Understanding Procrastination

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the core mechanism of procrastination and its connection to negative emotions.
  • Recognize the difference between normal range procrastination and pathological procrastination.
  • Explore the consequences of chronic procrastination on self-esteem, trust, and opportunities.

Procrastination avoids negative emotions. You have something to do, but it’s inconvenient or frustrating or tedious and time-consuming. Or maybe it provokes resentment or self-doubt or insecurity or guilt. Or maybe it’s just boring. So you decide to do it later. That’s the core of procrastination, and that’s where avoidance lurks. Remember, avoidance is a core mechanism that sustains anxiety. Avoidance sustains other negative emotions as well because avoidance prevents these emotions from being processed and resolved.

Okay, so you decide to do it later. Then what happens?

Eventually, your sense of anxiety begins to build as more and more time passes. You have questions in your mind, probably not consciously articulated, though they might be. How aversive is the task? What are the consequences of being late? How late can I be before the consequences get really bad? How much do the negative emotions go down if I procrastinate again? Somehow the answers to all those questions are weighed, and a decision is made to engage the task, or to procrastinate yet again, a kind of balancing act.

Since procrastination is caused by a variety of negative emotions, not just anxiety, you might wonder why procrastination is broken out into its own entity here.

Procrastination is not considered to be an anxiety disorder in DSM-5.

Nevertheless, the fundamental mechanism that drives procrastination is the same mechanism that drives so much of the anxiety disorders, notably the negative reinforcement of avoidance. In the context of procrastination, avoidance becomes so powerful that it produces crisis after crisis as work goes unfinished and obligations go unmet. At the beginning, anxiety is but one of these negative emotions. There’s anxiety about the specific task that’s procrastinated, and anxiety about facing the negative emotions swirling around the task.

As procrastination continues, however, anxiety continues to build, until it overpowers most other emotions in the situation. Eventually, each successive act of procrastination brings with it the drama of potential failure, the consequences of failure, and the judgment of those whose expectations could be disappointed. Procrastination turns a manageable task into a high stakes game. Stop paying your electric bill, and eventually the power gets shut down. Keep avoiding your term paper, and you eventually get a zero, along with the consequences. That’s just how the world works.

That’s also how it should work, and that’s the foundation of all the moral judgments heaped against procrastination. As usual, the underlying psychological truths are deeper.

Normal Range Procrastination

I’m the normal range, anxiety helps us focus attention, realize the consequences of postponing things too long, and motivates us to take action. Anxiety creates the perception of urgency. That’s its function. In the normal range, the anxiety of an incomplete obligation escalates until you respond in a time-appropriate way. In some corner of the mind, a little voice is saying “you better get to work, there’s something at stake here.” The “something at stake” part is anxiety letting you know that your psychological investments are threatened. So you do get to work, and your anxiety goes down as you gain ground on the task. When you’re done, no more anxiety, and hopefully, a sense of accomplishment. You’re free to move on to other concerns.

Pathological Procrastination

In the pathological range, however, procrastination becomes an emotion management problem. As you weigh starting versus postponing, there’s a period of indecision and exasperation, during which negative emotions swell. Are you really going to tackle these unkind feelings? Wouldn’t it be better to purge them from your awareness? You can always deal with them later. As soon as the decision is made to suppress the aversive obligation, the negative emotion diminishes, reappearing only when you think about it. So you try not to think about it, and it goes away, at least temporarily. Again, procrastination avoids negative emotions, potentially a whole range of negative emotions.

This is called negative reinforcement: The frequency of behavior increases due to the removal of the aversive stimulus, one of the principal mechanisms that sustains anxiety. In terms of its underlying causes, then, procrastination captures the avoidance quintessential to the anxiety disorders. You procrastinate and negative emotions go down—temporarily at least—and procrastination gets reinforced. You gain something from procrastination, albeit temporarily. You gain peace of mind, at least until the bill comes due.

Competition from Positive Reinforcers

In addition to reducing negative emotion, it’s worth noting that the aversive task is always competing against a variety of more enjoyable alternatives. Will you do your taxes or go to the movies? Will you study or party? Will you think through the financial consequences of buying a home or go boating on a cool spring day? The long-term gains of following through on an obligation do battle with the short-term temptations of more enjoyable diversions.

Don’t have anything positive that you might enjoy? Keep thinking. You’ll come up with something eventually. And then you’ll not only be free of the negative emotions, you’ll have the happy distraction of the substitute activity. Wow, what a deal!!

Immediate Consequences of Pathological Procrastination

In the pathological range, procrastination becomes a lifestyle. Term papers, bill payments, consultations, having the car serviced, it all gets pushed into the future. Procrastination turns off the negative emotions associated with doing all these tasks. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, apparently. Deadlines begin to sneak up on you. Your procrastination doesn’t give way slowly, it shatters suddenly. And when it shatters, all that anxiety comes forward, all at once. Now you can’t focus because you’re realizing just how bad it is. The stakes are high, so there’s too much anxiety to focus. You can’t sleep because of panic and worry and feeling keyed up. You end up performing far below your potential because you don’t have time to concentrate, you don’t leave time for things to come into perspective, which allows constructive revisions. Instead, you do inadequate work and get penalized. People know you’re talented, but just never seem to come through with quality work.

Long-Term Consequences of Procrastination

When you chronically fall behind, earn penalties, let others and yourself down, eventually judgments are made. Procrastination makes you look lazy, irresponsible, immature, maybe even selfish and entitled, simply because you fail to come through on time, even after you’ve given your word. People learn that they cannot depend on you and stop trusting you with anything time-sensitive. Maybe they feel hurt because you chronically prioritize your distractions over commitments you shared with them. Probably everyone’s been in a group project situation where one or two members are seemingly content to make no contribution. They claim they’ll come through, but it’s too little, too late, and low quality. Are you that person? How did your peers feel about you? How did you feel about yourself? The price of procrastination, then, is self-esteem. You are esteemed by no one because you cannot be depended on to come through on your commitments. And that hurts.

And because people don’t want to work with you, they stop steering opportunities your way. You watch your friends, some of whom have less raw ability, get picked for positions and promotions while you do not. That’s the long-term opportunity cost of procrastination. Very hard to develop an identity of your own without meeting the reciprocal commitments expected in society.

Self-Knowledge

Remember the old expression, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Since the purpose of procrastination is to suppress negative emotions, it’s likely that you’re reluctant to reflect on the emotions that motivate procrastination. Far better to put these emotions out of your mind.

Unfortunately for procrastinators everywhere, negative emotions contain important information about our inner world. Do you procrastinate because your self-esteem is too low to make any earnest effort that would bring a realistic grade from your professor? Where does that come from? Do you procrastinate because you resent being party to a rat race where you’re controlled by a boss? Where does that come from? Do you procrastinate because perfectionism prevents you from ever finalizing any section of your work because you are your own worst critic? Where does that come from?

Here’s a few more examples: You need to write a term paper, but doing so raises the question “Am I as smart as the other students?” If your performance on the paper becomes a verdict on your intellectual level as compared to the other students, you’ll have mixed emotions about letting those comparisons be made. Where did that come from?

If paying your bills reminds you that you hate being poor, you might decide to put off paying your bills. You might also come to regard the power and water and cable companies as run by fat cats who exploit the little guy. When you pay your bills, you’re enriching these fat cats further. Now you have two reasons to procrastinate. Where does all that come from?

As a procrastinator who avoids the hard questions of life and the emotions that come with them, it’s hard to know yourself deeply enough to answer these questions.

Types of Procrastinators

The internet abounds with discussions of subtypes of procrastination. Authors usually focus on anywhere from three to six subtypes, each a vivid composite of self-serving strategies and excuses that promote procrastination. Subtypes give us a rich appreciation for the variety of personality factors that might lurk behind the label of procrastination.

Nevertheless, these subtypes are not mutually exclusive. They are better viewed as prototypes against which real people can be compared. Try to identify the one, two, or three subtypes that your procrastination most strongly resembles.

Schiller and Boisvert’s Subtypes

Schiller and Boisvert (2020) identified four types of avoidance archetypes, notably the performer, the self-deprecator, the overbooker, and the novelty seeker.

Performers “shrink time” as a means of increasing motivation. They thrive on the urgency that anxiety creates, which they stimulate through the use of deadlines. “I’ll get it done, I always do. I just need to wait awhile before I can start working.” Treatment focuses more on getting started than on creating urgency. Getting started at least allows sufficient time for self-criticism, a prerequisite for quality work.

Self-deprecators beat themselves up by blaming inaction on laziness or stubbornness. They are chronically overworked and need to take a break and recharge. They mislabel procrastination as a moral failure. “I haven’t been able to get started, I just feel so lazy these days.” They need to take ownership of their procrastination and obtain enough rest to start again.

Overbookers claim that their calendar is too full to allow them to take on anything more. When asked to do something, they object that they are simply too busy. By doing so, they appear virtuous, even to themselves. They rationalize their actions by claiming to set boundaries that avoid disappointing others. In fact, they use the busy excuse to avoid completing current tasks and to avoid the blame that would ordinarily follow not taking responsibility.

Novelty-seekers avoid current tasks by distracting themselves with something more interesting. They have no problem starting, but then become so enthralled by some new idea or direction that they never actually follow through on their original intent. They need persistence. Entertaining new ideas is fine, but continually switching directions to the point of accomplishing nothing is not.

Saladin and McGuire’s Subtypes

Saladin and McGuire identify six subtypes, notably the worrier, the perfectionist, the over-doer, the crisis-maker, the dreamer, and the defier. The worrier worries that they can never succeed or finish, so they never get started. They find logical reasons not to start. The perfectionist argues that they can’t perform perfectly, then they must be a failure already. So it’s better not to get started. The over-doer believes that “if I don’t accomplish everything I’m worthless.” They take on too much and fail to prioritize or sequence tasks correctly. The crisis-maker is similar to the performer described above, but Saladin and McGuire add that the crisis-maker needs time pressure to alleviate boredom. The dreamer has grandiose ideas but never takes action, it should all just magically happen for them. The defier feels that their assignment is unfair, and they’re angry enough about it to passive-aggressively sabotage their boss by leaving it undone. The defier is frustrated by their station in life.

Fiore’s Subtypes

Neil Fiore talks about the anxious procrastinator, the fun procrastinator, the plenty-of-time procrastinator, and the perfectionist procrastinator. The fun procrastinator has too many competing activities available, all of which are more attractive and enjoyable than the current task. The plenty-of-time procrastinator feels that the deadline is so far away relative to task demands that there’s no point in starting right now. The perfectionist fears imperfect work and begins to stall when becoming overwhelmed by producing the perfect performance.

The Attention Deficit Subtype

To the subtypes above, we might add an attention-deficit disorder subtype. Such individuals procrastinate because they can’t sequence the distractions and demands of life in a way that allows them to make sustained progress toward a goal. They start to work on a term paper, for example, then get distracted by organizing their research notes better, and time slips away.

Whatever the specific subtype, notice what they have in common: All procrastination avoids negative emotions


Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the purpose of avoidance in procrastination?

  • A. To sustain negative emotions.
  • B. To overcome negative emotions.
  • C. To prioritize tasks.
  • D. To enhance productivity.

2. What distinguishes normal range procrastination from pathological procrastination?

  • A. The presence of anxiety.
  • B. The severity of negative emotions.
  • C. The impact on self-esteem.
  • D. The use of deadlines.

3. What are some long-term consequences of chronic procrastination?

  • A. Decreased opportunities for growth and advancement.
  • B. Enhanced trust and reliability among peers.
  • C. Improved self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • D. Increased motivation and productivity.

4. Which subtype of procrastination involves distracting oneself with new ideas?

  • A. Performer
  • B. Novelty-seeker
  • C. Overbooker
  • D. Self-deprecator

5. What is one possible subtype of procrastination related to attention-deficit disorder?

  • A. Worrier
  • B. Crisis-maker
  • C. Over-doer
  • D. Plenty-of-time procrastinator

Answers

1. What is the purpose of avoidance in procrastination?

Answer: A. To sustain negative emotions.

2. What distinguishes normal range procrastination from pathological procrastination?

Answer: A. The presence of anxiety.

3. What are some long-term consequences of chronic procrastination?

Answer: A. Decreased opportunities for growth and advancement.

4. Which subtype of procrastination involves distracting oneself with new ideas?

Answer: B. Novelty-seeker

5. What is one possible subtype of procrastination related to attention-deficit disorder?

Answer: D. Plenty-of-time procrastinator