at the same time, its problematic nature is clear. And that’s what procrastination is: a delay that is problematic,” adds Pychyl. However, each individual experiences procrastination in their own way, and what we choose to do, rather than completing the original task, is directly linked to the reason why we procrastinate. 

According to his research, Pychyl doesn’t see procrastination as a time management problem, he sees it as an emotion-regulation problem. “Time management is necessary but not sufficient,” explains Pychyl, “you have to have time management skills but the problem is that even though you have great skills, you get to the point where you don’t want to or don’t feel like doing something because you can’t manage your emotions.” If we frame procrastination as a mood-repairing issue, we procrastinate to feel better. When a given task is boring or makes us feel frustrated, we are going to pick something uplifting. “However,” notices Pychyl, “we all know people who actually clean their house, or bake, and that’s really interesting.”

What’s striking about procrastination is that it rarely means doing nothing. We usually decide to do some other tasks or activities. It’s not inaction, it’s more of a survival self-defense mechanism. Pychyl and his students did a study on what they call procrasticleaning: people that choose to clean their house instead of doing their task. For these people, cleaning has a compensatory function, they feel bad and so they choose to do something else that appears to be a good task for them to do, that makes them feel good about themselves. The same applies to procrastibaking: baking something completely unnecessary to put off work. These activities make us feel skilled and virtuous, and at the same time people choose it because it’s more structured, they get immediate reinforcement, although it’s not necessarily fun. However, the reasoning behind how we decide what to do instead of dealing with our original task is not clear: we might do something tomorrow that we actually procrastinated on today. “It really is this interplay about which activity bothers me the most,” highlights Pychyl.

Illustration by Johnny Cobalto

Understanding procrastination as an emotion-regulation problem hits on one of the most widespread preconceptions about it: our fixation with efficiency. As a society, we framed it for so long as a time management issue because that is what we usually see: if you’re not meeting your deadlines, I assume you must not know how to complete tasks. We are imbued in an old model of time management, says Pychyl, “it comes from the 19th century when efficiency experts went in and started to divide jobs into tasks to increase productivity.” But that’s not the way our day-to-day lives work: we become more efficient, but what usually gets in the way, are our feelings. “Many of us are unaware of our feelings,” says Pychyl, “some research has shown that the more emotionally intelligent you are, the less you procrastinate.” We might realize that if we don’t feel like doing a task today, those same feelings will show up later.

If dealing with procrastination often seems impossible, it gets worse when distractions are only one click away. We divert our attention while getting lost in Google, reading group chats, or watching YouTube. Technology may be playing a crucial role in what seems to be an increase in procrastination, yet Pychyl says that we lack the scientific data to prove this increase over time. Researching and studying procrastination involves self-reporting and interviews, but, as Pychyl points out, the best solution would be to follow people daily. However, this would be so intrusive and time-consuming that many people would not want to participate.

Procrastination has serious consequences. According to some statistics, almost 20 percent of people in the world can be considered chronic procrastinators—meaning that their inability to finish tasks and activities dramatically impacts their lives and wellbeing. While Pychyl doesn’t agree with the proposed figures, he believes that there is such a thing as chronic procrastination and that it can be debilitating. “There are people who procrastinate up to the point where it affects their interpersonal relationships and their ability to work,” says Pychyl. “We could consider this a serious problem for a minority of people.”

Despite some professors trying to add it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, chronic procrastination is not considered a mental illness. Defining the level at which procrastination turns into a formal disorder rather than an occasional act is complex and troublesome. To understand what that level may look like, we can think of what happens with perfectionism. We all might be a little perfectionist. True perfectionists can’t get anything done and feel depressed because of it. This condition could even affect their ability to work and be in love. “I get emails from people all over the world telling me that their lives have fallen apart because of their procrastination,” says Pychyl. Procrastination often feels like an inescapable downward spiral: procrastination draws more procrastination. It makes you feel bad about yourself, and when you feel bad you are less motivated.

But what is really interesting about this spiral, explains Pychyl, is that people can easily turn it around. “I can force myself to do something, and my motivation follows my doing.” says Pychyl, “Making a little bit of progress, doing something can lift you up, and you have to think about the next action you need to take if you’re going to complete the task that you were working on.” Procrastinators typically wait until they are motivated to do something, they wait until the pressure is so high that they have to work. “And they think that they work better in this way, but it is not true: that’s the only way they know because they haven’t learned other ways to work,” says Pychyl.

One of the key solutions to fight procrastination is to take simple actions to make progress—bootstrapping ourselves. Another solution would be overcoming our disconnection to our future selves. “We’ve seen evidence that if we develop more empathy for our future self we will also procrastinate less,” says Pychyl. We usually think of our future selves as a different person, who is unrelated to us, so we leave them to deal with whatever we decide not to do today. “You should do a little bit of time travel, bringing your future-self closer, imagining yourself later in the week and how you will feel about the procrastinated task,” says Pychyl. Researchers have also shown that when we think about chores concretely, these tasks seem to belong to today, and have a sense of urgency. However, when we think about this work abstractly, it lacks urgency. If you try to consider and describe your task concretely you’ll avoid postponing it.

However, we shouldn’t see procrastination not only as a way of coping with negative emotions such as anxiety, insecurity, and self-doubt that may be induced by certain tasks. “Procrastination can be a sign that this is not the life you should be living,” says Pychyl. On the one hand, procrastination reflects human nature and our desire to avoid activities that are difficult or that we find boring or that scare us—all of which is understandable and part of the human condition. On the other hand, procrastination may also be a symptom of a larger issue in someone’s life. Chronic procrastinators can see their lives deteriorating and researchers have shown that the amygdala (the part of the brain which processes emotions) of chronic procrastinators is larger. This could mean that as procrastinators learn, they are encoding more emotions and therefore they have an emotional response to tasks. “That’s a likely explanation, but we have more work to do to understand the neurophysiology of procrastination” concludes Pychyl.

We usually focus on a lack of will, when looking for solutions to procrastination, by searching for shortcuts that make ourselves get things done, respect deadlines, and increase our efficiency and productivity. If we see procrastination as a time management issue, we risk focusing our attention on the wrong outcomes: we’ll get our work done, but we won’t consider how we feel about these tasks and ourselves.