Understanding Why We Procrastinate

Understanding Why We Procrastinate

Understanding why we procrastinate is important if we want to overcome its seductive temptations. Like binging on Netflix instead of cleaning the house or beginning that important project that seems to be perennially getting put off!

We all procrastinate with 20% of us regularly avoiding either taking on or completing difficult and challenging tasks by actively seeking out distractions.

So, What Exactly is Procrastination?

What drives us to put off doing something when we know that it needs to be done? Particularly when we are aware of the future benefits that we will enjoy by its completion?

Psychology Today defines procrastination as reflecting our “perennial struggle with self-control”.  As such, procrastination manifests itself as an internal struggle of the mind.

Psychologist Elliot Berkham states that procrastination consists of the choices we make.  It is related to the “subjective value” that we attach to a task. It occurs when the value of doing another task outweighs the value derived from working on the task that we are procrastinating about.

On a subconscious level procrastination provides a way for us to feel good in the present.  When we procrastinate we are choosing to avoid an “emotionally unpleasant” task by postponing it for a later date.  We instead choose to take on a more pleasing task, one that provides us with a “temporary mood boost”, such as watching Netflix.

Our Present and Future Self

Procrastination encompasses our perceptions of time and the difference between our present and future self.

For example, you delay beginning an important task by allowing yourself to get distracted by folding the washing while getting engrossed watching an episode of one of your favourite Netflix series.  In this instance, you prioritise a simple and pleasing activity over beginning a challenging or difficult task. You place more value on the simple and pleasing task. Because it brings the benefit of pleasure to your present self, whereas the benefits of the more challenging task would be enjoyed by your future self.

In order to overcome procrastination, your present self would have to sacrifice a pleasurable experience for the benefit of your future self.  Instead what you have done is place more value on immediate rather than delayed gratification.  You have prioritised the short term over the long term.

Procrastination and Emotions

In order to understand why we procrastinate, we need to understand the link between procrastination and emotions. This is because our emotions determine our behaviour and as such influence whether or not we procrastinate.

Procrastination is linked to a mixed bag of emotions.

While procrastination may provide a temporary mood boost. These positive emotions are often replaced with negative emotions such as guilt, a feeling of failure, a lack of motivation, an inability to concentrate and at its worst, a lack of self-worth.

Sometimes we have the ability to dismiss these emotions. For example by making a joke out of our procrastination (like Ellen does above) or forgiving ourselves in order to neutralise these feelings.  However, at other times these negative emotions become severe enough to prevent us from tackling that task which we are procrastinating about.

In such circumstances, procrastination instigates a downward spiral of negative emotions. We feel guilty for not beginning a task, this feeling of guilt leads to a lack of motivation and further procrastination which brings on a feeling of failure and/or a sense of overwhelm.

We have thus constructed a psychological barrier that needs to be overcome in order to even begin the task.

When left unchecked procrastination can bring on a vicious cycle of negative emotions. In such instances, it not only affects our wellbeing but prevents us from taking steps that move us forward in life.

Procrastination and Depression

Psychologist Dr. Timothy Pychyl discovered that individuals with low self-regulation scores had higher procrastination and depression scores.  This indicates a link between procrastination and depression.Procrastination and depression

Being someone who has suffered from depression I can attest that procrastination and depression certainly do accompany one another. When I was depressed I found it difficult to find the motivation to engage in most of life’s day-to-day activities.

I found myself procrastinating on a daily, even hourly basis.  This was due to a low level of self-regulation. I was incapable of overcoming this lack of motivation and drive to beat procrastination.

When we are depressed life becomes a daily struggle.

It is for this reason that Dr. Pychyl states that when it comes to self-regulation, for a depressed person “showing up is half the battle”.

When we are depressed we rarely feel that sense of accomplishment and achievement that motivates us and propels us forward in life.  Instead, we experience procrastination and the accompanying lack of drive and motivation. Therefore simply participating in life becomes a major achievement.

Procrastination and Creativity

As it turns out, procrastination is not all doom and gloom.

Organisational psychologist Dr Adam Grant discovered that mild procrastination is a trait shared by all creative people. It turns out putting off rather than immediately beginning a project provides space for creativity. It provides time for the creative juices to flow.

Studies found that there is a ‘sweet spot’ of time that exists between immediately beginning a project extended procrastination. It is within this sweet spot of time where creativity flourishes.

The key lesson to take away here is that mild procrastination can be beneficial. People who procrastinate for too long are too busy procrastinating to discover their flair for creativity.


Procrastination is a human trait that we all, to varying degrees, share.

At times, procrastination is a harmless endeavor that allows us to have pleasing experiences in the present moment.

At other times it sets us off on a downward spiral of negative emotions and hold us back in life.

While for some of us, procrastination provides us with the space required for our creative juices to flow.

Whatever form of procrastination we experience, understanding why we procrastinate allows us to leverage its advantages where we can and work towards overcoming its limitations when required.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post, if you found it helpful and enjoyed reading it please share it! 🙂

Quote of the day and food for thought 

Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday

Acknowledgements: images courtesy of Pixabay from Pexels.com

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