…and what we can do about it

If you have ever said to yourself, “Nah, I am just going to do it tomorrow”, chances are you procrastinated. And you are not alone. 

Procrastination is an instance of self-sabotaging behaviour. It is defined as to “voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay” (Steel, 2007, p. 66)”. Procrastination is typically recognized as a failure of our self-regulatory mechanism. That is, our ability to deploy cognitive, emotional, and behavioural resources to reach the desired goal/outcome.  

Occasional procrastination happens – we have all put off tasks for later, for one reason or another. Usually, this does not lead to considerable psychological or physical harm. Chronic procrastination, however, is a severe problem. In such cases, people feel that they have no control over their procrastination; they feel trapped, unable to start completing the task (even if they want to) and end up procrastinating over and over again.

Researchers have established that around 20% of the adult population are chronic procrastinators, with numbers going up to 90% in (under) graduate students. Chronic procrastinators often experience worse mental and physical health compared to non-procrastinating people. In their seminal study from 1997, Tice and Baumeister showed that although procrastination was associated with lower levels of stress when the deadline was far, procrastinators performed worse and experienced higher stress levels shortly before the deadline compared to non-procrastinators. What is more, procrastinators needed significantly more mental health support after the deadline. Unfortunately, procrastination behaviour is pretty stable over time. It doesn’t take much for an occasional postponing task to turn into chronic procrastination, either. So lets’ see why do we procrastinate and what we can do about it? 

Procrastination: One or Many? 

In an attempt to understand procrastination better, researchers classified the phenomenon in a tripartite model, first proposed by Joseph Ferrari already in 1992. Within this model, procrastination can be divided into “avoidant” (putting off the task because of fear of failure), “arousal” (putting off the task because of “thrill”-seeking behaviour), and “decisional” (putting off the decision to start completing the task). This classification model was very popular and many procrastination interventions were based on whether you are arousal, avoidant, or decisional procrastinator. In a 2010 meta-analytic review encompassing over 150 studies and more than 4000 respondents, Piers Steel demonstrated that no clear difference can be drawn between these types of procrastination, and the phenomenon should be conceptualized parsimoniously. This comes to say that  “procrastination” is a complex phenomenon, measured on a spectrum (from low to high) and is built of a million different things. It involves cognitive, cerebral, genetical, social, emotional etc. factors. In that sense, although researchers have often tried to isolate singular reasons and mechanisms in the battle against procrastination, in fact all aspects should be considered, including where on the spectrum a person is. 

Deeper Reasons

Numerous studies have shown that procrastination is associated with high impulsivity and low self-control at the cognitive and behavioural levels. Furthermore, it has been clearly demonstrated that procrastination is also associated with poor executive functioning. People who score high on procrastination measurement scales (e.g., GPS – General Procrastination Scale, PPR – Pure Procrastination Scale, etc.) tend to show poorer inhibitory and attention skills. Put otherwise procrastinators have difficulties ignoring distractions, focusing on a task, and sustaining their focus. Because of poor executive functioning, procrastination is also associated with certain behaviours, such as giving into cravings and acting without planning or thinking.

Interestingly, a recent study demonstrated that procrastinators have impaired automatic error-detection systems. Presumably, this makes it more difficult, more time consuming, and more resource-intense for the procrastinators to detect and correct their errors. Procrastination has also been associated with specific genetic variations, and it possibly differs across biological sexes. However, more reliable data is needed there.

Is your neurochemistry to blame? 

In short, yes and no. Research has shown that procrastination is indeed associated with how much dopamine your brain is producing, as far as cerebral mechanisms go. This is not surprising if you consider the fact that dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with goal pursuit and motivation. (By the way, if you want to know more about this wonderful molecule, head over to my book recommendations.) So, on the one side, people who have a relatively high base level of dopamine in their system are the people who procrastinate out of “thill-seeking” behaviour. Call them “dopamine junkies”, if you will. In such cases, whether they realize it or not, they enjoy the adrenaline rush and will leverage their stress levels in light of the impending deadline. On a side note, those would typically be the same people who will have difficulties keeping up relationships, being more impulsive, constantly seeking novelty, etc. On the other side of the dopamine spectrum are the people who have lower than the average base level of dopamine in their system, and partly because of that, they struggle to act upon their goals. Some words of caution are needed here to avoid the wrong overinterpretation. First, every time we talk about brain mechanisms, chemistry etc., and how they underline certain behaviours, people perceive this as their final sentence. It is not. Yes, your brain chemistry guides your behaviour, but your behaviour also changes your neurochemistry. Second, low or high dopamine levels are not limited only to procrastination but are associated with many other states of mind, conditions, and behaviour, including ADHD, depression, etc. How procrastination relates to them is still a subject of investigation. So, if you procrastinate, this does not mean you can’t do anything about it and most certainly does not imply that you also have ADHD and that you can’t do anything about your procrastination.

Your environment also plays an important role! 

The fact we see a tremendous increase in procrastination among university students, compared to the general population, may imply that procrastination is also heavily influenced by the concrete environment you live in. After all, the university and/or the work environment offers many of the factors associated with procrastination: insufficient sleep, enhanced fatigue, distant reward deadlines, a lot of difficult and/or boring tasks, fear of being evaluated, inadequate social comparisons, constant and dynamic context switches, etc. The list goes on and on. Pour in that a few biological predispositions, and voila, you got yourself a procrastinator. 

What Can we do About It? 

I can’t keep up count how many times I have heard from self-help gurus that to overcome procrastination, the person should just “go” for it and/or learn better time management. To tell a chronic procrastinator to “just do it” is like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up. It’s not going to work, and the reason being that procrastination’s mechanisms run deep and involve multiple aspects. That being said, there are, of course, things that can be done to battle procrastination. They range from self-help books to clinical interventions. Research shows that the effects of these interventions are stable, meaning that people can turn procrastination around. Which of these interventions will work for you, of course, depends on whether you are occasional or chronic procrastinators and on which side of the spectrum (low or high) you fall. There are many types of interventions out there, but the most widely used ones are:

  • Self-regulation. These interventions tap into all internal (e.g., attention, vigilance, emotion, motivation, and volition) and external resources (e.g., work environment, social support, and time) when working towards a goal. These interventions involve practices such as self-reflection and monitoring, inhibition control (learning to turn off distractions), personal motivation and emotional regulation. 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The main idea of CBT is that our thoughts determine our actions. To change certain actions, we need to identify the thoughts and check whether they are functional or dysfunctional, correct the dysfunctional ones, and transfer them into functional behaviour. Procrastination-focused CBT would typically explore the personal experience with procrastination, understand its pattern, focus on any irrational thoughts, change those irrational thoughts into productive thinking, and change the procrastinating behaviour. Meta-analytic studies have shown that CBT has the most profound effect on reversing procrastination behaviour, mainly because CBT can be a pretty intensive treatment and combines self-regulatory and behavioural practices. So, if you are a hard-core chronic procrastinator, CBT might be your thing

Things that you can do yourself: 

If you want to turn procrastination around, you don’t necessarily need the heavy guns and sprint to the closest therapist. Now that we know how procrastination occurs in general (deficits in executive functioning in combination with the dopaminergic system), the data clearly shows that there are small behavioural practices we can do ourselves. If we do them consistently, improvement will follow. 

  • Work on improving your inhibitory skills by putting distractions away. Try resisting the urge to constantly look on at your phone, watch youtube videos, or taking the fourth tour to the coffee machine so you can talk to your colleagues. You may not be able to do all that from the beginning, so start small and work your way through it. 
  • Chuck your tasks. Distant deadlines could be deceiving, and large projects can be overwhelming. If you have a task at hand, which you perceive as challenging, chuck it into smaller pieces and work on it a bit each day. This will help you overcome both time management issues and fear of failure because the smaller and the more manageable the task is, the more confident you will be you can do it. 
  • Leverage your dopamine system. As we saw, dopamine is a pretty big player in the game of procrastination. If you are one of those people who like the thrill of impending deadlines, try redirecting your thrill-seeking behaviour towards different activities, which will not get you fired or ruin your efforts (provided that these new activities are safe for you). Flirting with close deadlines and barely completing your task reinforces this behaviour by making you think that you have completed the task successfully. This, however, is an illusion. Numerous studies show that procrastinators waiting for the last minute do sloppy work and suffer more severe mental health consequences. If you are instead a person who struggles to even get started, you should learn to attach dopamine to actions subjectively. You can do that by chucking your task into smaller pieces (again) and rewarding yourself for completing those parts of the task you considered challenging. For example, if you struggle to start working out, don’t start immediately with a 10k run. Rather, run 1-2k every other day, and reward yourself for the first 5k. It is best that the rewards are in the form of positive self-talk and not something external (e.g., buying a new swimsuit). Positive (and objective) self-talk is a more robust and sustainable tool than the external reward because it allows you to leverage your dopamine system subjectively. Self-forgiveness is also a good choice for a positive self-talk tool, which will likely help you not to procrastinate in the future and increase your motivation.
  • Reward the early birds, including yourself. I believe any academic supervisor or employer should do this, but I do not see it being done enough. Everyone will tell you that it is best to work consistently and not wait for the deadline. However, how many times have you actually been rewarded for doing so? People should receive positive feedback and be encouraged to hand in their work earlier and not 5 mins before the deadline. This will reinforce good practices, decrease stress, improve mental health, and generally make everyone’s personal and professional lives so much easier. 
  • Change your environment. If you see that the circumstances you work in make it hard for you not to procrastinate, change them. I know this is not always possible, but if you can, there is no reason you shouldn’t do it.
  • Get an external view. Interestingly, research has shown that objective scores (e.g., someone else judges your behaviour) are a better predictor of procrastination than subjective scores (i.e., you judge yourself). Otherwise, sometimes people may perceive themselves as procrastinators, while they are not, and the other way around. So make sure, in your battle against procrastination, you calibrate your subjective view on the problem by seeking other people’s opinions too. It might turn out you are a high achiever, and you don’t classify as a procrastinator.  You also might be living the false belief that you are not a procrastinator, while all objective measures point in the other direction.

Despite that it can be hard to beat, procrastination doesn’t have to be your destiny. We all have put off things aside. However, if you start to see that this is happening more often than desirable, the adverse outcomes will come sooner than you wish. While in the most challenging cases you may need clinical or pharmaceutical intervention, there are things you can start doing here and now to turn things around. 

Let me know if these tips were helpful to you or if you have any other suggestions! I would love to hear them!



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Chen, Z., Liu, P., Zhang, C., Yu, Z., & Feng, T. (2021). Neural markers of procrastination in white matter microstructures and networks. Psychophysiology, 58(5), e13782.

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