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by Kim Painter
Updated September 28, 2022
Everyone procrastinates sometimes. But not everyone is a procrastinator — one of the 20 percent of adults who routinely put off for tomorrow what they could do today, causing themselves and others constant pain.
You procrastinators probably know who you are: You get gas only when the warning light comes on, buy milk only when the carton is empty and pay a premium for plane tickets purchased at the last minute. You never do your taxes before April 14 or finish a project before the deadline day.
But do you know why you do it?
If you think you were “born this way,” psychologists beg to differ. “Is it genetic? No, there’s no gene for it,” says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, and author of Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.
It’s also a misconception that procrastinators “are lazy or have some character-related deficit,” says psychologist Robert Schachter, an assistant clinical professor in the psychiatry department of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Instead, Ferrari and Schachter say, procrastination is a learned behavior — one people adopt for a variety of reasons.
For some people, the experts say, procrastination arises from a treatable mental condition, such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit disorder (ADD).
People who are depressed typically lack energy and feel hopeless and helpless, all of which can lead to putting off demanding tasks, Schachter says.
And people with ADD are plagued with distractions that get in the way of completing tasks, he says.
Getting treatment for such conditions is often the first step to overcoming procrastination, he says.
But the list of potential underlying causes for procrastination is much longer than that. In fact, Schachter has come up with 20.
He and Ferrari says some of the most common underlying factors include:
1. Fear of success. The downside of success can be added responsibility, and that scares some people, Ferrari says: They think “now I might be held to a higher standard and I don’t know if I can do this task again.”
2. Fear of failure. On the flip side, fear of failure “can paralyze you,” Schachter says. And this kind of fear is complex, Ferrari says, with some people fearing loss of self-esteem while others fear disappointing others. “If I never finish, you can never judge me,” Ferrari says people say to themselves.
3. Perfectionism. Procrastinators may say they take their time because they want to do a great job. And there’s some truth that delaying some tasks to let ideas percolate can lead to better outcomes — such as when we ponder a problem and come upon the solution while taking a walk or a shower. But that’s not what procrastinators do, Ferrari and Schachter say. Instead, they avoid thinking about or acting on the task until the last minute.
4. Delusions about deadline pressure. Many people convince themselves that they do their best work under pressure. But experiments show chronic procrastinators actually make more errors under time pressure than others do, Ferrari says.
5. Poor time perception. Procrastinators often have a hard time estimating how much time a task will take — overestimating (making tasks seem too big to handle right away) or underestimating (making waiting seem reasonable), Ferrari says.
One of the biggest myths about procrastination, Ferrari and Schachter agree, is that it can be cured by better time management alone — by using timers, calendars, lists, time logs and the like.
Some procrastinators might benefit from such tools, but only after they identify and tackle underlying issues, they say.
Treatment strategies for procrastination are “based on a very small amount of research,” Ferrari concedes. But cognitive behavioral therapy, during which patients work with therapists to systematically change the ways they think and behave, is the most promising approach, he and Schachter say.
The bottom line is that because procrastination is a learned behavior, “it can be unlearned,” Ferrari says.
"Time perspective, control, and affect mediate the relation between regulatory mode and procrastination," PloS One, December 2018. In this study, 196 undergraduates with a mean age of 19.71 years filled out questionnaires to help identify things such as how likely they are to procrastinate. The researchers found that people who are more prone to assessment — meaning they tend to evaluate all the options in order to make the best possible choice — are more likely to procrastinate than those who are more prone to locomotion, in which the priority is keeping things moving and making things happen. The researchers also found that factors such as a person's internal sense of control also played a role in whether they procrastinated. Limitations of the study include the fact that it only assessed undergraduate-age people and that all data was self-reported. Read the full study.