Putting it off: Why we procrastinate

November 14, 2013 by Amy Reichelt, The Conversation
Putting it off: why we procrastinate
The internet is a procrastinator's paradise. Credit: Rishi Bandopadhay

Everyone procrastinates. I became somewhat distracted by completely irrelevant websites, for instance, while preparing to write this article.

Procrastination, as you may have figured out by now, is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to urgent ones. Or, doing pleasurable tasks in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus delaying performing impending jobs.

We know we have important work deadlines, exams to study for, and even more tedious tasks such as sorting out bills and taking the dog to the vet for yearly vaccinations.

But when deadlines loom, mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing – tidying your office area as opposed to writing a report, or cleaning the car instead of revising for an exam.

Chronic procrastinating stems productivity and affects our state of mind by generating worry and stress. As deadlines approach, they cause feelings of frustration and guilt for not working on a task when we were meant to.

So why do we choose to mess around when we need to knuckle down and do what we know to be important?

The value of mundane tasks

In order to procrastinate, we need to have an appreciation of the value of our . That's to say we know that we're undertaking a short-term, less important task, instead of doing something essential.

The part of the brain that acts as the control centre for deciding whether to perform certain behaviours is the prefrontal cortex.

It plays an important role in assigning positive (or negative) values to outcomes, and encoding what actions were performed. This process means you are more likely to do something if it previously resulted in a good feeling.

This area of the brain is therefore important for making value-based judgements as well as for decision making in general; we undertake certain behaviours because we've learnt that they make us feel good.

Neurotransmitters in the brain process rewards and generate pleasurable sensations. Rewarding behaviours result in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.

And dopamine reinforces such behaviours in turn, making us feel good and increasing the chances that we will perform them again.

Putting tasks into perspective

The tasks we tend to occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are those with a small, immediate, and short-term value, instead of the important, more valued task where the reward is delayed.

This is an example of temporal discounting; basically, we overestimate the value of an outcome when it can be gained immediately.

Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent a reward is perceived to be. In other words, we discount the value of large rewards the further away they are in time. This is called the present bias.

And it explains why we're more likely to partake in low-value behaviours (checking Facebook, for instance, or playing computer games) – because getting a good score on a test next week is further away in time, so it's less valued than it should be.

As time passes, the temporal proximity of your deadline increases. The value of doing well in your assessment, or getting work in before a deadline is still just the same as before, but greater immediacy means it becomes more important that you complete the task.

Another more personality-based theory of procrastination is the "arousal seeking" idea. This suggests procrastinators may be a certain personality type, in particular people who are thrill seekers.

Leaving an important deadline until the last minute increase levels of stress. And carrying out the task in the last minute leads to a rewarding "rush" once its complete. This reinforces the idea that such people work better under pressure.

Procrastination may be a facet of personality. Or it could be that exposure to so many immediately rewarding activities makes it difficult to perform certain less pleasurable, but important tasks.

Overcoming procrastination

There are a variety of techniques to help people work effectively and minimise distractions and .

The Pomodoro technique, for instance, breaks work sessions into manageable 25-minute slots, allowing a small reward at the end, such as five minutes access to Facebook or a short coffee break.

Then you have to return to another 25 minutes of work; the technique can aid productivity across the whole day.

A similar approach is self-imposing shorter-term deadlines for a large project, breaking it up into manageable tasks with immediate outcomes.

This increases the proximity of the deadline and decreases the chances of having to carry out the task at the last minute. This technique can work as simply as making a timetable or list of smaller tasks, and then rewarding yourself once each task is complete.

With so many daily distractions, we seem to live in a procrastinators paradise. Accepting that we're prone to procrastinate allows us to manage our behaviour and be more productive.

Explore further: Task master: Categorizing rewards improves motivation

Related Stories

Task master: Categorizing rewards improves motivation

May 29, 2013
What truly inspires individuals to perform at their very best? When it comes to motivating others and ourselves, it turns out offering rewards in defined categories, even when they are largely meaningless, can heighten motivation. ...

New research shows how brain prepares to start searching

November 13, 2013
Many of us have steeled ourselves for those 'needle in a haystack' tasks of finding our vehicle in an airport car park, or scouring the supermarket shelves for a favourite brand.

Women are significantly better at multitasking than men

October 24, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Women are better than men at carrying out multiple tasks according to new research from a team of psychologists including researchers from the University of Hertfordshire.

Mindful individuals less affected by immediate rewards

November 1, 2013
A new study from the University of Toronto Scarborough shows that people who are aware of and their own thoughts and emotions are less affected by positive feedback from others.

Recommended for you

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2013
'Procrastination' in Psychiatry, clinical psychology and the dictionary is to put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness or to delay endlessly.

I don't know where this new definition of prioritising unimportant over important tasks comes from. I assume that English is not the author's first language.
not rated yet Jan 08, 2014
Note that the text defines Procrastination as: "Procrastination, as you may have figured out by now, is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to urgent ones."

Although this appears in wikipedia, it is not a definition of the word. See:
Online dictionary

Procrastinate: do defer or postpone

The word 'procrastinate' comes from the word 'postpone'. 'Defer' means to put off. The priotisation confusion mentioned in the text appears in no dictionaries...

I have no idea what the correct definition as repeated in every dictionary ever printed should rate 1/5.

Perhaps English is not the first language of the person giving that score??
not rated yet Jan 08, 2014
Also of note: The Wikipedia entry, which appears to be quoted in the text, gives a set of explanations for the phenomena of procrastination as drawn from the likes of Freud and not a definition. These explanations are all tentative, discredited or not generally accepted (as in Freud), or speculative (as is most of the article.)

They do give a link to their wiktionary for an actual definition which reads thus:
"The act of postponing, delaying or putting off, especially habitually or intentionally. "

Hence my point is vindicated by the source...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.