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The Psychology of Procrastination

I can’t be the only one who procrastinates on important tasks even though I know it not only doesn’t help but also causes more stress.

Procrastination is defined as the act of intentionally delaying tasks by doing less important or more enjoyable tasks in place, and was once described as “one of the least understood human miseries”. For example, when I have a lot of work to do, I choose to binge watch a TV show for hours, instead of actually getting the work done and eliminating my stress. The negative consequences of procrastination stretch from physical health to mental health. When we procrastinate, we are more likely to sleep less, eat poorly, drink more alcohol, have illnesses, and experience anxiety, guilt, and even more pressure.


This all boils down to the question of, why? Why do we engage in procrastination despite our awareness of the consequences? Why do I choose to do literally anything else, except for the actual task that will diminish my stress? It all seems pretty counterproductive.


Research has shown that the causes are a complex intertwinement of behavioral, socio-cultural, and biological issues. It can not be boiled down to one single factor as the driving force.


Self-efficacy


Some researchers believe that at its core, procrastination is a reflection of a person’s perception of their own self-worth and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to complete a task, which affects our effort, persistence, resilience, and level of performance. When we are faced with a challenging task, the first thing we do is evaluate our own abilities to accomplish the task. Even if it’s subconsciously, we ask ourselves, “can I do this? Do I know how to do this?” If we have a low self-efficacy, we might abandon our tasks because of our believed “deficiencies”. As self-efficacy decreases, procrastination increases.


Additionally, procrastinators tend to make a direct connection between level of performance and self-worth. What this means is that when we perform poorly on a task, we may attribute that to our own capabilities and self-worth instead of recognizing other obstacles that may have affected our level of performance. And, instead of seeing our successes as the result of our efforts, we just see it as luck. Procrastination then becomes purposeful—a method to maximize the time our pride is protected.


Fear of Failure and Perfectionism


Very closely related to self-efficacy, procrastination can be a result of our fear of failure. It’s easier to blame disorganization and lack of time for your failures instead of admitting your own inadequacy. An illustration of this could be receiving negative feedback on a task from a superior. If you had procrastinated, you would be able to tell yourself that the

reason you performed poorly was because you didn’t spend enough time on the task, not because you were incapable.

This feature of failure can sometimes come from perfectionism, even if we may not know it ourselves. Many procrastinators put unrealistic demands on themselves, feeling immense pressure. As they become overwhelmed, they will procrastinate in order to withdraw themselves from the task. Perfectionists might also believe they can achieve excellence with minimal effort. When this isn’t the case, they resort to delaying the task, avoiding the truth.


Task Characteristics


Finally, the nature of the task itself can also be why people choose to procrastinate. The logic behind this idea is simple: if we don’t like the task, we won’t want to do it, so we’ll choose to do something else instead. I personally hate washing the dishes. So, even when I know it will take me 5 minutes to clean the lunch I just made, I simply refuse to do it and put it off until I have to make dinner.


What Can We Do?


If you are someone who believes a large part of your procrastination stems from self-esteem, remind yourself that your performance on tasks is not an indicator of your self-worth. Even if you fail, that’s okay! Instead of constantly trying to protect our pride, we have to acknowledge that some tasks will just have to take more effort. It doesn't mean we're not good enough.


If perfectionism is the culprit of your procrastination, try not to focus on making every little detail perfect the next time you do a task. Just get started and see where you go from there, even if it might not turn out exactly like you had envisioned.


Of course, there are lots of other factors that affect procrastination as well. Anxiety, depression, lack of energy, and ADHD are all also possible causes. And, many of these factors mentioned today may not apply to you as well. But, the more we reflect on ourselves, the more we may be able to figure out why we choose to procrastinate and counteract those causes.