What’s Procrastination? Why Do You Procrastinate?

procrastination killing happiness

Procrastination: Definition, Meaning

What is procrastination, in a simple sentence?

Procrastination means not taking action intentionally.

  • It is avoiding starting something you mean to start.
  • It is avoiding finishing something you’re supposed to finish.
  • It is doing something else, or lots of something else, when you know you should be doing a certain important thing.

Procrastination is defined as deliberate delaying of an action despite the knowledge that the procrastinator will be worse off as a result of that delay.

Who are the procrastinators? They are those who procrastinate. How enlightening!

But you must get this one thing first, procrastinators are not lazy people. Laziness is not doing a task because you don’t want to put in the efforts, or just don’t feel like doing it.

Procrastinators are a different breed than lazy people — they don’t do a task because they don’t want to do it now. Note that ‘now’.

Types of Procrastination

The psychology experts classify procrastination into two types –

  1. decisional — putting off taking decisions
  2. avoidant — putting off doing things

All of us procrastinate at some of the times in both these ways. We either delay taking decisions or starting out on planned course of action. While some of us do it more, others do it less often.

But the truth is none of us do it all of the time. Even the worst of the procrastinators doesn’t prefix a delay to all of their activities.

The 3 main areas of our life we procrastinate on are education, career, and health.

  1. Education: Procrastination is quite pervasive in the education field. For many of us, this problem can be traced back to our earliest school years when we were perhaps slow learners, and got labeled by our peers and teachers. And we carry the label long after school.
  2. Career: On the career front, most of us know at least one person who despises his current job and desperately wants to change it, but doesn’t. Like lost souls swimming circles in a fish bowl, perpetually planning to dive out, but never making the jump. That lost soul is often the person we know the best – our own self. Are you sure that person isn’t you?
  3. Health: We’re really bad procrastinators when it comes to our health. Think of the new year’s day health goals you set for yourself and kept delaying starting out on them, year after year. Think of that regular half-hour yoga that never came around, or those 8 glasses of water or those 8 hours of sleep that could never become a reality. That smoking habit that you left and picked up back so many times that you feel ashamed to even whisper it.

Procrastination: Psychological Study

In September 2014, two British professors wanted to find out what happens when students do not hand over their assignments on time. Their study threw up an alarming surprise, which, if the students knew, would make them give up procrastination forever.

First, the professors David Arnott and Scott Dacko decided to define the procrastinators as the ones who wouldn’t submit their end-of-term tasks until the last day.

Then they dipped into five years of submission data on 777 marketing students from their own Warwick Business School, and found while each of these students had four weeks or more to hand over their assignments, only about a hundred had done so before the last day.

The rest, 669 of them, waited out until the last 24 hours to submit their task.

That is, 86% of them were procrastinators.

The real surprise uncovered itself in the final 24 hours. As they analyzed the data, Arnott and Dacko found a disturbing pattern emerge as the last day of the submission had begun.

The students taking another hour from here on started getting lower marks. It was happening by the hour. For example, someone who submitted at 3 pm got lower marks than those who did at 2 pm.

It was as if every passing hour was chipping away their scores. The worse the procrastination, the worse were the marks. So clear was the pattern that those who handed in their assignments at the last minute, had the worst grades of all.

In fact, these last-minute guys saw a full 5% drop in their marks over those who had checked in their tasks before the start of the last day.

Now, mind it, those five percentage points are substantial for students, because they could well translate into a half or a whole letter lower grade. A possibly ‘B’ could end up getting ‘C+’, just because they handed in their tasks late.

But that figure of eighty-six percent may not come as a surprise to all, especially the students. Students everywhere, all across the world, are known to be ‘natural-born’ procrastinators to school homework. Everybody knows first-hand how busy the lives of young college-goers can be. So, 86 out of 100 could seem unsurprisingly normal.

In a different study at the University of Vermont done in 1984, psychologists got a much lower figure. Here, only 46% of the students reported they procrastinate in writing academic papers.

Is Procrastination A Mental Illness?

Procrastination has been linked to poor mental health. It robs you of your happiness. The chronic procrastinators often suffer from stress, worry, and feelings of guilt.

It’s said good things come to those who wait, but not so for the procrastinators. The scientific verdict is out: Good things do not come to those who… procrastinate.

procrastination mental illness

The big culprit here is regret. It’s a story that goes around in a predictable circle: Procrastinators begin with hope, then go into anxiety, guilt and self-criticism, and end up in regret.

Next project, same cycle.

And thus, procrastination takes away your happiness. It has been proven over many studies and surveys. Results of two such studies are below.

Procrastination Research Group carried out a survey with over 10,000 respondents, and found 94% of them reported procrastination indeed has some negative effect on their happiness. According to Procrastination and Science, almost 70% of the procrastinators were found to be less happy than an average person.

Habitual procrastination could damage relationships, create an unflattering reputation of carelessness, and invite setbacks in career and work.

Procrastinators frequently resort to lies to reason out their delays. But they are often found out, leading to disastrous consequences. And you could swear all that can take away a sizable bit of their happiness.

Why Do You Procrastinate?

But why do you procrastinate, even when you know you should not be doing it?

  • Oftentimes, the reason is to procrastinate is that you feel you can always do it later. You believe that tomorrows come in unlimited supply. You spend the given time gathering data and preparing for the task at your hand. You might also feel that you don’t actually need all that time to finish the project. So, you keep sitting on it till the final minute.
  • Procrastinators delay doing things because they find the task uninspiring and boring. So they discover other interesting — but pointless and avoidable — things to do while pushing this important task into the background. Because doing those other things gives them instant gratification. This is the main culprit most of the times.
  • Procrastinators might also feel that they are inadequate for the responsibility they have been passed over. This lack of confidence in their own abilities has been often a reason for their procrastination. Moreover, they might also feel shy in asking for help.
  • Some procrastinators are known perfectionists. They will not say they have completed their task until they have found the most perfect solution for the work they have been assigned.
  • There can also be a fear of failure, or even a fear of success, holding them back from embarking on the task. The fear of failure is understandable by most of us — they are scared that the results they produce will go unappreciated and will downgrade some of their social prestige. The fear of success plays out in their heads as they might be saddled with more strenuous and complicated tasks once they finish the current project on time.

More Causes of Procrastination

For a minute, forget people who seem to do it all the time; why do you and I procrastinate? Is it because we can’t seem to manage our time, or is it really because we can’t seem to manage our emotions?

Procrastinators have a complicated relationship with time, and often believe time is up against them and they have outsmart it somehow.

But even then, procrastination is not just an matter of time-management. Rather, it is a complex psychological problem with deep roots into self-esteem issues.

The main reasons that make procrastination likely are:

  1. Uninteresting: We delay doing it till eternity because we find the work utterly boring and without any fun. That comes from the human nature’s basic Pain-Pleasure Principle – we run from painful activities and go after pleasurable ones. Scientists call it task aversiveness.
  2. Impulsiveness: Procrastinators have also been found to be largely impulsive. Being impulsive, they fail to handle their goals effectively, and keep jumping from task to task leaving most of those unfinished. Some researchers even argue procrastination is a by-product of impulsiveness, even when these two behaviors seem polar opposites (just give it a thought!).
  3. Low Confidence: We don’t feel sure of our abilities that we could tackle something effectively. We don’t do things because of a fear of failure or even a fear of success. This is the issue of low self-esteem that is believed to be the strongest reason. While at it, did you know you could overcome your low self-esteem with mindfulness?
  4. Anxiety: We have often felt when a deadline is right upon us, we end up procrastinating more. That is anxiety causing us to procrastinate. In that anxiety, we drive ourselves busy doing everything else other than the project at hand. Suddenly, our desk clutter needs to be cleared immediately, and our cars need to be taken for service.
  5. Goal Problems: When the goals are not clear, or the goals lie too far into the future, or there are no goals at all, we procrastinate. Learning how to set goals effectively can make this go away.
  6. Perfectionism: People who search for perfection often end up procrastinating. Perfectionism in certain fields is demanded by default, as in competitive sports and classical music. But for most, this is a handicap that leads to an unending delay in finishing things.
  7. Heredity: Procrastination could be 46% heritable, as a study on 347 Colorado twins indicated. Which means there is half a chance that you may have got it from your parents. But remember, that’s half a chance. The rest is how your environment molded you into.
  8. Mental Illness: Procrastination has been found to occur in some serious psychological illnesses, as borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety, addiction problems, as well as in strained relationships.
procrastinators do now

How To Stop Procrastination?

  1. Avoid Procrastination. This is the best method. As the professors said after the Warwick study, it would work best if the teachers recognized the habitual procrastinators in time, and helped them change their study habits. To avoid procrastination, set clear goals with realistic timelines, break each goal into many sub-goals, and measure and review progress at fixed time-points.
  2. Get A Growth Mindset: This is a concept researched and presented by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” she writes. Building into yourself a growth mindset can increase your self-worth, and help take new tasks as challenges to thrive on rather than shirk from.
  3. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT is a mindfulness-based psychotherapy that centers around accepting what is outside your personal control, and committing to action that enriches your life. It has shown remarkable short-term as well as long-term effects in decreasing procrastination, especially academic procrastination. If you want to learn mindfulness quickly, here’s how: Mindfulness in 7 Steps.

[An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Lifehack.org. Written by the same author.]

Those were just 3 ways. If you want to kill your procrastination habit forever, then steal these 10 Procrastination Hacks.


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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.


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