Psychology behind procrastination


Photo by Jasmin Lykke

A student procrastinating on an assignment by looking at her phone.


Most students have had a project or assignment that they put off until the last minute, procrastinating until the very last second. This procrastination is usually justified by saying “I can do it later” or doing smaller tasks instead to make yourself think you are too busy to work on the task at hand. But procrastination is not always due to laziness, it has many psychological explanations such as the fear of failure, a lack of dopamine release, or a lack of organization.

Obvious reasons for procrastination could be anxiety or laziness, but an unexpected cause may be the lack of dopamine that is released while doing a longer task. Every time you accomplish a goal, there is a dopamine release, which triggers feelings like happiness. It is less rewarding to do longer tasks because there are less frequent dopamine releases, which can make you procrastinate because your brain knows it will take longer for a reward.

One way to deal with this is to set up small goals within your larger task. For example, if you have to create a long PowerPoint, you can reward yourself after completing each slide. You could eat a small piece of candy after each slide or make a goal to finish half of the project and then take a 10-minute break before finishing the other half.

This process of smaller goals and rewards can go hand in hand with organization, which can have a large impact on how much you procrastinate. Simply not knowing how or where to start something can cause a lot of procrastination.

Not knowing how to start a project can lead to fear of failure, which according to, can cause procrastination due to the fear of the truth or the mindset of “if I never try, I can never fail.” They use the example of putting off going to the doctor. You put off going to the doctor in fear of something serious being wrong and eventually convince yourself that if you can’t see it, there is nothing wrong, which is obviously untrue.

Convincing yourself that this logic is untrue and realizing that getting your tasks done leaves you with more free time can help with procrastination from fear. Understanding that my fears of failure were unrealistically combined with the desire to get the task over with helped me to move on from this type of procrastination.  

Organization and preparation can also include getting rid of any distractions. I can’t tell you how many times I have started to write something and have then gotten distracted by outside factors such as my phone, my dog, music, random objects in my room, literally anything can distract me once I start working. I have sat down to write this story four times now, all due to the distractions around me which I often justify by convincing myself that I am suddenly too busy to possibly work on writing a story.

The reason that you allow yourself to be distracted so easily, according to psychologist Shahram Heshmat, is because the time it takes to make a clear decision is much greater than it is to make an impulse decision. Most distractions are based on impulse decisions such as grabbing your phone, taking a snack break, or playing with your pet. You can grab your phone and check Instagram in one second, but it takes more than just grabbing your phone to achieve your goal, so it is easy to fall into the pattern of being distracted.

One way to help with this is to set up the area that you work in with as few distractions as possible. Take away anything that you often get distracted by, if you often check social media while trying to do homework then keep your phone in another room while you work.

To avoid procrastinating you can stay away from distractions, have a plan on what you will do first and how you will do it, organize your space around you, and allow yourself to be rewarded periodically while completing a long project.