Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Procrastination

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Why it happens, and how to beat it
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Something To Take home[edit]

Procrastination is a widely common phenomenon, where the lack of self-efficacy for self-regulated learning is a key determinant. These interact with task characteristics and other personality variables to create the irrational delay tendencies. Although the answer to procrastination would seem to be simple, it is important for any attempt to recognize, and address, underlying cognitive forces (such as irrational beliefs) that can resist attempts at change.


Here are some questions to keep in mind with this chapter:

  • What is procrastination?
  • What what are the reasons behind procrastination?
  • Is all procrastination the same?
    • Can procrastination actually help me?
  • What are some ways to help procrastination behavior?

Introduction & prevalence[edit]

In researching for a journal review of procrastination, Dr. Piers Steel found a book, authored by Knaus (1979), which contained a reference to an earlier book, titled ‘Procrastination through the ages: A definitive history’, written by Paul Ringenbach (1971, cited in Steel, 2007)). Possibly thinking that a ‘definitive’ history book on procrastination could be useful for his research, and finding several other sources that referenced the same book, Steel set out to find this source to aid his research. Weeks of searching libraries yielded no success, for as Dr. Steel eventually found out, this book does not actually exist!

Made as a joke to future researchers (a book on procrastination that was never finished), Ringenbach explained that a procrastinator would never be able to complete a “definitive history on procrastination!” (Zimmer, 2008)

Procrastination is described as the ‘quintessential self-regulatory failure’ for its prevalence in society, and especially in academic situations (Steel, 2007). Procrastination is defined as the ‘voluntary delay of an intended course of action despite being worse off for the delay’ (Steel, 2007). It is considered chronic when the behaviour disrupts everyday functioning by impinging on the ability to work (Brownlow & Reasinger, 2000). Typical outcomes of procrastination include incomplete assignments, cramming, anxiety, self-handicapping, and under-achievement (a direct result of procrastination itself, Klassen & Kuzucu, 2009). Chronic procrastination has been linked to dissatisfaction with several life domains (outside that of academic procrastination (Barnes, Ferrari & Steel, 2009)), as well as mental health outcomes, such as lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and depression (Steel, 2007). Though there may be evidence to suggest that procrastination is perceived differently in some cultures (Ang, Chong, Huan, Klassen, Krawchuck et al., 2009; Dietz, Fries & Hofer, 2007). The prevalence of procrastination is estimated at 20% of the population in many contexts (Ang et al., 2009; Ang, Chong, Klassen & Krawchuk, 2010; Argumedo, Diaz, Dietz-Morales, Ferrari & O’Callaghan, 2007; Ferrari, O’Callaghan & Newbegin. 2005).

Profile of a chronic procrastinator[edit]

Procrastination is common in academics, especially with writing assignments

Procrastination has been linked to a wide number of traits and factors in historical research (Steel, 2007). Your average chronic procrastinator has perfectionist tendencies (Brownlow & Reasinger, 2000), low self-efficacy, high impulsivity, and low conscientiousness (Steel, 2007).

Firstly, trait Perfectionism is a ‘multidimensional construct involving both ‘’personal’’ and ‘’social’’ components that contribute to different forms of achievement through striving and underpinning various ‘adaptive’ and ‘maladaptive’ outcomes’ (Chabaud, Ferrand & Maury, 2010). Not all procrastination can be explained in terms of lazy individual. It is possible for an individual who is essentially hard-working with trait perfectionism to procrastinate due to a high desire to make the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ action towards completing the task at hand (or, considering other related facets to procrastination, not to make the wrong decision (Steel, 2007)).

Secondly, procrastinators seem to have low-self efficacy (comparable to self-confidence) meaning that they believe that they are not capable of achieving, with their own skills and knowledge, a satisfactory outcome in the task at hand (Steel, 2007). It is important to note that this low self-efficacy may be specific to educational and academic pursuits, of which procrastination research has frequently focused on. However, there is research to suggest that in some chronic procrastinators, the negative impact of procrastination is found in other life domains (such as social interactions, financial decisions, health decisions, as well as leisure & volunteering pursuits (Barnes et al., 2009), thus these individuals are known for having a lifestyle marked by irrational delay). Self-efficacy specific to educational and academic pursuits, where procrastination is ‘nearly universal’ (Steel, 2007), is called self-efficacy for self-regulated learning (Ang et al., 2009), and exploration of this concept will be delayed until later in the chapter.

Third, Procrastinators also tend to be high on impulsivity and low on trait conscientiousness. Conscientiousness, one of five super-ordinate traits found in the ‘big five’ model of personality, is the tendency for an individual to be ‘careful’, ‘self-disciplined’, and ‘organized’ (Wikipedia, 2011, para. 1). It is the conceptual opposite of procrastination, so it should be intuitive (and empirically demonstrated) that conscientiousness has a negative relationship to procrastination, as well as related concepts such as distractibility, organization, achievement motivation, and the presence of an intention-action gap (Steel, 2007). The link from impulsivity to procrastination behavior has also been established (Steel, 2007).

Types of procrastination[edit]

As there are different reasons for procrastination, there are thus different types of procrastination.

  • Avoidant procrastination occurs when low self-efficacy produce procrastination as an attempt to reduce anxiety (which inevitably comes back closer to the deadline, Barnes et al., 2009)).
  • Arousal procrastination occurs when the individual delays tasks because they seek a thrill-seeking, challenging, experience closer to the deadline (Steel, 2007).
  • Decisional procrastination is the ‘inability to make a decision within a specified time period’ (Ferrari et al., 2005).

In reference to what we have learnt so far about procrastination, arousal procrastination may be conceptually linked to trait impulsivity, with the individual seeking out the thrill and the challenge of doing tasks at the ‘last minute’, whilst avoidant procrastination/decisional procrastination both may be more influenced by low self-efficacy, fear of evaluation, and perfectionism.

Active vs. passive procrastination[edit]

There is possibly another type of procrastination, the beneficial kind. Active (or purposeful) procrastintation is an ‘adaptive’ form of procrastination whereby the individual makes better use of time by delaying a course of action (Corkin, Lindt & Yu, 2011; Chu & Choi, 2005). Individuals using active procrastination (or active delay) are known for their voluntary delay (like traditional, passive procrastinators), their preference for pressure (like the arousal procrastinators mentioned above), ability to meet deadlines despite postponement (like a fewer number of chronic procrastinators), and their satisfaction with outcomes despite postponing work (comparable to very few passive procrastinators (Corkin et al., 2011)). This, combined with the finding that procrastination and active procrastination are inversely related (that is, aspects of self-regulated learning are significantly different between procrastinators and those who actively delay (Corkin et al, 2011)) has led some to conclude that active procrastination and procrastination, although sharing similar features from onset, are in fact, different phenomena altogether (Zimmer, 2008; Pychyl, 2009; Corkin et al. 2011). Findings of active procrastination are relevant to passive procrastination in at least one other way. Many procrastinators do not seem to see that their procrastinating behaviour is negative (Seo, 2011; Chu & Choi 2005; Choi & Moran 2009). Thus the only difference between active procrastinators and passive ones is the academic outcomes they achieve, and their satisfaction with these outcomes. The mistaken belief that procrastination (not to be confused with the active delay found in active procrastinators) leads to positive outcomes (or at least not negative ones, Seo, 2011), is an irrational belief, and will be expanded upon later in the chapter. |}

Theories in procrastination research[edit]

Several theories of procrastination have been introduced, each explaining procrastination in different aspects. Each theory will be applied to the following typical procrastination example.

Johnny receives an important writing assignment. Though he/she is given ample time to complete the task, he/she instead decides to procrastinate, leaving it to the last minute.

The Appraisal-Anxiety-Avoidance Theory[edit]

The appraisal-anxiety-avoidance (or AAA Theory) of procrastination states that procrastination is a result of cognitive appraisal of the task (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). According to the theory, when presented with a stressor (say, a writing task), the individual considers whether they have the ability to cope with the internal & external resources to cope with the stressors. If the individual perceives they cannot deal with a stressor, then the result is feelings of anxiety, and the behavioural response of escape or avoidance behaviours (that is, procrastination (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984)).

AAA Theory and procrastination

  • Task --> Stress and anxiety
  • Avoiding task --> No Stress and anxiety

This phenomenon is called negative reinforcement, whereby an action is rewarded (such that it makes the behaviour more likely in the future) with the removal of a painful stimulus. For Johnny, the task is associated with stress and worry, so avoiding the task has become associated with avoiding stress and worry.

The Action Control Theory[edit]

Another theory that can be applied to procrastination is that of Khul (1984)’s ‘Action Control Theory’ (ACT). It states that certain interfering (or inappropriate) mental processes cause the deficiency in an individual’s ability to choose courses of action and maintain behaviour. In other words, the individual may have the motivation and skills to complete a task, but various forces, both internal and external, provide competing alternatives to the ones that would lead to solving the task. Mental processes that naturally allow for the individual to address these alternatives, and maintain motivation towards the completion of a task (Khul, 1984), but in procrastinators, more often than not, these are not working properly. Therefore, in the case of Johnny, the problem is that of maintenance of motivation towards finishing the task (compared to the appraisal-anxiety-avoidance theory, which emphasises the role of self-efficacy, this theory emphasises self-regulation (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984)).

The Temporal Motivation Theory[edit]

A more recent theory is that of the ‘Temporal Motivation Theory’ (TMT), put forward by Steel & Konig (2006):

Temporal motivation theory: equation and terms

Utility = (E*V) / ӶD

Where: E: Expectancy

V: Value

D: Enjoyable activities immediately available

Ӷ: A person’s sensitivity to delay

Source: Steel (2007).

This theory, represented as the equation, suggests that behaviour is driven by ‘utility’, the characteristic of a task which determines how desirable it is to an individual. It is assumed that the individual will always choose to engage in the behaviour with the most utility, and that the utility of behaviours will change over time, thus influencing behaviour (Steel & Konig, 2006; Steel, 2007). Applying the theory to the example above (assuming that the act of getting a good grade on the writing task holds superior utility to that of the alternatives (though both are relatively high), but also that the benefits of a good grade are long-term, and thus not immediately realizable (reducing its utility), but the benefits of the alternatives are immediate (whether it be video games, socializing, etc.). According to the theory, Johnny would choose to engage in the alternative behaviour (procrastinating) because it has more (visible) utility. Only later on, closer to the due date of the assignment, does the utility of writing increase, eventually to a point where it surpasses the alternatives. Thus procrastination ends here, and Johnny finally gets started on his important assignment. Steel (2007) points out that many of the terms used in the TMT are linked to concepts related to causes of procrastination. Specifically, expectancy (E) is influenced by self-efficacy (the link to this concept and procrastination has already been discussed), value (V) is influenced by task aversiveness, as well as goal orientation and boredom proness of the individual, sensitivity to delay (Ӷ ) is influenced by traits of impulsiveness and self-control, and finally, the perceived enjoyability of the task (D) is influenced by the timing of rewards and punishments, organization, and the presence of an intention-action gap. Support for these relationships was demonstrated in his (2007) meta-analytic review.

Factors in procrastination behavior[edit]

We now look at the causes of procrastination. Note that not every single one of these variables will be present in each chronic procrastinator, nor each single instance or procrastination. Each factor extends our understanding of why procrastination occurs. The factors are divided into internal and external, where internal factors are based on from within the person, and external relates to characteristics of the task. There is a third category, processes, which will be used to explain how internal and external variables actively combine to produce procrastination in the short-term, and procrastinators in the long-term.


Personality variables[edit]

As discussed earlier in the chapter, out of all the OCEAN factors, only trait correlates strongly with procrastination. Conscientiousness has a negative relationship with procrastination (Steel, 2007). Another finding was that of impulsivity, a sub-factor of extraversion. Taken together, the research suggests that the chronic procrastinator is likely to be disorganized and impulsive.


Procrastination is linked to a self-concept (one’s identity) that involves low reliability, pessimism (specifically, that one is viewed in the eyes of others), and low self-esteem (Diaz-Morales & Ferrari, 2007). Perhaps in response, the procrastinator also engaged in justification behaviours, such as making excuses for their procrastination.

Perfectionism / fear of failure[edit]

As discussed earlier in the chapter, a tendency towards perfectionism has been found in chronic procrastinators. In light of the research linking procrastination and peer evaluation (for example, Brownlow & Reasinger, 2000; Ferrari, 2001; Diaz-Morales & Ferrari, 2007)), it may be more apt to say that procrastinators are not so much perfectionistic, so much as they fear failure (and the consequences, such as negative evaluation by peers). Thus, Procrastinators want not so much to make the right choices, as they want to avoid making the wrong ones.

Self-regulatory failure[edit]

Self-regulatory failure, specifically for self-regulated learning, is a key construct in procrastination (at least, in academic contexts, Wolters, 2003; Howell & Watson, 2007). Self-regulated learning is the ‘active, constructive process whereby learners set goals for their learning, and then attempt to monitor, regulate, and control their cognition, motivation, and behaviour, guided and constructed by their goals and the contextual features in the environment’ (Pintrich, 2000). It is strongly linked to two key elements: learning strategies & achievement orientation:

  • Learning strategies: Non-procrastinators have often been noted to use various strategies that can help them learn a new concept (Howell & Watson, 2007). In contrast, this behaviour is lacking in procrastinators (Howell & Watson, 2007; Steel, 2007; Wolters, 2003). This should not be surprising, given the link between procrastination and disorganization (Steel, 2007; Diaz-Morales & Ferrari, 2007), and distortions in the time it takes to complete tasks (Ferrari, 2001).
  • Achievement orientation:Achievement orientation refers to the tendency for an individual to compare oneself to either (a) oneself, or (b) other people (approach vs. Avoidance), and to what level the individual prefers to be in relation to these comparisons (equal or as high as possible, or performance vs. Mastery, Seo, 2009). Combining these two dimensions, we have a matrix with mastery approach, mastery avoidance, performance approach, performance avoidance as the categories. Procrastinators, more likely than not, seem to be adopters of avoidance achievement orientations (Howell & Watson, 2007; Seo, 2009). That is, they focus on doing as little work as possible to fulfil their own (or other- imposed) goals (the latter is more likely to be the case; Seo, 2008).

Passive procrastinators less frequently report using learning strategies to aid their learning, as well as report avoidance strategies. But what about active procrastinators? Research suggests that they are similar to passive procrastinators insofar as they report less use of learning strategies, as well as a tendency towards performance orientations (Corkin et al. 2011, although Howell & Watson (2007) did not find this). This suggests that active procrastinators, who are distinct from passive procrastinators, are also not quite the same as non-procrastinators (at least in the dimension of self-regulated learning).


Task characteristics[edit]

These include task aversiveness and timing allowed for the task. Procrastination is more likely when the individual is presented with an either boring or (perceived) difficult task (Ang et al., 2010; Steel, 2007). In addition, a task whose deadline is relatively long-term is more likely to influence an individual’s decision to procrastinate than one which is short-term, via means of temporal discounting (phenomena by which the value of distant rewards is reduced relative to more immediately available, smaller rewards (Howell & Watson, 2007; Steel, 2007). In addition, when given more freedom to arrange their activities for themselves, procrastination is more likely (Dietz, Fries & Hofer, 2007).

Reward characteristics[edit]
  • Reward is a large reason why we do anything, and may be used to explain procrastination. Specifically the rewards for the task is perceived to be lacking in some aspect. Assuming that getting good grades is a reward in itself, and from a behaviourist’s point of view:
    • The amount of work for reward is not satisfactory. Too much work and/or too little reward may cause inadequate motivation, and give rise to procrastination behaviours (Baron, Derenne & Schlinger, 2008).
    • The probability of a reward is perceived to be unlikely (Baron et al., 2008), or less certain than the impact of a shorter course of action (Dietz et al., 2007). Humans seem to have a preference for behaviours that yield short-term consequences over those that have long-term ones, even if they are possibly bigger (Dietz et al., 2007; Delfabbro & Winefield, 1999).
  • Natural fatigue: A reason why an individual may perceive unsatisfactory rewards is that they might be engaging in ‘cramming’ behaviours. In the case where work that is meant to be spread out over a period of time is compacted near the end, the overworked individual may experience fatigue from simply being overworked.


Internal and external processes are not isolated from each other, so understanding how they interact with each other provides insight into how procrastination arises in a situation.

Irrational beliefs[edit]

Evaluation by peers, a pessimistic world view, perfectionism / fear of failure, and metacognitive beliefs can, when intense enough, serve to distort how the individual perceives the situation (Steel, 2007; Chaubaud, Ferrand & Maury, 2010; Fernie, Georgiou, Moneta et al., 2009). The latter is defined as ‘stable knowledge or beliefs about one’s own cognitive system and knowledge about factors that affect the individual’s system, the current state of cognition, and appraisal of the significance of thought and memories’ (Fernie et al., 2009). They are divided into positive and negative beliefs:

  • Positive metacognitive beliefs: applied to procrastination, these are the information that individuals hold about the impact of certain coping strategies. Positive metacognitive beliefs are thought to be instrumental in the choice and maintenance of maladaptive coping strategies (Fernie et al., 2009), such as the mistaken belief that procrastination somehow helps the individual later on (for example, to reach flow (Seo, 2011).
  • Negative metacognitive beliefs: applied to procrastination, these are ‘meanings and consequences of engaging in a given form of coping and related thoughts and feelings’ (Fernie et al., 2009). Fernie and colleague (2009)’s example would be that of the uncontrollability of procrastination.
Temporal discounting[edit]

As mentioned above, phenomena by which the value of distant rewards is reduced relative to more immediately available, smaller rewards (Howell & Watson, 2007; Steel, 2007).

Putting it all together[edit]

Procrastination: A Cycle

Combining these factors we have a scenario as follows:

External Task features, such as an aversive task, long-term or uncertain reward interacts with internal variables, such as high trait impulsivity and/or low trait conscientiousness, low self-esteem, and avoidance orientation to goals. These create irrational beliefs about the situation, such as low-efficacy, fear of evaluation and failure, and metacognitive beliefs (both positive and negative), and temporal discounting. These create the behaviour of procrastination, the delaying of tasks and self-sabotage, which leads to the consequence of unsatisfactory outcomes, regret, and stress and anxiety. This lowers self-efficacy such that the individual is less likely to perceive that they have the skill to handle the next task that they encounter.

Dealing with irrational delay[edit]

Although it may seem obvious how to solve the problem of a lack of self-regulation (by regulating oneself), it is important to note that the influences that maintain procrastination may make attempting to change procrastination behaviour difficult. Take, for example, irrational metacognitive beliefs (the individual believes that procrastination is useful for coping with the task, as well as being ‘inevitable’, Fernie et al., 2009) or impulsivity and the presence of an intention-action gap (if the individual has difficulty maintain motivation to complete a task, he may also have difficulty in maintaining the motivation to stick to a plan to help him maintain motivation to complete a task). Those with more serious irrational beliefs may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy, given that it focuses on the negative beliefs that ‘control the cognitive processing of procrastinators’ (Fernie et al., 2009). Nevertheless, the following are tips to help start stopping procrastination:

  • Perhaps it is useful to start working on procrastination behaviour by addressing something else first (no really). Research has suggested that introducing structure to an individual’s leisure time can help him then apply the same structure to the individual’s academic time (Moore, Papillo, Williams & Zaff, 2003). Procrastinators tend to report a general lack of balance in their life (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004), so (not surprisingly), structured use of an individual’s time has been related to less procrastination in individuals (Dipboye & Phillips, 1990), as well as general personal development (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004).
  • Structure also involves goal setting. Burka & Yuen (1983) suggest that observable, specific goals are needed to reduce the urge to procrastinate. Observable, meaning that the individual can actually imagine him or herself doing it, and specific, meaning the goals are clear to not only you, but also understandable to everyone else (Burka & Yuen, 1983).
  • Cramming behaviour has been addressed earlier in the chapter between both active and passive procrastinators (particularly towards arousal procrastinators). While Seo (2011) did find that flow (the state of total involvement in an activity that consumes one’s complete attention, (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) was achieved when tasks were left to the last minute, presenting a challenging and involving experience, it did not reflect better grades in comparison to non-procrastinators. A possible reason is that flow described here is only but a subset of the total aspects that entail the construct of flow, or ‘optimal experience’ (Seo, 2011), that, while alluring for the procrastinating individual, does not reflect a better outcome. In other words, arousal procrastinators are procrastinating for the challenge, but not necessarily for the outcome. If it is the case that they are, then this is likely to be a maladaptive metacognitive belief, and thus needs to be corrected (Fernie et al, 2009).

See also[edit]

  • For more information on Time management: [1]
  • For more information on Achievement motivation: [2]
  • For more information on Flow: [3]


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