Why You Procrastinate According to Science (and How to Beat It)

Oh, good. You’ve finally gotten around to reading this.

Admit it: you’ve procrastinated before. Whether you put off laundry day or filing taxes or finishing that report, you’re not alone at the Procrastination Party. But there’s a difference between someone who procrastinates and someone who is a procrastinator. In other words, everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.

So what’s the distinguishing factor? Scientists believe that procrastination is a strategy for dealing with stress and that how we procrastinate leads to significant challenges in relationships, jobs, finances and even health. In fact, chronic procrastinators—estimated to encompass 20 percent of all people—are more likely to suffer from higher rates of depression, irrational beliefs, low self-esteem, anxiety, and stress. Plus, the average employee spends about an hour and 20 minutes each day putting off work, costing businesses approximately $9,000 per worker per year. That’s a lot of moolah to be wasting.

So how can procrastinators—both occasional and chronic—beat the very thing they avoid doing? First, you’ll need to understand what it is.

The Science Behind Procrastination

Though many of us like to claim that procrastination is an art form, at its heart, procrastination is really rooted in science.

Scientists describe procrastination as the voluntary delay of an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. Essentially, procrastination is all about giving in to the fleeting feeling of the present to avoid having to follow through. It’s a coping mechanism that boils down to “I know I should be doing this, but I’m putting it off, even though it looms in the future.”

According to Dr. Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary and one of the leading experts on procrastination in the world, the real reason why you procrastinate is because you exhibit a lack of self control, which manifests as increased impulsiveness. (There’s even a genetic link between the two!)

Our favorite excuses for procrastinating—perfectionist tendencies, anxiety, and the claim that we work better under stress and pressure—are all explained by this theory. Dr. Steel claims in his book, The Procrastination Equation, that our impulsive tendencies make us want to act immediately on our urges, canceling out the theory that we just want to “get everything just right.”

But if that were the case, you could maybe claim that anxiety is the reason you procrastinate—if it weren’t for the fact that studies show that people who suffer from anxiety procrastinate less. As Dr. Steel told The Wall Street Journal, impulsive people are believed to have a harder time dealing with strong emotions and “shut down” emotionally when they feel anxiety. Then they do something else to get rid of the bad feeling. Therefore, it’s actually the people who don’t suffer from anxiety and have high impulse drives who procrastinate more.

And as far as the “better under stress” argument? That’s up in the air. It’s debatable whether the quality of a procrastinator’s work is actually better than if they had started earlier, said Dr. Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, in the same Journal article.

Dr. Pychyl has identified a number of task characteristics that make you more likely to procrastinate. These tasks tend to be:

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Lack personal meaning and intrinsic rewards
  • Ambiguous (you don’t know how to do it)
  • Unstructured

In his book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, Dr. Pychyl claims that the more negative emotions you show toward a certain task, the more likely you are to procrastinate on it. It sounds like common sense, but there’s a lot of science behind it.

So science says it’s our impulse drives that make us procrastinate. But how can we fix something that, by nature, doesn’t fix easily?

Well, science can help us out with that, too.

3 Strategies to Stop Procrastination

As Dr. Steel told The New Yorker, “One thing that defines procrastination isn’t a lack of intention to work.”

Fun fact: about 95 percent of people who procrastinate wish they could reduce that tendency, but ironically, procrastinators are the worst offenders for putting off dealing with their procrastination. Now, don’t go congratulating yourself if you happen to have a lot of discipline and self-control. Also, don’t kick yourself for not having self-control. So what’s a chronic or occasional procrastinator to do?

Plenty, according to science. Here are three strategies used by science and by trusty Office Ninjas:

1. Set Small, Specific, and Manageable Tasks to Start—Not Finish

A study from Stockholm University sought to learn whether self-treatment programs for procrastination were effective in helping severe and chronic procrastination. Their findings were mixed, but there is one standout: the study found that breaking down long-term goals into smaller, specific, and more concrete sub-goals was incredibly effective. The idea is that the more specific the goal and task, the less unavoidable.

Other savvy Ninjas have also figured out this approach. Katy F. says she likes to,

Break it down to small tasks and celebrate each accomplishment with a little happy dance.

And Kim C. suggests “Only working on the project or task for 15 minutes. Get however much done you can. Then schedule the next 15-minute block a few hours away. That way you can tackle it in small sections and not feel so overwhelmed by doing it all at once.”

That time limit approach is also rooted in science.

The point of setting small, specific goals is to help you start a project—not necessarily finish one. AKA, you’ll have to employ other strategies to do that. Remember to focus on how much progress you’ve made on your to-do list instead of how many tasks are left.

2. Willpower Is Not Enough: Create a Routine and a Reward System

Ninja Tasha A. says, “Sometimes tasks and projects seem overwhelming at first and you just need to take time to plan properly. Set realistic expectations for yourself and communicate them.” As much as it may pain you to admit it, your willpower may not be enough. All the self-control in the world won’t help if you do not have a system set in place to help you succeed.

Darius Foroux—the founder of Procrastinate Zero, an online blog community and class—explains that you need to have a routine system in place to get this done.

A lot of people shy away from routines, systems, and frameworks because they want to have ‘freedom.’ I’m sorry to disappoint you: Freedom is your enemy.

In that case, what rewards can you give yourself to get a task done?

Money, a coffee break, leave early? What are the penalties you can enforce on yourself for not getting something done? Having a system in place that can keep you accountable goes a long way to keeping you on track.

3. Imagine the Future Ramifications

According to UCLA research led by Hal Hershfield, there is a great emotional disconnect between how we think of our present and future selves. Our brain is really bad at making decisions for our future selves because we view them as strangers. This can help explain why it’s so hard to not eat junk food…and to avoid procrastination.

The solution to this, according to Dr. Pychy’ls work:

Become better friends with the future you. To do this, you can create a ‘future memory’ by imagining your future self getting all the work done by a certain time if you start the work now.

If you want a low-tech solution, you can send an email to your future self about how you’re currently feeling. It’s not a reminder email, but a reflection on how your current actions can make you better in the future. A tool like Mixmax or FutureMe.org should help do the trick.

We could go on and on and on about procrastination and strategies to manage it, but it’s starting to feel like we’re helping you procrastinate more. :-) So which strategies do you use to stop procrastinating, Ninjas? Comment below and then get off to work!

Emily E. Steck

Emily E. Steck is a writer who thinks too much, according to her mother. She attributes her ninja skills to her university years, where she worked as a student worker for the math department. It was her understanding there would be no math. When she's not writing, she can be seen reading a book, jamming out on her piano and playing tennis.