Theories of Procrastination
Sometimes there seems to be as many theories on a topic as there are people researching it. Fortunately, over the last 30 years, we have been testing these theories, trying to determine which one works best. Here I review four of the most popular theories of procrastination and consider the evidence for and against them. Much of the empirical evidence comes from my meta-analysis, The Nature of Procrastination, which received American Psychological Association’s George A. Miller award for outstanding contribution to general science (and then formed the basis for my book The Procrastination Equation). The theory with the most support is Temporal Motivation Theory, which is presented last.
1. Anxiety: Fear of Failure, Perfectionism, etc.
There is a host of anxiety-related reasons that have been thought to cause procrastination. Essentially, people are believed to procrastinate on tasks because the task itself is aversive or stressful. Consequently, those who are more susceptible to experiencing stress should procrastinate more. There are a variety of conditions that make people anxious, especially irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs, cognition, or thought is a broad term that includes several dysfunctional or anxiety-provoking worldviews. Ellis (1973) characterizes them as: (1) almost certainly hindering the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment of desires, and (2) almost completely arbitrary and unprovable. Some examples of irrational beliefs are fear of failure and perfectionism.
This theory is not supported.
- First, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more anxiety is typically experienced closer to the deadline, so procrastination appears to be a way of increasing anxiety, not reducing it.
- Second, empirical evidence indicates a weak or even no relationship between anxiety or irrational beliefs and procrastination. For example, on average, perfectionists actually report slightly less procrastination than other people.
There is dispute over whether self-handicapping should be considered a form of procrastination. Self-handicapping is when people place obstacles that hinder their own good performance. The motivation for self-handicapping is often to protect self-esteem by giving people an external reason, an “out,” if they fail to do well. However, self-handicapping isn’t necessarily a form of procrastination, which is: “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.” Self-handicappers appear to be acting in their own self-interest, thinking they are protecting themselves from shame and humiliation. Consequently, Dr. Clarry Lay, one of the first researchers into procrastination and developer of the General Procrastination Scale, concludes “to intend to put off some activity to protect one’s self-esteem in not procrastinatory behavior.”
This theory is not supported.
- Self-handicapping is still an important issue and can share some commonalities with procrastination (i.e., delaying a task can be a way to self-handicap). However, because the motivations for delaying are not the same, the two will differ regarding causes and treatments and so it is best to study them separately.
According to the clinical literature, rebelliousness, hostility, and disagreeableness are thought to be major motivations for procrastination. For those with these personality traits, externally imposed schedules are more likely to be experienced as aversive, and thus avoided. Also, by delaying work and starting it on one’s own schedule, autonomy is reasserted.
This theory is not supported.
- First, like anxiety, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more autonomy might be expressed by not doing a task at all instead of just delaying it. By doing it at the last minute, procrastination may appear to express capitulation, “caving in,” rather than autonomy.
- Second, empirical evidence indicates an extremely weak relationship, virtually nil, between rebelliousness and procrastination.
4. Temporal Motivation Theory: Core theory of The Procrastination Equation
Temporal Motivation Theory (aka The Procrastination Equation) represents the most recent developments in motivational research; it is an integrative theory from which most other motivational theories can be derived. It suggests that the reasons why people make any decision can be largely represented by the following equation:
Motivation indicates the drive or preference for a course of action, what economists call utility. Naturally, the higher the utility, the greater the preference. On the top of the equation, the numerator, we have two variables: Expectancy and Value. Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring while Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is. Naturally, we would like to choose pursuits that give us a good chance of having a pleasing outcome. On the bottom of the equation, the denominator, we also have two variables. Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to delay. The more impulsive you are, the less you like to delay gratification. Finally, Delay indicates how long, on average, you must wait to receive the payout, that is the expected reward. Since delay is in the bottom of the equation, the longer the delay, the less motivated we feel about taking action.
How does this theory relate to procrastination? Essentially, we are constantly beset with making decisions among various courses of action. Should we go to the gym or watch TV? Should I make dinner or order-in? TMT suggests, unsurprisingly, that we are more likely to pursue goals or tasks that are pleasurable and that we are likely to attain. Consequently, we are more likely to put off, to procrastinate, difficult tasks with unenjoyable qualities.
Even more important regarding procrastination is the effects of delay. We like our rewards not only to be large but also to be immediate. Consequently, we will most likely procrastinate any tasks that are unpleasant in the present and offer rewards only in the distant future. In other words, we would be more likely to put off higher priority tasks if there are options available that are immediately pleasurable (even if they have sizeable but delayed costs). We tend to call such options temptations.
To help illustrate these elements of TMT, the following example is put forth: the college student’s essay paper. A college student who has been assigned an essay on September 15th, the start of a semester and it is due on December 15th, the course end. This student likes to socialize but he also likes to get good grades. The figure below maps the changes in expected utility for him over the course of the semester regarding his two choices, studying vs. socializing. Since the reward for socializing is always in the present, it maintains a uniformly high utility. For writing, its reward is distant initially, diminishing its utility. Only towards the deadline do the discounting effects of time decrease and writing becomes increasingly likely. In this example, the switch in motivation occurs on December 3rd, leaving just 12 days for concentrated effort. During this final stretch, it is quite likely that earnest but empty promises (i.e., intentions) are made to start working earlier next time.
For a simulation of this, see Christian Burkhart’s model.
There is strong evidence that TMT provides a good summary of why we procrastinate.
- First, procrastination is strongly associated with expectancy. Specifically, those people with low self-efficacy, that is feelings of incompetence, are more likely to procrastinate.
- Second, procrastination is strongly associated with the value of the tasks. The more unpleasant people find a task, the more likely they are to put it off. Also, those low in need for achievement, that is how much pleasure they get from achieving, are more likely to procrastinate.
- Third, procrastination is strongly associated with sensitivity to delay. Specifically, people who are more distractible, impulsive, and have less self-control tend to procrastinate more.
- Fourth, procrastination is strongly associated with time delay. The closer we are to realizing a goal, the harder we work at it.
- Fifth, TMT predicts an intention-action gap, where we intend to work but fail to act on these intentions. As expected. procrastinators tend not to act on their intentions.
- Sixth, observed work behavior matches what is predicted by TMT.
See “Integrating Theories of Motivation” published in the Academy of Management Review, as it shows that most motivational theories are converging on an integrated model of motivation. TMT concludes that many of the previous theories were right, but only in part. They typically touch on only one piece of the puzzle, such as task aversiveness, and then only certain forms of it. For example, consider rebelliousness. If you are a rebellious individual and feel some work is foisted upon you, then you will likely also find it more aversive. Since anything that makes work more unpleasant increases the likelihood of procrastination, rebelliousness would indeed be one contributor to procrastination, though in general its contribution is extremely small.