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Understanding the Psychology of Procrastination

Why we procrastinate

In short, we procrastinate because it feels good. We tend to prefer the small reward of relaxing now and avoiding our tasks, to the large reward of feeling accomplished after a night of work.

If you procrastinate and find excuses not to do study related work now, you might find yourself having very natural thoughts, like “I do need to clean out my car. I’ll do that now and do some homework later.” Or, “I should probably run to the store. This essay can wait until tomorrow.” These are a procrastinator’s patterns of reasoning. Dr. Tim Pychyl, a procrastination scientist, explains that this behavior is extremely common when we are avoiding something.

It’s true. Your chores have to get done. But sometimes we use these chores to put off something important. Remember, being busy is not the same as being productive.

Here’s another reason we procrastinate: we don’t know how not to procrastinate. When you see a big task, like “Write philosophy essay,” it’s hard to know where to start. Fear of failure and uncertainty about your next steps can freeze you in your tracks.

Do top students procrastinate?

Everybody procrastinates sometimes, but top students are good at recognizing when they are procrastinating. When we procrastinate, we intentionally avoid something we could do now. Sometimes, though, we merely delay a task until later. We say “This response paper will take me about an hour. I’ll plan to do it right after lunch before my afternoon classes.” Keep in mind that all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.

Diagram of Delay vs. Procrastination

Top students are good at accurately estimating how long a task will take, and diligently choose another time to do it if they get too busy. Many students feel guilty when they skip studying. Strong students will hold themselves accountable when they procrastinate, but feel confident when they merely delay a task. Delaying a task is appropriate, and even smart, if you (1) accurately estimate how long the task will take, (2) break it up into smaller tasks and use your time wisely, and (3) stay diligent and commit to doing the task at a specific future time.

If you have a handwritten to-do list or if you use a task manager, you’ve probably noticed how easy it is to delay work. The key is knowing which steps to take after you delay a task, and recognizing that you must schedule a task for a later time, not avoid it indefinitely.

Recognizing procrastination and delay

Dr. Pychyl gives the example of cooking a big meal when you should be writing an essay. It’s good for you to cook, and it’s definitely on your to-do list! We rationalize procrastination by doing other things, sometimes important things. In those cases, we might think we are delaying a task for good reasons, but really we are avoiding something. Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Productivity coaches often tell those they mentor to eat the frog early, so that you don’t give yourself a chance to procrastinate or find other tasks that lead you to push off your assignments.

Imagine if the student had said: “I will write the first three paragraphs of my essay from 8 pm to 9 pm. It will take me about an hour to make dinner and eat with my roommate, so I should start cooking a little before 7 pm.” That’s a case of delay, but not a case of procrastination! The student chose a specific time to work and had a good idea of how long everything would take. The student didn’t move their writing to a nondescript “later.”

Take this quiz to see if you can spot procrastination. For each scenario, determine whether you think it is a case of procrastination or delay. Then, check the answers to see how you did and test your understanding.

Scenario #1:
“I haven’t even started my response paper for English Lit. These dishes are piling up though. I’ll just clean up a bit and do that later or maybe tomorrow morning before English class.”

Answer: This is procrastination because it’s a case of keeping busy and delaying a task that needs attention to a nondescript time.

Scenario #2:
“I haven’t done the dishes in a week! My roommates going to kill me. On the other hand, my philosophy professor said that I should ideally do the reading at least twice. I’ve read it once, so I think I’ll take a look at that.”

Answer: This may be procrastination of your chores. Something more pressing is being avoided; this person has chosen to keep busy with other tasks.

Scenario #3:
“Usually I start my physics problem sets on Monday, but I’ve got a big presentation Tuesday and need to prepare. I’ll plan to work on physics after lunch Tuesday and if I get stuck, I’ll email my T.A. then.”

Answer: This is delay. Student picks a time to do the problem set and is too busy on Monday.

Scenario #4:
“My econ reading usually takes me about a half hour, but this chapter is really long. Since it’s my roommate’s birthday, I doubt I’m going to get to this. But I think I can fit this reading in. I’ll do it an hour before I meet my study group tomorrow night.”

Answer: This is delay because the student is good at estimating how long the task will take. There’s nothing wrong with a break from work as long as you have a plan.

Mike Lodato

Mike Lodato

Chipper Team Member & PhD Student