The science behind procrastination

The science behind procrastination

It seems that my amount of procrastination is exponentially correlated with the difficulty (or boredom) of the task I need to undertake. Recently, I have found myself wasting my time doing things that were completely unnecessary or not urgent at all (aka online shopping or just browsing my Facebook newsfeed again and again). It’s like something in my brain just prevents me from focusing on a task for more than 5 minutes. However, once I’ve embarked myself upon my ‘procrastinating-activity’, the time flies very quickly, and in the blink of an eye, I’ve spent 2 hours watching animal videos. My brain’s appeal for procrastination is an interesting type of self-sabotage.

One of the things I find most funny is our horrible fear to procrastinate evidenced by our avoidance behaviours, which, nevertheless to say, are usually unsuccessful. For example, how many times have we found ourselves declining plans or meeting up with friends because we were ‘busy’ but instead spent our time on social media? That seems a bit pointless to me – we renounce an opportunity for socialising to lower our self-esteem instead by checking how other’s lives seem so great on social media.

My take on procrastination is that there seem to be different kinds of them. The principal ones being the ‘delay’ and the ‘distraction’. The ‘delay’ kind can be easily equated with the ‘I will do it later’. It seems that students are particularly good at this one. Although we know in advance our deadlines for the semester, we can’t help but leave everything for the last minute. The ‘distraction’ one entails the sort of behaviour shown by a toddler – we can’t focus on the same task for more than 5 minutes, sometimes even less. Considering whether we are taking a more ‘delayed’ or ‘distraction’ route, what we do when we procrastinate might help us uncover how to overcome just that.

Fieldguide for procrastinators comic

Fieldguide for procrastinators comic

Comic by by

Procrastination is defined as postponing the start of a task – usually a task that we might dislike but also want to do – until we feel distressed for having not started it (Solomon and Rothblum, 1988). Its causes are related to personality traits, emotions and beliefs. For instance, Burka and Yuen (1982) claimed that usually, those who procrastinate have vulnerable self-esteem. This claim is correlated with the fact that students who procrastinate score higher in anxiety and depression traits (Beswick et al., 1988; Shouwenburg, 1992). This makes sense if we think that many procrastinators show fear of failure or making mistakes (Onwuegbuzie, 2000; Wolters, 2003) and that usually, we procrastinate more when we want to meet important goals (O’Donoghue and Rabin 2001). It seems that our procrastination is the result of a vicious circle where we are afraid of failing, we get anxious, we delay the task, we feel anxious because we delay the task and we delay it even more.

Similarly, the task itself also plays a role. The probability of procrastinating is higher the more aversive the task is for us (Scher and Ferrari, 1999; Steel, 2007). In these cases, it does not seem that weird when we opt for cleaning the fridge before we start writing a paper; the idea is that we chose to do something else instead of the unwanted task.

Finally, procrastinating has also been shown to be followed by a rational process of weighting costs and benefits. Zarick and Stonebraker (2009) argue that procrastination is a ‘logical but inefficient behaviour’ that can be predicted if we examine the costs and benefits of a task. The initial costs of initiating a task will determine its start. Shall we choose to invest 5h to write an academic paper in order to be successful in the future or shall we rather spend 5h watching Netflix? In those occasions, we fail to see how the benefits will outcome the costs in the long-run. This is related to the claim made by some researchers were procrastination is defined as the ‘quintessential self-regulation failure’ (Steel, 2007). Self-regulation, equalled with self-control, plays a role in how we stick to long-term goals by renouncing the gratification generated by immediate actions (van Eerde and Klingsieck, 2018).

How to avoid procrastinating?

Animated GIF with cat. ‘So much to do, so much time to waste’

Animated GIF with cat. ‘So much to do, so much time to waste’


Ok, so the research on the causes of procrastination seems quite intuitive, but what about the solutions? Can we tackle procrastination?

Although some research has been done using psychological treatments to ‘tackle’ procrastination, so far there hasn’t been found a method of choice (van Eerde and Klingsieck, 2018; Rozental et al, 2018). However, here are some things that have been found beneficial.

Cutting it down into pieces

Divide your task into bite-size pieces. Establishing intermediate deadlines has been shown to reduce uncertainty (Fischer, 1999) as the task is easier to manage and perform and therefore, the probability of procrastination is smaller. (Zarick & Stonebraker, 2009).

Some useful tips to establish those deadlines have been suggested throughout our blog, such as organising your time with a clear schedule or getting down to writing with Pomodoro method.

Do not confuse procrastination with exhaustion.

Sometimes, we complain about not being able to focus, but actually, it isn’t that we are distracted, but that we are exhausted. Give yourself a break and make sure you have rested enough. We cannot expect ourselves to be productive all day, especially if we haven’t had enough time for ourselves. Having a healthy work/life balance will result in more productive research than binging 12h of non-stop writing. Also, sometimes we will just need to accept that our minds need some space – take it easy, have a short walk and come back to the desk when you feel more refreshed!

In sum, procrastination is completely normal behaviour and we should not be too harsh with ourselves over it. However, an excess of procrastination can create bad habits in our career, especially if this prevents us from meeting deadlines and progress with our research. Taking a mindful attitude can help us to detect when and why we are procrastinating and tackle the problem. Plan ahead, organise your time and take enough breaks. With this, you will be a step closer to being more productive (and to having some spare time to watch cat videos).


  • Beswick, G., Rothblum, E. D. and Mann, L. 1988. Psychological antecedents of student procrastination. Australian Psychologist, 23: 207–217

  • Burka, J. and Yuen, L. 1982. Mind games procrastinators play. Psychology Today, January: 32–34.

  • Lisa M. Zarick & Robert Stonebraker (2009) I'll do it Tomorrow: The Logic of Procrastination, College Teaching, 57:4, 211-215, DOI:

  • Fischer, C. 1999. “Read this paper later: Procrastination with time-consistent preferences”. In Resources for the Future Discussion Paper 99–19

  • O’Donoghue, T. and Rabin, M. 2001. Choice and procrastination. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(1): 121–60.

  • Onwuegbuzie, A. J. 2000. “I'll begin my statistics assignment tomorrow: The relationship between statistics anxiety and academic procrastination”. New Orleans, LA: Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association

  • Rozental, A., Bennett, S., Forsström, D., Ebert, D.D., Shafran, R., Andersson, G. and Carlbring, P. (2018) Targeting Procrastination Using Psychological Treatments: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 9, 1588.

  • Schouwenburg, H. C. 1992. Procrastinators and fear of failure: An exploration of reasons for procrastination. European Journal of Personality, 6: 225–236.

  • Scher, S. J. and Ferrari, J. R. 2000. The recall of completed and non-completed tasks through daily logs to measure procrastination. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15: 255–66.

  • Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1988). Procrastination Assessment Scale Students. In M. Hersen & A. S. Bellack (Eds.), Dictionary of behavioral assessment techniques. New York: Pergammon Press.

  • Steel, P. 2007. The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytical and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1): 65–94.

  • van Eerde, W., Klingsieck, K.B., Overcoming Procrastination? A Meta-Analysis of Intervention Studies, Educational Research Review (2018)

  • Wolters, C. A. 2003. Understanding procrastination from a self-regulated learning perspective. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1): 179–87

Cover photo by Adriana Alcaraz via Imgflip

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