The anatomy of procrastination: what does the latest science say?

by Sep 14, 2020

Procrastination, that old beast. Why do we avoid or delay tasks, despite being fully aware of the negative consequences?

In an academic setting, procrastination is a particularly prevalent behavior, and it’s most often attributed to poor time management skills or, sometimes, laziness. Studies dating back to 1977 have shown that 95% of college students engaged in some form of procrastination. Moreover, in 1984, researchers identified fear of failure and task aversiveness as the primary causes of avoidance. They also noted connections between procrastination and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a lack of assertion.

But does the latest science confirm or refute these claims?

In 2020, we have a far superior understanding of how the human mind works.

First of all, we’re aware of the differentiation between passive and active procrastination. The first is a form of task deferral that is unwilling. It stems from the inability to complete assignments. The second, however, comes down to a conscious decision to delay action until an impeding deadline creates a beneficial amount of pressure to propel us into motion.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that the common procrastination “cures” can, indeed, help students do their tasks in a more timely manner. These solutions include conscious decisions, such as:

  • Working on time management skills to create short-term goals, and with them, short-term deadlines. This practice allows for the same form of beneficial pressure that motivates active procrastinators, giving them an extra push to finish their tasks in a more timely manner.
  • Self-care practices that focus on physical and mental health. A diet rich in nutrients, moderate physical exercise, and healthy sleep patterns can all contribute to productivity and even boost motivation.
  • Smarter goal setting that encourages individuals to examine how their work aligns with their values and beliefs. By taking these into consideration when determining goals, we’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by assignments, and thus less likely to put them off.
  • Removal of choice. Some research suggests that even non-procrastinators engage in strategic delay when presented with multiple options. Simply removing distractions could, thus, help prevent procrastination.

Why passive, or unintentional procrastination, is harder to solve

We’ve learned that active procrastination can be solved with a change in approach. However, passive procrastination, which is far more common, stems from entirely different reasons, ones that are still being discovered. What this means is that eliminating it takes far more effort, as well as deeper insight.

So what causes passive procrastination?

It turns out that its root isn’t task averseness. Instead, it’s the negative emotions we subconsciously associate with a task. These responses are conditioned by past negative experiences.

So, we may have received a low grade for a paper we wrote in the past, and our brain automatically associates the very act of writing with the negative emotions of failure and rejection. Or, we may have been out of shape before, and know in advance that going to the gym is going to be physically taxing. So, instead of starting the process and getting over with it, we choose to postpone getting fit, which results in an even worse experience once we do start.

When met with these negative emotions, the brain does one of two things:

  1. It rationalizes the reasons for avoidance (e.g., there’s no point in writing a paper when it’s going to be bad anyway), or
  2. It finds distractions that provide instant gratification, such as video games, social media, etc.

Another piece of information to keep in mind is that strategic delay isn’t just a temporary behavior. Over time, it can not only turn into an ingrained habit but, even more, may become the very reason for postponing task completion in the future.

The solution

With the data about passive procrastination in mind, it becomes clear that strategic delay is an emotional response. What this means is that treating it necessitates emotion regulation.

Research from 2016 identifies the following emotion regulation skills as crucial in successfully treating the cause of procrastination:

  • awareness
  • understanding
  • acceptance
  • resilience
  • self-support
  • willingness to confront distressing situations, and
  • behavioral modification.

This means that, even without seeking out professional help from a therapist, we can all get started on addressing our task avoidance.

We can practice mindfulness, which encourages a way of life that is in touch with current emotional states. It works towards acknowledging, accepting, and working through negative emotions, without succumbing to internal or external pressure.

Alternatively, we can seek out alternative ways to motivate ourselves. By choosing to focus on the positives we gain from fulfilling our tasks, we might find that we’re less likely to put something off. So, if we’re struggling with adopting a healthy diet, we may be more motivated to get on with it if we focus on how good it will make us feel and look.

Final word

Yes, procrastination is a widespread problem in the academic community. However, it’s far from unsolvable. So if you find that you struggle with it, consider the reasons behind your behavior.

Are you delaying tasks because a close deadline gives you a surge of adrenaline? Or are you doing it because, deep down, you have negative emotions associated with a particular task?

You’ll find that, once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be far better equipped to tackle your assignments. And far more likely to succeed as well.


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Natasha Lane

Natasha Lane

Natasha is a lady of a keyboard and one huge geek. She has a rich history of working in the branding, small business, and career growth related fields, so she is always happy to collaborate with awesome blogs and share her knowledge all around the web. To see what Natasha is up to next, check out her Twitter Dashboard.