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The Psychological Origins of Procrastination – and How We Can Stop Putting Things Off

Don’t delay.

Here’s the science behind why we procrastinate, and some tricks to overcome it.



Now or later?


“I love deadlines,” English author Douglas Adams once wrote.

“I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”


We’ve all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don’t care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot – and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them.


So why do we procrastinate?

Are we built to operate this way at some times?

Or is there something wrong with the way we’re approaching work?


These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate – and how to overcome this tendency.


To Do, Or Not To Do


It all starts with a simple choice between working now on a given project and doing anything else: working on a different project, doing something fun, or doing nothing at all.


The decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project at that moment – what psychologists call its subjective value.

And procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.


This way of thinking suggests a simple trick to defeat procrastination: find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things.

You could increase the value of the project, decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two.


For example, instead of cleaning my house, I might try to focus on why grading is personally important to me.

Or I could think about how unpleasant cleaning can actually be – especially when sharing a house with a toddler.


It’s simple advice, but adhering to this strategy can be quite difficult, mainly because there are so many forces that diminish the value of working in the present.


The Distant Deadline


People are not entirely rational in the way they value things.


For example, a dollar bill is worth exactly the same today as it is a week from now, but its subjective value – roughly how good it would feel to own a dollar – depends on other factors besides its face value, such as when we receive it.


The tendency for people to devalue money and other goods based on time is called delay discounting. For example, one study showed that, on average, receiving $100 three months from now is worth the same to people as receiving $83 right now.

People would rather lose $17 than wait a few months to get a larger reward.


Other factors also influence subjective value, such as how much money someone has recently gained or lost.

The key point is that there is not a perfect match between objective value and subjective value.


Delay discounting is a factor in procrastination because the completion of the project happens in the future. Getting something done is a delayed reward, so its value in the present is reduced: the further away the deadline is, the less attractive it seems to work on the project right now.


Studies have repeatedly shown that the tendency to procrastinate closely follows economic models of delay discounting.

Furthermore, people who characterize themselves as procrastinators show an exaggerated effect. They discount the value of getting something done ahead of time even more than other people.

One way to increase the value of completing a task is to make the finish line seem closer. For example, vividly imagining a future reward reduces delay discounting.


No Work is ‘Effortless’


Not only can completing a project be devalued because it happens in the future, but working on a project can also be unattractive due to the simple fact that work takes effort.


New research supports the idea that mental effort is intrinsically costly; for this reason, people generally choose to work on an easier task rather than a harder task. Furthermore, there are greater subjective costs for work that feels harder (though these costs can be offset by experience with the task at hand).


This leads to the interesting prediction that people would procrastinate more the harder they expect the work to be.

That’s because the more effort a task requires, the more someone stands to gain by putting the same amount of effort into something else (phenomenon economists call opportunity costs).

Opportunity costs make working on something that seems hard feels like a loss.


Sure enough, a group of studies shows that people procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks. These results suggest that reducing the pain of working on a project, for example by breaking it down into more familiar and manageable pieces, would be an effective way to reduce procrastination.


Your Work, Your Identity


When we write that procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things, it frames task completion as a product of motivation, rather than ability.


In other words, you can be really good at something, whether it’s cooking a gourmet meal or writing a story, but if you don’t possess the motivation, or sense of importance, to complete the task, it’ll likely be put off.


It was for this reason that the writer Robert Hanks, in an essay for the London Review of Books, described procrastination as “a failure of appetites.”


The source of this “appetite” can be a bit tricky. But one could argue that, like our (real) appetite for food, it’s something that’s closely intertwined with our daily lives, our culture, and our sense of who we are.


So how does one increase the subjective value of a project? A powerful way – one that my graduate students and I have written about in detail – is to connect the project to your self-concept.

Our hypothesis is that projects seen as important to a person’s self-concept will hold more subjective value for that person.


It’s for this reason that Hanks also wrote that procrastination seems to stem from a failure to “identify sufficiently with your future self” – in other words, the self for whom the goal is most relevant.


Because people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, goals connected closely to one’s sense of self or identity take on much more value.


Connecting the project to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.


Elliot Berkman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.

Jordan Miller-Ziegler is a Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology at the University of Oregon.



What is procrastination?


What is procrastination - postponing tasks to the last moment


Procrastination definition


Trouble persuading yourself to do the things you should do or would like to do.

When you procrastinate, instead of working on important, meaningful tasks, you find yourself performing trivial activities.

  • Pro-crastinus
  • = (lat.) belonging to tomorrow
  • Procrastination
  • = putting things off intentionally or habitually


Spread the word
Procrastination definition - Things I should/would like to do vs. procrastination



Why fight procrastination?


"While we waste our time hesitating and postponing, life is slipping away."  -- Seneca

Procrastination is one of the main barriers blocking you from getting up, making the right decisions, and living the dream life you've thought of.


Recent studies have shown that people regret more the things they haven't done than the things they have done. In addition, feelings of regret and guilt resulting from missed opportunities tend to stay with people much longer.


Sometimes all our opportunities seem to be on our fingertips, but we can't seem to reach them. When you procrastinate, you waste time that you could be investing in something meaningful.

If you can overcome this fierce enemy, you will be able to accomplish more and in doing so better utilize the potential that life has to offer.


We now know that the world today is conducive to procrastinating and learning how to overcome it is, therefore, one of the most important skills you can learn.


Procrastination vs. fulfilled life
Do you want to stop Procrastinating?

Get science-based and simple tools that can help you from the bestseller The End of Procrastination.


Why do people procrastinate?


Willpower is often perceived to be the leading cause of procrastination, but it is mainly our intrinsic motivation that helps us to overcome the habit of putting things off on daily basis.


Decision paralysis


The number of opportunities that today's world offers is staggering.

Modern society idolizes individual liberty in the belief that the freer people are, the happier they will be.

So then why aren't people today significantly happier than in the past? Because with more freedom to make our own decisions and to perform our actions, we have become easily confused about what is a priority, what is essential and what is not, and with what is right and wrong, and therefore we have become demotivated to do anything at all.


We need to set straight our values and personal visions and to cultivate our positive habits. This is the essential thing that can help us overcome not only procrastination but also all the other obstacles that life brings.


Ignoring The Value of Time


We were all born and unfortunately at some point will all die too.

The time we spend on Earth is both limited and finite. In light of these facts, time is the most valuable commodity you have.

It’s not money; unlike time, you can borrow money, save, or earn more.

You can’t do that with time.


Every single second you waste is gone forever.


The mere realization that life is finite leads people to begin managing their time more carefully.

It makes you think about how you would ideally like to spend your time on Earth.


Lack of self-discipline


You can imagine self-discipline or self-control as a moment when you give yourself orders, but you are having a hard time following them.

It is not the primary cause of procrastination, but an important compound. To be disciplined, you need to have the correct type of motivation and learn to maintain and work on positive habits.


Types of motivation and why setting goals will never work


Extrinsic motivation

Rewards and punishments or carrots and sticks were developed to force people into performing actions they would never consider on their own.

But when people do things they don’t want to do, they are less happy, and their brains release less dopamine.

Many studies have confirmed that using extrinsic motivation lowers performance in activities that require even a little brainwork and creativity.

Extrinsic motivation
Goal-based motivation

This motivation drives people forward, causing them to work hard for their goals, which means that sooner or later, they will indeed achieve them.

And when that finally does happen, a one-time dose of dopamine is released, resulting in an intense emotion of joy.

The problem is that what follows next is a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. This causes people to get accustomed to their accomplished goals unexpectedly.

A few minutes, hours, or, at most, days upon reaching a goal, positive feelings will disappear.

Goal-based motivation
Intrinsic motivation

Meaning and vision provide long-lasting and satisfying motivation.

When people see the purpose in their actions, particularly when they actually want to perform these actions, one of the strongest forms of motivation arises,

it is called the intrinsic journey-based motivation. This type of motivation is based on the concept of having a personal vision. Unlike chasing goals, a personal vision is an expression of something lasting. It answers the question of how you would most like to spend your time in life. It focuses on actions, not results.

It focuses on the journey, not the destination.

Intrinsic journey-based motivation

What procrastination is not


Procrastination is not laziness

Procrastinators often put off doing things, leave them to the very last moment or sometimes even spend their time staring at the wall. However be careful, procrastination is not a synonym for lazy.


Lazy people, simply don’t do anything and are just fine with it. Procrastinators, on the other hand, have the desire to actually do something but can’t force themselves to start.


It's a good idea to start using the word procrastination instead of using the terms laziness or putting things off.

It provides a much more accurate description of your situation. Only by giving the right name to your problem can you begin working on it.


Procrastination, guilty, doubt, fell helpless


Relaxation is not procrastination


Don’t confuse procrastination with relaxation either. Relaxing recharges you with energy. In stark contrast, procrastination drains it from you. The less energy you have, the more stressed or even depressed you might have become, and the higher the chances of you putting off your responsibilities are.


So the opposite of procrastination is actually getting things done, and being able to relax, deal with your workload well and be happy in the long term.


Myth: We Work Better under Pressure


A lot of the times we hear the excuse that people often love leaving things to the last minute.

They justify their actions by claiming that they are most productive under pressure.


However, scientific studies show that the opposite is true.

Putting things off until the very last moment creates fertile ground for stress, guilt, and ineffectiveness.


“Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today”
Want to learn more?


This video is part of an online course, The End of Procrastination. Check it out if you want to learn more about how to fight procrastination and be more efficient.


How to stop procrastinating


You can learn as much as you want about self-discipline, motivation, planning, and time management, but unless you make what you learn part of your daily routine, your habits, your thinking patterns, and your mental models.

it will be only useless information stored in your memory without ever helping you.


Any book, article, or video can give you tools, but it is up to you to actually use them.


So, what tools can help you stop procrastinating?


1) Personal vision

The personal vision is one of the core tools, it helps you understand your skills and priorities, and by creating one, you will never feel lost in what is it that you want to do with your life.

The personal vision as well helps you to focus your effort on the right activities and set priorities to avoid continually switching between actions.

Understand what motivates you, and you will be able to maintain your discipline and make the most out of each day.

Personal vision
2) To-Do today

Long to-do lists tend to pile on, and this leads to procrastination.

Seeing the long list of tasks can frustrate us so much that we have tendencies to give up on them completely.

The To-Do Today method is there to help you get the most important and urgent tasks done every day, while also helping you prioritize the work on your schedule and limit new tasks.

With its help, you will be able to manage much more in a day, with less stress and tiredness.

todo list
3) Habit list

Learning new habits is one of the basic elements of personal development.

If we make a habit of doing something, its implementation requires less mental energy to do it. Learning new habits is, therefore, very important. But there are several myths about what is working and what is not in learning new habits.

The Habit-list is based on scientific research about proper planning, learning habits, and tracking, which then motivates us even further.

Habit list
4) Meeting With Myself

This tool will help to guide you through your own "Meeting With Yourself" a time allocated just for you!

During your meetings, you can focus on long-term planning and the overall retrospective of your personal growth.

It is designed to make you ask yourself how far you have moved forward recently.

To consider which direction you would like to head in life and to think about what you can improve even further.

Meeting With Myself


Want to learn how to use these tools?


Detailed descriptions, tips and common pitfalls of these and other tools can be found in the book in the book The End of Procrastination. This book will teach you step by step how to put them into practice.


Further reading about procrastination

Recommended books



Best Ted Talks on Procrastination & how to not waste time