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Why do we procrastinate?

Why do we procrastinate?

9 min read
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Every student has been there. Submitting the assignment one minute before it is due, and promising to themselves “never again” as they breathe a huge sigh of relief.

And yet, they find themselves doing this with their next assignment, and the next, to the point that it’s affecting their overall well-being.

Why do they find it so difficult to motivate themselves? They’ll need to do the assignment eventually, so why not now? Every student procrastinates at some stage in their academic career, but when it becomes the norm (as it is for 50% of students), it’s problematic. This can not only negatively impact their mental and physical health, but it’s also associated with low academic achievement, declining grades, and low self-efficacy.

What is procrastination?

The verb “Procrastinate” was originally derived from the Latin words “Pro” (In favour of) and “Crastinus” (tomorrow) but is more formally defined as the “avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished”.

There are two main types of procrastinators, Active and Passive:

  • Active procrastinators purposely delay making a decision when conflicted or presented with a choice of tasks as they prefer to work under pressure.
  • Passive procrastinators struggle with indecision and self-regulating their choices, often failing to complete the task on time.

Despite a clear consensus on what procrastination is and its negative consequences, the reasons why we procrastinate are less clear. Researchers have failed to agree upon its causes, with some suggesting it has to do with poor time-management and others, with self-regulation. So, why do we procrastinate?

10_things_that_lead_to_procrastination

10 reasons why we procrastinate

10 reasons why we procrastinate

Procrastination is a lot more common than people think: 75% of students consider themselves procrastinators. Due to the negative impact it can have on overall well-being as well as grades, it is important for students to know what their triggers are. Here are some of the potential causes of procrastination…

1. The task is unappealing

One of the most common (if not the most common) causes of procrastination is struggling to complete tasks that we find unappealing or boring. No-one is getting excited to do laundry, pay their bills, or do that 2,000-word assignment for their least favourite class – and yet they have to do it.

Research shows a strong link between procrastination and tasks we find aversive. The more boring or unappealing you find a task, the higher the chances you’re going to do your best to avoid it.

If you can relate to this, then try and do the task for 5 minutes. Once you start something, your brain remains alert until you finish it. Starting the task is the hardest part – once you get over that hurdle, everything will become easier.

2. Perfectionism

Students often procrastinate on assignments out of perfectionism. This is because they’re either afraid of making a mistake which will open them up to criticism or worried that they won’t do as well as they normally do. The former causes them to push the assignment to the side until they can no longer ignore it, whilst the latter causes a never-ending cycle of editing and self-criticism.

Whilst wanting to do really well and create high-quality work is admirable, setting yourself unattainable goals means setting yourself up for failure. Essentially, it rationalises delaying work.

However, it is possible for students to utilise their perfectionism as a tool against procrastination. Research shows that some people believe their high standards actually motivates them to complete their tasks on time.

To overcome these perfectionist tendencies, you need to acknowledge that you actually have them. Ask yourself why you have these standards, what you hope to achieve, and what the worst-case scenario could be. Spoiler: it’s usually not as bad as you think.

3. Starting with the easy task

Procrastination, for students, often looks like this: you sit down to start this really important assignment and all of a sudden, you find yourself making your bed or clearing out your desk. Who knew that organising pencils could be so fun? Perhaps you’ll do that really short homework assignment first because it’s quick and easy.

These are what we call “filler tasks” as we do them to fill the time, so we don’t have to do the task we need to. Whilst they make you feel like you’re being productive and give you a sense of accomplishment, it’s really just performative procrastination.

This is what is known as “Present Bias”: in a trade-off situation, we tend to settle for smaller rewards now rather than wait longer for bigger rewards. Essentially, we’d rather have £15 now than £20 in a week. But why?

Research shows that, when presented with the option of short-term rewards, the emotion-related part of the brain is activated. This part struggles to determine the future consequences of the choices we make now as it wants that quick dopamine rush that comes from finishing a task. As a result, waiting for a bigger sense of accomplishment from completing that super important tasks seems like too much hassle.

If a task seems really daunting, break it down into smaller sections and focus on one thing at a time. For example, you could see a 4000- word essay as drafting a plan, then writing the introduction, then the conclusion, then the first part… When you take this approach, you’ll realise that the task wasn’t as difficult as you initially thought, and you get to feel accomplished more often.

4. Distractions

In modern-day life, students are surrounded by distractions: their phones, a TV, or social media just to name a few. These temptations that allow students to escape the reality of their assignment-riddled life can lead to procrastination.

Research shows that after being distracted, it takes around 25 minutes to get back to focusing on the task at hand. So, that quick 2-minute Instagram scroll? It’s really a 27-minute distraction.

And as much as we like to tell ourselves that we can focus on many different things at once, the reality is that multi-tasking is just switching between tasks quickly, wasting energy, focus and time in the process. Similarly, research shows that simply having your phone next to you (even without touching it) whilst trying to study was enough to cause a decline in performance on a range of cognitive tasks.

If this is something you struggle with, you may have high levels of distractibility. To overcome this, remove potential temptations from the room where you work, block certain websites, or even download the “Forest” app so you can grow a tree whilst studying.

5. Concept of time

The most common excuse amongst procrastinators is “I don’t have the time”. Deadlines keep appearing and there is no end goal in sight. Some researchers even argue that procrastination is nothing but poor time-management. However, the reality is not that simple.

One typical trait of procrastinators is a tendency to miscalculate how long a task will take and may put it off thinking it will be a lot more complicated and time-consuming than it actually is. But this is only one end of the spectrum.

Teenagers actually view time differently compared to adults because of their age. To them, time moves more slowly. To a 16-year-old, a year is 6.25% of their life, whilst the same time frame represents 2.5% of their life to a 40-year-old. This can cause students to think they have more time to complete a task than they actually do.

This phenomenon is known as the “The Planning Fallacy”, which is when people (particularly students) find it difficult to accurately predict how long a task will take, often leading to them putting off the assignment until the last minute. One study found that over 70% of students finished their assignment later than they had predicted they would, with the average time taken being over 55 days compared to the average prediction of 34 days. Students: give yourself more time than you think and set regular, short deadlines.

Effective learning starts with the ability to focus on the right thing at the right time. We can help your students with that.

6. Fear of failure

Students often find themselves procrastinating because they’re afraid of failing or not achieving the grade they want to achieve. This can lead to procrastination in a variety of ways as students may avoid starting or finishing the task.

For example, a student may have an oral French exam next week but put off practising because they feel they won’t do well regardless of how much they prepare for it. However, the amount of fear the student feels will depend on how important the oral exam is to their grade. Typically, tasks that hold more weight are associated with higher levels of fear – and consequently, procrastination.

On the other hand, research suggests that a fear of failure can actually act as a motivator to do the task on time and avoid procrastination. However, this only happens when they feel they are capable and prepared to complete the task.

7. Low self-efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to the confidence a person feels about their ability to perform a task well. Researchers have shown that people who tend to self-doubt and view themselves negatively are more likely to avoid tasks and new opportunities. This is because they avoid tasks that make them feel less confident about their abilities.

For example, a sixth-form student with low self-efficacy may not apply to top universities because they feel they won’t meet the entry requirements, despite their predicted grades suggesting otherwise. Consequently, they may miss out on opportunities that push their intellectual development.

It’s interesting to know that self-efficacy can be domain-specific. To illustrate, a student may have high levels of social self-efficacy but low levels of academic self-efficacy. This means that they are confident with carrying out social tasks but are less so when it comes to completing academic assignments – which eventually leads to procrastination.

8. Anxiety

Task avoidance is quite common amongst people who tend to be anxious in stressful situations. Although they understand that putting off the task won’t make it go away, they still use procrastination as a coping mechanism for stress.

To diminish their stress-related symptoms, people sometimes engage in “Present Bias” by shifting their focus to more immediately rewarding tasks rather than focusing on future tasks that may be more important. This form of procrastination is done as an attempt to alleviate the stress they feel.

Long-term, this can be particularly problematic as it can cause people to develop what is known as a “feedback loop”. This is when feeling anxious about doing well on a task causes people to avoid completing the task as they can “worry about it later”. However, by avoiding the task the person’s anxiety levels increase as the deadline is now closer, leading them to procrastinate even further.

9. Impulsivity

Research has shown that impulsivity is one of the strongest causes of procrastination. The problem isn’t that you don’t know how to start a task: it’s that you start too many tasks. People who consider themselves impulsive struggle with self-regulation and setting boundaries.

Being impulsive essentially means that you act on your impulses as soon as you get them. For example, if you have the urge to tidy your room then you’ll immediately act on that urge when you could just wait until you’re done with your work. As a result, you’ll push the task you need to do to the side and your homework session will be less productive.

One way to avoid the potential for impulsive behaviour is to get rid of any potential distractions in your workspace and to set yourself hard deadlines. Block certain websites like YouTube so you don’t fall into the wormhole of cooking shows and dog videos.

10. Not knowing how to start

We’ve all found ourselves staring at a blank work document, not knowing what to say or not feeling confident with the direction we wanted to go in. As a result of this uncertainty, we didn’t take that necessary first step.

When trying to complete an important assignment, we tend to overthink every little thing we say or do in an effort to meet the standards we set ourselves. You may have written the introduction to that 3,000-word essay due in 3 days but underestimated how much time and effort is needed to complete the whole task. This causes stress so we procrastinate.

This is why when doing a complex task, it is important to break it down into smaller chunks and do one thing at a time. Finished writing the introduction? Only focus on writing the next paragraph for your essay next. This will make the task a lot more manageable, reducing the likelihood of procrastination.

Final thoughts

The concept of procrastination is very complex. There is a multitude of reasons why students may procrastinate, which can rotate on different tasks. What drives a student to procrastinate is very dependent on who they are as an individual and how they justify putting off work to themselves.

The first step to overcoming procrastination is to recognise you have a problem with it. Once you recognise that your procrastination is problematic, you can take the necessary steps to change your behaviour and form new habits.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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