Why You Might Be Procrastinating and How to Get to Work

When my graduate student cohort gathered to study for an exam last week, the conversation naturally led to a rant about a paper that was due two days later. Some of us had not even started while others had finished it as early as a week ago. Those that were putting it off to the last minute said that they could not get themselves to do it unless their butt is on fire. The diligent ones said they felt that threat two weeks prior to the deadline.

 I didn’t start writing until the day before.

The story of procrastination–the voluntary and irrational delay of an intended action–is all too familiar to many of us (Steel, 2007). The problem seems exacerbated given the pandemic and the work-from-home lifestyle, with more distractions but lack of watching eyes. But even us lazy ones experience a boost of focus when a hard deadline embarks, especially if the failure to meet the deadline entails a negative consequence.

We may procrastinate because we minimize future

When we fall into procrastination, we are making a choice between two courses of action whose outcomes take effect at different times, termed intertemporal choice: we weigh an earlier and short-lasting reward versus a later and long-term reward with sustained benefits. When I procrastinated writing my paper last week, I had chosen the immediate reward of Netflix over a better grade and a peace of mind after a week. Working for a better grade was definitely the wiser choice, but a hard one to commit to when I knew I could enjoy TV  immediately without effort whereas the delight from a good grade required prolonged hard work.

One hypothesis attributes such decisions in intertemporal choice scenarios to a phenomenon called temporal discounting or delay discounting. Psychologically, we perceive the impact of an event–or the value of a reward–as dampened if it is farther away in the future. This phenomenon is commonly observed in many settings, such as in financial decisions, public policy, and health. The benefit of putting $100 into your retirement funds, the environmental consequences of global warming, and the risk of long-term damage to your lungs from smoking are not as salient in our minds as they should be. It is natural for us to “discount” the value of a reward that is delayed to the far future for many reasons; the future is uncertain, our tastes may change, … after all, our brain has evolved to deal with immediate dangers, rather than to plan a long life in the contemporary environment (Gifford, 2011).

When applied to the context of (not) getting things done, temporal discounting effect can partly explain procrastination and decreased motivation as due to the change in our perception of the task and its rewards in relation to time (Zhang et al., 2019). A difficult task seems easier to us in the distant future because the aversiveness of the task is “discounted” by the amount of time. We plan to do the task later, because the idea of doing it in the future makes it seem easier (thus, “I’ll start my exercise routine next week!”). On the other hand, the reward of completing the task seems less enticing now, as the incentive is discounted by the time delay. So, our desire for the immediate small reward that will be gained by avoiding the task trumps our decreased motivation to engage in the task. When the deadline approaches, the reward of completing the task and the penalty of not doing so are imminent. Since there is a shorter delay, the impact of those same events are discounted less, so we get to work, judging that there is no benefit to avoiding the task.

No two procrastinators discount future events the same

As my cohort demonstrates, there is substantial individual variability in the degree of temporal discounting behavior. Procrastination has been linked to personality traits like impulsivity and the corresponding neural systems, such as the strength of the connectivity between the regulatory control center of the brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and the motivation and rewards center of the brain (striatum) (McClure et al., 2004). Another important factor is time perspective: how closely one feels oneself is to the past and future, i.e. temporal psychological distance. It has been shown that those who represent future events as being subjectively farther away from themselves discount future rewards more steeply, thereby choosing the more immediate reward (Croote et al., 2020). As my diligent colleagues had described, they may have felt the threat of the deadline sooner perhaps because in general, they represent the future as subjectively closer to them than the rest of us. Other studies suggest that severe procrastinators are more concerned with the present than the future and may be more sensitive to time delay (Sirois, 2014; Wu et al., 2016).

there are Simple strategies to help you get to work

Temporal discounting is normal, and our brain is doing its job. But when we need to get things done more efficiently, there are simple tactics to help ourselves even if we put personality traits and time perspectives aside. We can fight our psychological tendencies by adjusting aspects of the task itself that feeds into procrastination. Naturally, procrastination worsens if the reward of the accomplishment is farther away in the future, and if the task is more aversive, i.e. if it takes more exertion or is less interesting.

Make it harder to avoid

To lessen the temporal discounting effect, setting deadlines--both starting and finishing deadlines–and treating them as hard deadlines may help, as setting a starting deadline decreases the time delay. Specifying the time and day (e.g. “I will start working on task A by 10am on 5/27 at my kitchen table) and making the commitment public can help those that end up taking commitments too lightly, since the consequence of avoiding the task will seem larger even with temporal discounting. Bet money or an embarrassing social media post for an even larger negative consequence.

Make it easier to start

Task-aversiveness can be decreased by making the task as easy as possible for us to start engaging in. A task that is too daunting makes it easy for us to choose the small immediate reward by avoiding the task. To avoid this, divide the task into small parts—very small parts. If the goal is to go on 30-minute runs every day, start by merely standing outside for 2 minutes to just enjoy some sunshine. This will help in two ways: first, standing outside for two minutes to enjoy the sun is a pleasant task that is easy to succeed in. The pleasantness can lead to a reappraisal, reducing negative emotions towards the task and therefore decreasing task aversion. Second, this small success will provide the momentum to carry out what was intended. That is, the idle standing may effortlessly transition to walking and eventually running. Once we start engaging in a task, it is easier to continue with the task. A conscious cognitive shift (which is different from unconscious task-switching, aka “multitasking”) from one task to another is difficult, especially when the prior task is unfinished (Reeve et al., 1986; Leroy, 2009). We then opt for the more efficient path of finishing the task and, accordingly, we often experience feeling motivated to keep working after we start working, rather than starting to work because we feel motivated. 

In this light, the famous Just Do It campaign makes a lot more sense. Here’s a powerful motivational speech with the same message, by Shia LaBeouf, to set your butt on fire: 


Croote, D. E., Lai, B., Hu, J., Baxter, M. G., Montagrin, A., & Schiller, D. (2020). Delay discounting decisions are linked to temporal distance representations of world events across cultures. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 12913. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-69700-w

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290–302. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023566

Leroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), 168–181. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002

McClure, S. M., Laibson, D. I., Loewenstein, G., & Cohen, J. D. (2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science, 306(5695), 503–507. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1100907

Reeve, J., Cole, S. G., & Olson, B. C. (1986). The Zeigarnik effect and intrinsic motivation: Are they the same? Motivation and Emotion, 10(3), 233–245. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00992318

Sirois, F. M. (2014). Out of Sight, Out of Time? A Meta–Analytic Investigation of Procrastination and Time Perspective. European Journal of Personality, 28(5), 511–520. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.1947

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65

Wu, H., Gui, D., Lin, W., Gu, R., Zhu, X., & Liu, X. (2016). The procrastinators want it now: Behavioral and event-related potential evidence of the procrastination of intertemporal choices. Brain and Cognition, 107, 16–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2016.06.005

Zhang, S., Liu, P., & Feng, T. (2019). To do it now or later: The cognitive mechanisms and neural substrates underlying procrastination. WIREs Cognitive Science, 10(4), e1492. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.1492