What Is Procrastination?

Putting off tasks we don't enjoy is common, despite the consequences

Looking at a stopwatch
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Procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off tasks until the last minute, or past their deadline. Some researchers define procrastination as a "form of self-regulation failure characterized by the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences."

According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of "Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done," around 20% of U.S. adults are chronic procrastinators.

No matter how well-organized and committed you are, chances are that you have found yourself frittering away hours on trivial pursuits (watching TV, updating your Facebook status, shopping online) when you should have been spending that time on work or school-related projects.

Whether you're putting off finishing a project for work, avoiding homework assignments, or ignoring household chores, procrastination can have a major impact on your job, your grades, and your life.

In most cases, procrastination is not a sign of a serious problem. It's a common tendency that most people give in to at some point or another.


Remember that time that you thought you had a week left to finish a project that was really due the next day? How about the time you decided not to clean up your apartment because you "didn't feel like doing it right now?"

We often assume that projects won't take as long to finish as they really will, which can lead to a false sense of security when we believe that we still have plenty of time to complete these tasks.

One of the biggest factors contributing to procrastination is the notion that we have to feel inspired or motivated to work on a task at a particular moment.

The reality is that if you wait until you're in the right frame of mind to do certain tasks (especially undesirable ones), you will probably find that the right time simply never comes along and the task never gets completed.

The following are a few other factors that cause procrastination.


Researchers suggest that procrastination can be particularly pronounced among students. A 2007 meta analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin found that a whopping 80% to 95% of college students procrastinated on a regular basis, particularly when it came to completing assignments and coursework.

According to researchers, there are some major cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination. Students tend to:

  • Overestimate how much time they have left to perform tasks
  • Overestimate how motivated they will be in the future
  • Underestimate how long certain activities will take to complete
  • Mistakenly assume that they need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project

Present Bias

The present bias is a phenomenon observed in human behavior that may result in procrastination. The present bias means that we tend to be motivated more by immediate gratification or rewards than we are by long-term rewards. This is why it feels good in the moment to procrastinate.

For example, the immediate reward of staying in bed and watching TV is more appealing than the long-term reward of publishing a blog post, which would take much longer to accomplish.


Procrastination can also be a result of depression. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and a lack of energy can make it difficult to start (and finish) the simplest task. Depression can also lead to self-doubt. When you can't figure out how to tackle a project or feel insecure about your abilities, you might find it easier to put it off.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Procrastination is also pretty common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. One reason is that OCD is often linked with maladaptive perfectionism, which causes fears about making new mistakes, doubts about whether you are doing something correctly, and worry over others' expectations of you.

People with OCD also often have a propensity toward indecision, causing them to procrastinate rather than make a decision.


Many adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with procrastination. When you're so distracted by outside stimuli, as well as internal thoughts, it can be hard to get started on a task, especially if that task is difficult or not interesting to you.

Is Procrastination a Mental Illness?

Procrastination itself is not a mental illness. But in some cases, it may be symptomatic of an underlying mental health condition such as depression, OCD, or ADHD.

Why Do You Procrastinate?

We often come up with a number of excuses or rationalizations to justify our behavior. According to researchers, there are 15 key reasons why people say they procrastinate:

  • Not knowing what needs to be done
  • Not knowing how to do something
  • Not wanting to do something
  • Not caring if it gets done or not
  • Not caring when something gets done
  • Not feeling in the mood to do it
  • Being in the habit of waiting until the last minute
  • Believing that you work better under pressure
  • Thinking that you can finish it at the last minute
  • Lacking the initiative to get started
  • Forgetting
  • Blaming sickness or poor health
  • Waiting for the right moment
  • Needing time to think about the task
  • Delaying one task in favor of working on another

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Types of Procrastination

Some researchers classify two types of procrastinators: passive and active procrastinators.

  • Passive procrastinators: Delay the task because they have trouble making decisions and acting on them
  • Active procrastinators: Delay the task purposefully because working under pressure allows them to "feel challenged and motivated"

Others define the types of procrastinators based on different behavioral styles of procrastination, including:

  • Perfectionist: Puts off tasks out of the fear of not being able to complete a task perfectly
  • Dreamer: Puts off tasks because they are not good at paying attention to detail
  • Defier: Doesn't believe someone should dictate their time schedule
  • Worrier: Puts off tasks out of fear of change or leaving the comfort of "the known"
  • Crisis-maker: Puts off tasks because they like working under pressure
  • Overdoer: Takes on too much and struggles with finding time to start and complete task

Procrastinators vs. Non-Procrastinators

"Non-procrastinators focus on the task that needs to be done. They have a stronger personal identity and are less concerned about what psychologists call 'social esteem'—how others like us—as opposed to self-esteem which is how we feel about ourselves," explained Dr. Ferrari in an interview with the American Psychological Association (APA).

According to psychologist Piers Steel, people who don't procrastinate tend to be high in the personality trait known as conscientiousness, one of the broad dispositions identified by the Big Five theory of personality. People who are high in conscientiousness also tend to be high in other areas including self-discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility.

The Negative Impact of Procrastination

It is only in cases where procrastination becomes chronic and begins to have a serious impact on a person's daily life that it becomes a more serious issue. In such instances, it's not just a matter of having poor time management skills, it's a major part of their lifestyle.

Perhaps they pay their bills late, don't start work on big projects until the night before the deadline, delay gift shopping until the day before a birthday, and even file their income tax returns late.

Unfortunately, this procrastination can have a serious impact on a number of life areas, including a person's mental health and social, professional, and financial well-being:

  • Higher levels of stress and illness
  • Increased burden placed on social relationships
  • Resentment from friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students
  • Consequences of delinquent bills and income tax returns

How to Overcome Procrastination

You might find yourself wondering, How can I stop procrastinating?

Fortunately, there are a number of different things you can do to fight procrastination and start getting things done on time. Consider these your procrastination exercises:

  • Make a to-do list: To help keep you on track, consider placing a due date next to each item.
  • Take baby steps: Break down the items on your list into small, manageable steps so that your tasks don’t seem so overwhelming.
  • Recognize the warning signs: Pay attention to any thoughts of procrastination and do your best to resist the urge. If you begin to think about procrastinating, force yourself to spend a few minutes working on your task.
  • Eliminate distraction: Ask yourself what pulls your attention away the most—whether it's Instagram, Facebook updates, or the local news—and turn off those sources of distraction.
  • Pat yourself on the back: When you finish an item on your to-do list on time, congratulate yourself and reward yourself by indulging in something you find fun.    
13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."