Reasons We Procrastinate: 3 Science-Backed Explanations

March 30, 2016 • Rehack Team


Procrastination is its own art form. It’ll make you choose the lesser of two dreaded evils — whichever task you need to do the least. Maybe you’re a messy person but find yourself arm-deep in dishwater instead of working on a major project. Why is that, and what are the reasons we procrastinate?

The truth is that procrastination has been around for thousands of years. In 800 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod advised not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.”

Maybe procrastination pumps you up for a deadline, but is that helping or hurting you? Why put off something important and know you’ll suffer as a result of the delay? Here are three science-backed reasons why you procrastinate:

1. It’s How You’ve Always Worked

Procrastinators are still technically doing something. The issue is what you’re choosing to do and how you prioritize your procrastination. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but science backs productive procrastination.

Productive procrastination is what University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel calls it. Even Dr. Steel tends to juggle his projects, playing projects off each other. It keeps things interesting. Dr. Steel surveyed 24 thousand people around the world and found that 95 percent procrastinate occasionally and that a quarter of those surveyed are categorized as “chronic procrastinators.” A quarter of people in the workplace will find something to do other than what they’re dreading, but they’re still getting work done.

If you choose cleaning over a more daunting task, you use productive procrastination to your advantage. Just remember that procrastinators don’t sit around idly. Work your way to the daunting task by working around it, knowingly tricking yourself.

Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister developed the “Nothing Strategy,” which functions on the same principle. He says that “Structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, because one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines while making oneself feel that these tasks are important.”

2. You Can Blame Your Genes

You are hardwired to procrastinate. How can you argue with genetics? Go ahead: Relish this delicious, valid excuse.

A study exploring the biological levels of “I’ll do it tomorrow” has genetically linked impulsivity with procrastination. 166 fraternal-twin and 181 identical-twin pairs were analyzed for their traits of procrastination and impulsivity, as well as their abilities to make and take action toward long-term goals.

These traits were deemed “moderately heritable” at 46 percent for procrastination and 49 percent for impulsivity. The traits were separable at the phenotypic level but not the genetic level. They are likely linked to our higher cognitive functions and self-regulation within our daily activities.

For our ancestors, the need to be impulsive makes sense, but procrastination appears to be a new genetic development. When you act impulsively, you become distracted from your original goal. For perpetual procrastinators, the link between impulsivity and procrastination is likely hardwired.

3. You’re an Anxious Perfectionist

Are you living in the sensation of an idea, fearing the product won’t live up to it? Perhaps you put off doing the task, or spend too much time on one aspect of the task, because you want the final product to be your best effort. Do you hear the voices of self-doubt in your head: The voices of others telling you it won’t be enough?

One 2014 study traced the correlation between depression, perfectionism and procrastination. 402 undergraduates completed various scales on depression, stress, anxiety and procrastination. The results “demonstrated the importance of affect, cognition and behaviour on problematic delay referred to as procrastination.” The study revealed data that supports how depression or anxiety over completing a task causes procrastination through delay and inaction.

The Real Reasons We Procrastinate

Procrastination has gotten the best of everyone, but sometimes it seems to bring about your best work. It’s a harsh mistress that entices you in one moment and shuns you in the next.

Some people are hardwired to be impulsive and procrastinate. Others are hardwired to do their very best and are perfectionists, influenced by both nature and nurture to raise the bar higher and higher. “We are our own worst enemies, and our best cheerleaders,” you might say.

Sometimes, procrastination is just how you work. Balance what you want and need to avoid the reasons we procrastinate. Even though it sometimes leads to defeat, at times procrastination is what you need.