Hundreds of research studies confirm that there are four primary causes of procrastination
Confession: Sometimes I procrastinate on my work by researching techniques for overcoming procrastination. 🤦♂️
In the case of writing this article, I spent an embarrassing amount of time procrastinating on researching procrastination—and that was before I even started to procrastinate on writing about procrastination!
I’ve never dreamt about procrastination, but I’m sure an Inception-style dream about procrastination within a dream about procrastination is right around the corner…
Procrastination is a Double Problem
Part of the way I rationalize all this and make myself feel a little better is to acknowledge that procrastination is what I call a double problem—a problem for which finding the answer to the problem is also a problem.
Double problems are notoriously difficult and tricky, in part because they use our own psychology against us—right as we’re gearing up to tackle the problem, we realize we don’t even know where to start.
Kinda takes the motivational wind our of our sails.
Everybody struggles with procrastination
I also get a little consolation by reminding myself that I’m not alone in my difficulty with procrastination: “How to stop procrastinating” turns up 1,560,000 hits in Google, and searching for “procrastination” on Amazon offers up 2,581 books on the topic.
We’re awash with advice on overcoming procrastination, but somehow… it feels like we’re struggling more and more with procrastination.
What’s the deal?
There is no single cause of procrastination
I’ve spent a good chunk of time browsing through popular articles and accounts of procrastination, reviewing what the scientific literature has to say about it, and reading a handful of the most popular self-help books on the topic. All that in addition to working with my clients clinically on issues of procrastination.
One theme I’ve noticed is that there’s a strong tendency—both for those struggling with procrastination and those giving advice about how to stop—to assume that there is a single cause of procrastination, and therefore a single solution.
It seems like every productivity guru and shrink out there has their pet theory about what causes procrastination, along with a custom-built solution based on that theory.
But what struck me after spending time in procrastination’s mucky little corner of the self-help industry is the possibility that there isn’t just one cause of procrastination. And by extension, there can’t be just one cure.
What’s more, by desperately clinging to the idea of a silver bullet solution for procrastination, we end up never really making any headway on it because no one strategy is sufficient to genuinely help.
This idea that none of us—lay or professional—really know what we’re doing when it comes to overcoming procrastination was starting to get a little discouraging until I stumbled upon a very interesting research paper…
The Science of Procrastination
In 2007, University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel wrote paper called The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure.
The paper was fascinating because it showed scientifically what I was starting to sense intuitively—that the causes of procrastination are actually multiple, and that many of the popular notions of what caused procrastination were either simply not true or had extremely small effects.
Nerdy Side Note: Steel used a technique called meta-analysis which allowed him to combine all the data from decades worth of research on procrastination and show which factors are significantly and reliably associated with procrastinating.
Interestingly, Steel’s research showed that the two oldest psychological theories for why we procrastinate—anxiety and rebelliousness—in reality had only a weak connection with the tendency to procrastinate.
On the other hand, four primary factors stood out as by far the strongest true predictors of procrastination.
The 4 Causes of Procrastination
- Self-Efficacy: A person’s belief and expectation that they are capable of completing a task. When we don’t have much confidence in our ability to complete a task (or to complete it well), our likelihood of procrastinating goes way up. This shows up most commonly when we’re uncertain about how to start a task.
- Value: How enjoyable or painful is the task at hand? In general, the more enjoyable a task, the less we procrastinate on it. Although, it seems that mildly painful and boring tasks are actually more likely to lead to procrastination than extremely difficult tasks—which helps explain why we tend to procrastinate so much on busywork.
- Impulsiveness: Difficulty maintaining focus in the face of immediate and more appealing distractions. If we’re vulnerable to lots of distractions—or work in a highly distracting environment—and have a hard time resisting those distractions, we’re much more likely to procrastinate. Co-worker pop-ins and social media notifications make it tough to simply sit and work hard on one task for a sustained period of time.
- Delay: How much time there is in between the decision to take on a task and the point when it must be completed. Basically, the longer you have to finish a task, the longer you’ll wait to get started on it.
The Procrastination Equation
Besides clarifying these four as the most influential factors in procrastination, Steel’s research also showed that they work together in particular way, what he calls The Procrastination Equation.
The Procrastination Equation says that our likelihood of not procrastinating on a given task will be equal to the product of our self-efficacy and the value of the task divided by the product of how impulsive we are and the amount of delay between taking on a task and its due date.
As a formula or equation, it looks like this:
Odds of Overcoming Procrastination = Self-Efficacy x Value / Impulsiveness x Delay.
This is exciting because it suggests that we may be able to finally stop bumbling around in the dark for hit-or-miss procrastination tips and actually find something that works. Specifically, it may allow us to generate effective strategies for overcoming procrastination in an individualized and situation-specific way.
How to (effectively) fight back against procrastination
The Procrastination Equation is an incredible tool for resisting our natural inclination to procrastinate. Below are some suggestions for getting started:
Be careful of taking other people’s advice about procrastination.
Because there are multiple factors that lead to procrastination, the reasons you tend to procrastinate may be very different than the reasons other people procrastinate. As a result, it’s unlikely that a particular strategy or technique that worked for one person will work in the same way and to the same degree that it does for someone else.
To some extent, this means that we all have to custom-build our own solutions to procrastination. Which brings me to my next suggestion…
Identify your unique vulnerability to procrastination.
The next time you find yourself procrastinating, think about the four factors in The Procrastination Equation (Self-efficacy, Value, Impulsiveness, Delay) and try to determine which one tends to be strongest for you personally. Do this routinely, and you should start to see patterns and trends. Understanding these individualized patterns will be important for anticipating and effectively dealing with future procrastination.
Use targeted anti-procrastination strategies.
Once you’ve identified which of the four factors is the strongest in your case, implement a strategy to combat that specific factor.
Here are the four factors along with some suggestions for how to address each:
- To address problems of Self-Efficacy, create small wins. Procrastinating on that big report you have to write? Break it down into smaller sections and commit to just completing one doable section. Still procrastinating on your smaller section? Break it down even more. By giving ourselves small, quick wins, we build up our self-efficacy and belief in ourselves, which increases our odds of getting started on future elements of the task.
- To address problems of Value, create “artificial” systems of reinforcement. Ideally, all of our work would be incredibly meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable. Sadly, this isn’t the case for any of us all the time. And when a task is not intrinsically enjoyable, the next best thing is to make it artificially enjoyable. Hate processing a weekend’s worth of work emails Monday morning at the office? Create a Monday morning routine where you go to your favorite coffee shop, order your favorite fancy coffee drink, and process your weekend emails there before even getting to the office. Once you pair an aversive task with something enjoyable, it’s overall value increases—which means your likelihood of procrastinating on it decreases.
- To address problems of Impulsiveness, ruthlessly eliminate distractions. Addicted to facebook but have an important afternoon project to complete? Leave you phone in your car until it’s done. Social butterfly but need to turn in your TPS reports by Friday at 5:00? Work on them in the smelly basement conference room nobody will dare visit you in. TV junkie but need to get your taxes done by the end of the week? Unplug your TV and put it in the garage until they’re done. The key element will all of these is this: Don’t rely on willpower to resist distractions; change your environment instead.
- To address problems of Delay, set micro due dates. Similar to step 2, when the due date on a task is far away by nature, we have to artificially make it sooner. Do this by breaking down a project or task into reasonable chunks, and making each chunk it’s own task with its own specific due date.
Remember that procrastination is highly situation-specific.
Just like different people tend to be vulnerable to different causes of procrastination in different ways, different situations or contexts can make us differently vulnerable to procrastination (I just used the word different 5 times in one sentence 😬).
For example, while low Self-Efficacy may typically be your issue when it comes to procrastination, it’s still possible to procrastinate in an area you’re very talented in—in which case the factor you need to address may be Value rather than Self-Efficacy. Similarly, you may be someone who’s typically pretty good about maintaining focus and avoiding distraction, but when you’re around a specific person, you’re ability to resist distraction crumbles. Rather than getting down on yourself about this, anticipate it and have some strategies ready at hand.
Procrastination is a complex phenomena with four primary factors that contribute to it: low self-efficacy, low task value, high impulsiveness and distraction, and a long delay between task onset and completion. The key to overcoming procrastination is to understand how we are uniquely vulnerable to procrastination given both our own personality and our ever-changing environment, and then to tailor our strategies to those unique vulnerabilities.
For more on procrastination, I’ve included a section below that compiles some of my favorite resources and reading related to procrastination.
Resources and Further Reading
- If you only look at one resource on procrastination, I’d recommend Pier Steel’s The Procrastination Equation. It’s easy-to-read, contains a wide range of practical strategies for managing your procrastination, and most importantly, is based on what I consider the best scientific understanding of procrastination that we have.
- Probably the most Internet-famous take on procrastination, Tim Urban’s three articles on procrastination—Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, How to Beat Procrastination, and The Procrastination Matrix, plus his more recent Ted Talk—are all incredibly illustrative in alternatingly hilarious and poignant fashion. While a little light on the how to overcome procrastination angle, I think this series is arguably the best real-world description of procrastination out there.
- Jame’s Clear’s Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating is a nice compliment to the above articles because it focuses much more on the pragmatic how-to side of procrastination. He’s got some great tips on effective anti-procrastination strategies like Temptation Bundling, The Ivy Lee Method, and Commitment Devices that are pretty useful. Good one if you want to simply jump in to working on your procrastination.
- For a slightly more high-brow expose of procrastination and the various theories about where it comes from and what to do about it, Later is a New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki that I thought was really well written and thoughtful, especially in its description of Hyperbolic Discounting (the Delay part of The Procrastination Equation), which is a pretty key factor in procrastination.
- The Salzberg brothers over at njlifehacks have some great articles on procrastination that dispel a lot of common myths and misconceptions about procrastination and give some good, practical strategies for making progress. They tend to have a stoicism bent to a lot of their work, which is fascinating.
- Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate by Adam Grant is a piece for the Times arguing that while there are definite downsides to procrastination, one potential upside is to use it as a means of cultivating creativity. He also talks about Pre-crastination, the little known alter-ego of procrastination.
- In a similarly contrarian vein, Marc Andreessen writes in his Guide to Personal Productivity about various counterintuitive productivity hacks like the Anti-Todo List and Un-Schedule, including a nice summary of a method called Structured Procrastination which is all about how to use the urge to procrastinate on Task A as motivation to take care of tasks B through Z.
- Rounding things out is an Essay by Paul Graham entitled Good and Bad Procrastination which argues that the key to accomplishing important things is to ruthlessly procrastinate on unimportant things.