The Psychology of Procrastination

Posted on August 18, 2018

Procrastination is so tempting. We know we should really be getting down to writing that work email or studying for the upcoming finals. But why is it so much easier to put things off rather than getting down to it, even when we know the consequences for our delay will not be pleasant?

The first reason is probably also the most commonly cited reason when people choose to put something on the backburner – the issue just isn’t urgent. When it’s not urgent, people always think that they have more time to get around to it and thus they find something more interesting to occupy their attention until they cannot put off the chore any longer. This tendency can be explained by evolutionary psychology – humans are wired such that our attention is tuned to the immediate environment. Psychologists call this temporal discounting, an instinctive reaction to prioritise our current needs over possible future ones, which means we tend to do whatever that is urgent and hold off on tasks until they become urgent.

Secondly, a significant predictor of procrastination is not knowing how to start on a given task. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed, confused or disorganized. When we are unsure how to proceed, this can give us the perception of feeling incompetent or confused or even anxious, and who likes to feel this way? Humans are psychologically wired to avoid negative emotions and this avoidance also extends to the cause of the negative emotion.

Ironically, having high standards – what is often thought of as perfectionism – is also a likely contributor of procrastination. In this case, procrastination happens because we are afraid we are unable to meet the high standards we have set for ourselves. Therein lies an important distinction: high standards only predict procrastination when it also involves the belief that the resulting performance is linked to one’s self-worth. “If the task fails, then the self fails” – this is the type of unhelpful cognitive beliefs that can fuel procrastination.

Recognizing the psychological mechanisms that make us susceptible to procrastination is important before we can take steps to circumvent this problem and increase our productivity.


Category(s):Career Development and Change, Life Purpose / Meaning / Inner-Guidance, Other

Source material from Psychology Today


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