To do, or not to do. That is the question, and almost everyone has asked it at least once. Statistics show that procrastination affects over 20% of the human population and 95% of the student population (which is pretty accurate when I look at my own behavior).1 Procrastination is such a widespread phenomenon, but what is it? Why does it happen? And how can we avoid it?
Procrastination is derived from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”2. This aspect of human behavior has always intrigued intellectuals because it defies rational thinking. People often know what they should be doing, but they put it off just because they don’t “feel” like doing it. (For example, I didn’t “feel” like writing this article, so instead I watched Netflix.) Procrastination is what the Greeks call akrasia2 - doing something against one’s better judgment; in other words, short-term gain for long-term pain.
Although procrastination has long been a part of human nature, its negative health effects emerged in the modern era.2 With the increasing pace of life, people feel like there’s too much to do, and they struggle with self-control and staying afloat. Having endless tasks and little time stresses people out, linking procrastination to anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, and memory loss.1
If procrastinating is so bad for us, why do we do it?
DNA: A basic explanation is that humans have been wired to do so. According to a 2014 study conducted at the University of Colorado at Boulder3, procrastination is affected by genetic factors and can be inherited. These genes are also linked to impulsivity, which ultimately affects individuals’ goal-setting abilities. (So it really isn’t our fault that there’s just so many more things to do than study.)
Value: People decide to work on a project based on the subjective value they place on its accomplishment.4 We procrastinate when the value of doing something else (video games) outweighs the value of working on the task at hand (problem set).
Deadlines: Getting something done is a future reward, so its present value is diminished.4 The farther away the deadline, the less likely people are to get something done. Dan Ariely, a psychologist at M.I.T., conducted an experiment investigating procrastination and deadlines.2 He found that when students were given a choice to set deadlines for 3 graded papers or turn all 3 papers in at the end, the students set deadlines to avoid procrastinating and not finishing the papers.
Self-Delusion: We procrastinate more on unpleasant things. It makes us feel uncomfortable, and we’d rather be happy now than tolerate negative emotions. Of course, we don’t tell ourselves this - we use excuses like working better under pressure, perfectionism, or fear of failure.2, 5
So now that we know the underlying causes of procrastination, how can we overcome it? On way is to Increase the subjective value of working now relative to other possible activities. Thus another way to defeat procrastination is by setting clear sub-goals and mini-deadlines to keep one on track. Yet perhaps the most effective way to beat procrastination is to stop lying to ourselves - we would feel less guilt, and we would definitely get more done.
Jenny Ren is a sophomore in Jones College at Rice University.
17 lazy procrastination statistics. http://brandongaille.com/17-lazy-procrastination-statistics/ (accessed 4/5/16), part of Brandon Gaille.
Surowiecki, J. Later. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/11/later (accessed 4/5/16), part of The New Yorker.
Sifferlin, A. Procrastination is in your genes. http://time.com/51883/procrastination-is-in-your-genes/ (accessed 4/5/16), part of Time.
Berkman, E. Why wait? The psychological origins of procrastination. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-motivated-brain/201510/why-wait-the-psychological-origins-procrastination (accessed 4/5/16), part of Psychology Today.
Pychyl, T. Procrastination: oops, where did the day go? https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201109/procrastination-oops-where-did-the-day-go (accessed 4/5/16), part of Psychology Today.