Why do we procrastinate - and how can we change it?

16 January 2020

By Jooske Arnoldussen

It’s somewhere in the late afternoon on a Tuesday in January. You’ve got a ton of reading to do, two calls to make, a bill to pay, and an article to write. Instead of doing any of this, you lay down on the couch and watch Netflix. After all, it’s dark outside and it just started raining (again?!). You’ll do those things tomorrow morning, before your 11 am lecture. As if.

Sound familiar? At the moment I’m writing this it is 0:08 am; Tuesday morning. This article will be released sometime this week. I could have written this over my three week holiday. I planned to write this article over my three week holiday. Why didn’t I? Well, in all honesty, I forgot. And when I remembered I had to write this, I postponed it time and again. I didn’t know what to write about, I didn’t have enough time, I had to read some more MIA chapters, I had to finish my assignment first… All excuses, and none of them are truly legit. I was procrastinating.

So it dawned upon me just now, I’ll just write this article on procrastinating! I’m guessing all of us are somewhat familiar with this (some perhaps more than others) so why not, right?

So let’s start at the beginning, why do we procrastinate? According to Psychology Today, there are several reasons for why we procrastinate. The first reason is fear of failure. Closely related with self-doubt and insecurity, this argument states that we procrastinate because we’re afraid of what people might think if we don’t perform well (enough). The same could be said for perfectionists; they procrastinate because they can’t face the possibility that they might not achieve perfection. On the other hand side, fear of success can also be a reason for procrastination. This means you fear that if you do well on a task now, your environment might have higher expectations for next time.

Further reason how we might procrastinate because of resentment towards authorities, Say, for example, you don’t like that specific lecturer and you’d rather not spent all your time and effort to please him/her. You do, however, have to pass that class, which results in doing all your work as late as possible. The last reason Psychology Today provides us with is the illusion of freedom. If you postpone your annoying, boring and hard tasks until later, you can go and do something more fun right now.


However good this extra freedom may sound, any one of us that has ever procrastinated their work must recognize the following scenario; you postponed your assignment, the one that is due tomorrow afternoon, so that you could go for drinks in the city with your friends. Yet you can’t seem to have a good time, because all you do is stress about tomorrow’s assignment, and you wonder if you’ll ever finish time. This is what psychologists call the credit card effect; it all seems too good to be true and once you receive the “bill” you realize that it was exactly that.

This scenario sketches one of the unfortunate effects of procrastination. Feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame are well known consequences of procrastination. Perhaps some famous consequences, however, are insomnia, avoidance and a disturbance of the immune system.

You might wonder, all good and well that you’re giving me all this, but what can I do to better myself? If you want to change your own pattern of procrastinating, the most effective way would, according to psychologists, be to adapt a new way of thinking. If you manage to change your outlook towards certain situations, you can simultaneously change your responses to them. See it as a sort of Pavlov-conditioning of your own study behaviour! The next time you have to write an assignment, try to think of it as “a fun new way to dive deeper into this extremely interesting topic” instead of seeing it as something you really just hate but have to do anyway. This example might be a bit extreme, but you get the idea. Once you consciously start adopting new ways of thinking, you’ll get used to them which means that after a while, these new responses become new habits.

If you think trying a Pavlov experiment on yourself is a bit of a radical step to take, there are a couple other strategies you could try. The first entails reasonable thinking. If you don’t do your work now, what will that bring you? Will you perform better or faster at any later time? Will it be any more fun? Be honest with yourself, because as they say, honesty is the key to everything, right?

Sometimes a change in your environment could be helpful, too. If your roommates keep distracting you, or both the library and Polak are completely packed, try working in a café! Maybe the music, the people and the extra caffeine will help you ace this assignment! Or, in case your DUO hasn’t come in yet, or you’re just generally broke (like most of us) and can’t spent any more money than necessary on all the tempting coffee options, you could try the strategy of businessman Eric Baker. This strategy entails that whenever you make a to-do list, you put all the horrible tasks on the top and all the easy ones at the bottom. Then you take one minute (only one!) to write a step-by-step plan on how to tackle the first problem on your list. Once you’ve got these steps, you’ll know how to go about your task.

Hopefully this article will give you some ideas as to how to get all your work done as efficiently as possible, without procrastinating ever again. I’ll be sure to try these strategies myself, tomorrow morning! Right after I’ve taken a shower, had a coffee, did my laundry, and went to the shops to get some breakfast…



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