The Psychological Origins of Procrastination and How to Stop

There’s no more elegant example of the cyclical self-torture of procrastination than the lyrics to a song from the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”. Our hero has a book report due. He sings in a halting, panicky monotone: “If I start writing now…when I’m not really rested…it could upset my thinking which is not good at all…I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow…and it’s not due till Wednesday…so I’ll…have all of Tuesday unless…something should happen…Why does this always happen…I should be outside playing…getting fresh air and sunshine…I work best under pressure and there’ll be lots of pressure if I…wait till tomorrow…I should start writing now but if I…start writing now when I’m not really rested…it could upset my thinking…which is not good at all.”

Sound familiar? Why do we procrastinate? Are we pre-wired to operate this way? Or is there something wrong with the way we’re approaching work?

Dr. Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, identified three main reasons why people procrastinate:

  • To feel the adrenaline rush
  • To avoid the situation out of fear or something
  • To avoid making a decision

These things all make sense. In the workplace, some employees like the feeling of accomplishing a goal and cutting it close, so they put things off to get their blood pumping convincing themselves that they do their “best work” at the “last minute”, like our beloved Charlie Brown, “I work best under pressure.”. Others are afraid that they’ll disappoint their coworkers and boss with poor results so they avoid working on a project. Some workers just want to avoid making a decision entirely because then they’ll have to take responsibility for whichever option they choose.

University of Oregon Professor of Psychology Elliot Berkman and PhD Candidate in Psychology Jordan Miller-Ziegler, tap into the neuroscience behind why we leave things to the last minute and help shed some light on ways to overcome this tendency.

It starts with a simple choice. The decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project in that moment—what psychologists call its subjective value. And procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now, the authors write.

Therefore in order to avoid getting lost in the rabbit hole of procrastination, find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things (cat videos on YouTube). You could increase the value of the project; decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two.

For example, instead of Charlie Brown putting off the book report, he might try to focus on how getting a good grade is personally important to him. The authors write you can do that by connecting the project to your self-concept—projects seen as important to a person’s core values, personal goals, and social identities, will hold a more subjective value for them.

Once that connection has been made, the subjective value that underlies procrastination diminishes.

If Charlie Brown can create more value to his book report and add the “I will not only meet my deadline, I will get the project in early” habit and see what kind of results he gets, that just may turn into a different type of adrenaline rush and results.