Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination can be damaging for mental health. (Image credit: DjelicS via Getty Images)

The dawn of a new year marks a fresh start and motivates many people to break bad habits. Some are easier to shake than others, however, and the tendency to procrastinate is among the stickiest.

Whether it's finishing a piece of work, sending an email or going for a run, some tasks can feel insurmountable. The easiest way to avoid these tasks is to put them off until later or to never complete them at all. But why do people procrastinate, and is there anything we can do to reduce this tendency? 

"At its heart, procrastination is about avoidance," Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Durham in the U.K., told Live Science. Rather than the task itself, however, it's often the emotions attached to an activity that cause people to recoil, she said. 

Tackling the first lines of a college essay may bring up feelings of self-doubt, for example. When you're faced with a broad question or topic to write about, the lack of clear instructions can trigger a fear of not getting it right or of what might happen if you get it wrong, Sirois said.

Related: Do New Year's resolutions really work?

Procrastination is a specific form of delay that is both unnecessary and voluntary, meaning it isn't caused by the person's need to prioritize other tasks or by an unforeseen emergency, Sirois said. The person procrastinating usually does so despite knowing that the task is important or valuable to them or others, and that putting it off could be detrimental to them or others, she added.

Every day tasks, such as cleaning the dishes, can sometimes feel overwhelming. (Image credit: Carbonero Stock via Getty Images)

Chronic procrastinators typically struggle to manage and regulate their emotions, Sirois said. In a 2021 brain imaging study, Sirois and her colleagues found that college students with a higher volume of gray matter in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — a region of the brain associated with self-control — were less prone to procrastination than their peers were. The more neural connections there were between this part of the brain and the frontal regions, the better the students were at regulating negative emotions, focusing on long-term benefits and sticking with tasks. Those with fewer connections between those areas were more likely to procrastinate at the cost of future rewards, the researchers concluded.

Difficulties in emotion regulation partly explain why people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to procrastinate.

A 2018 study also showed that the threat detection center of the brain, the amygdala, tends to be larger, and therefore more sensitive, in people who procrastinate. "The threat can be something tiny," Sirois said — how to word an email, for example. But the anticipated discomfort may be strong, so the urge to avoid discomfort may override any considerations of the consequences of not completing the task.

The fewer connections that existed between the amygdala and another region of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which determines how we react to perceived threats, the more likely people were to put things off, according to the study.

Brain imaging studies have shed light on the biological underpinnings of procrastination. (Image credit: Andrew Brookes via Getty Images)

"Like any personality trait, there are some biological underpinnings," Sirois said. Research suggests that procrastination is linked to impulsivity on a genetic level and may be a heritable trait. Sirois agreed that "there can be some genetic underpinnings, but that doesn't mean you're stuck and that's who you are."

Environmental factors are just as important in shaping our response to aversive tasks, Sirois said. Someone who doesn't usually procrastinate can do so if they find themselves in a situation that depletes their coping resources over a long period of time, such as the death of a family member.

"Procrastination becomes a quick, easy and 'dirty' way of coping with something, albeit in an avoidant way, when your coping resources are maxed out," Sirois said. But procrastination can pile on more stress by leaving a task hanging over a person's head, thus triggering a vicious cycle that can damage mental health, lower academic performance and lead to financial distress

Luckily for those of us who drag our feet — it took the author of this article eight months to start writing it — research has shown that learning to manage negative emotions can help reduce procrastination. Sirois recommended taking a step back when a task feels overwhelming to assess what emotions the situation has triggered and why you wish to avoid them. In the case of a college essay or work assignment, it may help to clarify any uncertainties about what the task actually is or to break it down into smaller tasks, Sirois said. Finding something meaningful about the task and rewarding yourself for finishing it might also be helpful, she added.

But if this is the year you want to stop procrastinating, let your resolution be to exercise self-compassion. "Forgiveness for your procrastination is very effective in reducing subsequent procrastination," Sirois said.

Sascha Pare
Trainee staff writer

Sascha is a U.K.-based trainee staff writer at Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Southampton in England and a master’s degree in science communication from Imperial College London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and the health website Zoe. Besides writing, she enjoys playing tennis, bread-making and browsing second-hand shops for hidden gems.