When we procrastinate, we actually get stuck in a spiral, where one bout of procrastinating leads to another. One day of that turns into one week, which turns into one month, and
before you know it, you’ve been procrastinating your life away for years. Understanding how that cycle works is a major step in extracting yourself from it.
Common Causes of Procrastination
Like any complex psychological phenomenon, procrastination is the end product of many factors. Deficits in skills like time management and assertiveness (e.g., overcommitting yourself) can contribute to procrastination, but they don’t exactly cause it.
Ultimately, it’s a combination of the way your brain processes information, the feelings you have, how you estimate time, and the way you think. The more you understand about the factors causing your procrastination, the better equipped you’ll be to start tackling it.
1. Self-Control and Motivation
When we talk about procrastination, we often phrase it like a motivational issue: “I’m just not motivated to work out today,” “I don’t feel like mopping the floor,” or “I’m not feeling inspired enough to work on that paper right now.”
But procrastinators do feel motivated sometimes. It’s just that their motivation to complete a task increases as the deadline approaches—a phenomenon called “hyperbolic discounting.”
This is partly caused by their tendency to focus on what’s right in front of them, as well as their difficulty delaying gratification. Due to their preference for immediate rewards and pleasures, procrastinators usually start their day with the more pleasurable tasks, whereas non-procrastinators tend to prefer to get the hard stuff out of the way first.
Procrastinators also have trouble managing setbacks and tend to give up when they run into a problem. Lacking confidence that you can resist distractions or solve problems and accomplish your goals is a huge drag on self-control and motivation, and this is one factor that ultimately causes procrastination.
Procrastination is also influenced by our ability to monitor ourselves to see if we’re on track with our goals. Every time you realize you ate an entire package of Oreos while you were still inside the grocery store, that’s self-monitoring.
And every time you realize you spent the last three hours playing video games instead of cleaning the house like you said you would, that’s self-monitoring, too. You recognized that there was a difference between what you were intending to do and what you actually did.
While we all have moments when we don’t monitor ourselves well, procrastinators tend to struggle fairly routinely with this type of self-monitoring. Without self-monitoring, procrastination can hide in plain sight.
2. Difficulty Handling Negative Emotions
Procrastinators reliably choose to do more work later over less work now, partly because of the feelings associated with starting tasks—feelings like uncertainty, lethargy, or exasperation.
When it comes to feelings, procrastinators are much more focused on how they’re feeling right now than how they might feel later or even what their long-term goals are. Plus, they view tasks as much more aversive than most people would, which might be because they’re more prone to boredom than non-procrastinators.
The perception that tasks are aversive then creates even stronger negative emotions, which strengthens the impulse to procrastinate as a way of avoiding those feelings.
Sophia was a PhD student who needed to do a lot of writing to complete her dissertation. That type of writing creates considerable anxiety and stress, which she understandably wanted to avoid—by gardening.
She’s like anyone else in this way; the tasks most likely to be procrastinated are the ones that generate the most negative emotions and are boring, challenging, or tedious.
Sophia felt frustrated when she sat down to write and then relieved when she decided to put it off. Her brain realized that relief was better than anxiety and learned to encourage her to procrastinate every time she thought about writing.
Like many other procrastinators, Sophia developed a habit of avoiding her feelings, and she did this so quickly and automatically that she hardly even noticed the feelings before her brain was already shutting them down.
You can’t really blame Sophia for wanting to avoid her feelings about writing. Society has taught us that feelings are scary and we should avoid them. Feeling insecure when you have to go to a group event?
Here, drink some cocktails and you won’t notice your insecurity anymore. While we all want to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings, procrastinators tend to feel uncomfortable feelings more strongly, are more impatient when tolerating discomfort, and have less practice coping effectively with discomfort.
Those characteristics can perpetuate emotional avoidance and, ultimately, procrastination.
This strategy of coping with your feelings by avoiding them is a major contributing factor to procrastination.
3. You’re Not Kind to Future You
Chances are high that you’ve never jumped out of an airplane. But even though you’ve never done it, your brain can imagine to some degree what it would be like to skydive. In fact, your brain’s ability to forecast just how frightening it would feel to jump out of a plane is probably one of the things that’s kept you from ever doing it.
This ability to simulate the future—which gives Present You a chance to walk in Future You’s shoes—provides human brains with a huge evolutionary advantage, but it also has some limitations.
For one, the simulations don’t predict emotional intensity well. We imagine it’s scary jumping out of a plane, but it’s definitely scarier once a 200-pound man strapped to your back scoots your toes to the edge. Jumping out of the plane is just some abstract idea that’s somewhat disconnected from reality until it’s actually happening.
In the same way, what Future You will be thinking and feeling is just an abstract idea until Future You becomes Present You.
When we make a decision to put something off, we can simulate what the consequences of that decision will be—we’ll have less time to work on something, people might get frustrated with us, and we might run into unexpected problems.
But the simulation of what our procrastination will feel like is usually more charitable than the reality—we underestimate the stress it will cause, the guilt we’ll feel for continuing the pattern, or the disappointment that will stem from a missed opportunity. So, even the best human simulators have limitations. Procrastinators’ simulators are weak in general, and they struggle to consider the consequences of their choices.
They’re more concerned about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling in this moment and less concerned about the future. As a result, they keep prioritizing what they want right now over what they’ll need in the future.
4. Unrealistic Ideas About Time
You know what else our brains are bad at? Estimating time. We don’t have the slightest idea how long it takes us to do things. Even when Google tells you it takes exactly 23 minutes to drive to the airport, you still show up late because you forget to factor in the five minutes it takes to load up the car with your suitcases, the 12 minutes it takes to park the car and ride the shuttle to the airport, and the three minutes it takes to figure out how to get to the security line.
Suddenly, your plan to show up early for your flight has turned into you rolling up to the gate just as boarding begins for your plane.
We also overestimate time. You might think scheduling three hours to get to the airport sounds right, and then find yourself sitting around for two entire hours, trying on perfumes in the duty-free shop. Almost all of us have experienced this. Humans are just not good at understanding time.
Both tendencies have consequences for procrastination. When we underestimate how long something will take us, we put it off, believing we’ll have time to adequately complete the job later. This is why you consistently believe you can start cooking dinner 10 minutes before your guests start arriving.
When we overestimate how long something will take us, we think we don’t have enough time to complete the task—so we put it off, waiting for another day when we’ll magically have a bunch of extra time. This is why you avoid changing the sheets on your bed—though it actually only takes five minutes, you believe it’s a 20-minute project that you just don’t have time for right now.
Overestimating how long something will take us can also make us feel overwhelmed. Then, we’ll procrastinate because we want to avoid getting ourselves involved in a task that’s intense. This brings us back to the way emotions keep procrastination going.
5. Waiting for “The Perfect Time”
When we overestimate how much time a task will require, we get into an especially sticky area of procrastination—waiting for the “perfect” time.
The “perfect” time is when we’re not tired, we feel inspired, there’s nothing better going on, there’s a motivating sense of urgency, and we have all the materials we need to complete the entire task.
Maybe the truth is that we are tired, we don’t feel like doing it, there are more enjoyable activities to do, and we don’t have enough time to complete the entire task today. But even if those things are true, it doesn’t mean we can’t get started. Most tasks can be broken down into parts, so even if you don’t have the time to complete an entire project today, you could probably get something done now.
That “perfect” time is a unicorn. It doesn’t really exist. For example, if your goal is to start working out at home to some cardio videos you found on YouTube, you’ll never find the “perfect” time.
The chance that you’ll find a time when you’re not tired, have nothing better to do, and actually feel like working out is zero. If you really want to accomplish this goal, you’ll have to make it work at an inopportune time. We need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the universe will never gift us space in our lives when we have nothing else to do.
Waiting for the “perfect” time isn’t the only thought process that can undermine your ability to take action.
One major cause of procrastination is a fear of failing, which sounds like, “If I start this new diet, I’ll probably only do it for a couple of days before I mess it up,” or “My résumé has to be perfect before I can apply for that job.” Those kinds of thoughts easily prevent someone from starting a diet or applying for a job, period.
Related to a fear of failure is a fear of uncertainty when we tell ourselves there must be a guaranteed good outcome before we can get started. This often sounds like, “Well, I don’t really like my job, but if I tried to get another one, it might be even worse. Nothing bad can happen if nothing changes, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”
We also procrastinate by believing that our energy is too low to get started on something (“I’m too tired [or hungover, or anxious, or hormonal, etc.] to work on this.”) or by getting lost in stubborn, rebellious thinking (“My way is better,” or “I shouldn’t have to do what other people tell me to do.”)
And of course, there’s everyone’s favorite feeling, FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” This comes with thoughts like, “Life’s too short to be skipping out on fun things, just to complete some boring task.”
Any of these thought processes can lead to procrastination because they turn into excuses, validating the decision to put something off.
A Neuroscience Perspective
Procrastination is largely influenced by how certain parts of the brain work and how they communicate with each other (Zhang, Becker, Chen, and Feng, 2019; Zhang, Wang, and Feng, 2016).
For example, procrastination is associated with more activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which helps us choose actions that are consistent with our values, and less activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex, which is involved in long-term planning. This combination means procrastinators tend to focus more on short-term, immediate satisfaction rather than long-term goals.
Procrastination is also influenced by how different areas of the brain interact with each other. For example, procrastination is associated with less interaction between the areas involved in making decisions. These disruptions interfere with our ability to choose broccoli over brownies or pick budgeting over procrastibaking.
Brain areas involved in the body’s response to stress are also important in understanding procrastination. For example, stress activates the amygdala, which is involved in processing fear and other emotions. When the amygdala activates, it shifts our focus from the future to the present, so we can deal with an active threat.
This is very useful when we’re, say, being chased by a tiger. But when the stress is caused by procrastination, the amygdala activation means that we focus more on what feels good in the moment, even if this causes more problems down the road.
Understanding the Cycle
Now that you know how procrastination works, let’s look at how its components work together to keep us stuck in a cycle. When we think about doing a task, we start to have some predictable thoughts: “I don’t have the energy right now,” or “I’ll do it later.” We also start to have some pretty uncomfortable feelings—we might feel tense, discouraged, drained, or intimidated. We then have thoughts about those feelings: “Ugh, this sucks,” “I can’t stand this,” or “I hate this feeling.”
A really strong desire to avoid those feelings develops. When we realize that we could get rid of those feelings by just not doing the task, we start working really hard to come up with some high-quality excuses to avoid the task. Instead of doing whatever task we should be doing, we choose something more pleasurable, or at least less overwhelming or distressing.
Even though that creates some new problems, it also relieves those uncomfortable feelings we had just a second ago. That immediate relief is much more rewarding to us than the long-term benefits of not procrastinating, so our urge to procrastinate gets stronger.
Plus, all the problems that accumulate while we’re procrastinating (incomplete tasks, resentful family members) make us even more uncomfortable when we think about doing tasks, giving us more bad feelings that we want to ignore, further perpetuating the cycle.
In fact, it’s not that procrastinators don’t learn from their behavior and experiences. They do learn. It’s just that what they’re learning is that procrastinating relieves an uncomfortable feeling immediately, whereas not procrastinating feels uncomfortable for longer.
Our brains love immediate gratification, so procrastination persists.
Now that you know where procrastination comes from, why it happens, and how it impacts your life, it’s time to discover how procrastination impacts your mental health. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with a mental health condition, chances are high that procrastination is affecting and is affected by your emotional and behavioral health.
Procrastination isn’t always the product of a specific thought process, however. Sometimes, the way our brains parse information can make it difficult to get started on a task. Procrastinators tend to have a harder time recalling what tasks didn’t get done yesterday, which means those tasks continue to go uncompleted.
Plus, some procrastinators get distracted from tasks before they’re completed, including decisions they’re trying to make. This can result in indecisiveness or other forms of procrastination.
And there’s some evidence that when you’re feeling negatively about a task (like working on that term paper), it gets harder for your brain to remember why that task is meaningful or personally valuable (like how much it will benefit your family for you to finish your degree). This makes it more likely that that task will be procrastinated.
Ultimately, procrastination isn’t caused by one single factor. Instead, it’s a combination of many things, including your genetics, the way your brain works, the types of thoughts and feelings you have, and the choices you make.