Procrastination: Why We Keep Doing It (Even Though We Know It’s Bad)


I am a brilliant procrastinator; I procrastinate the shit out of just about everything. I don’t discriminate either—I’ll procrastinate both menial and important tasks. In an effort to kick the habit, I figured why not try write a piece about it and the ensuing, nearly crippling anxiety it gives me? Except it would seem I have been putting off finishing this as well.

My mom loves to remind me of the tasks that perpetually weigh over me, but I can’t really blame her. I’m incapable of completing some of the most trivial tasks she asks of me—like calling my grandmother or sending out thank-you notes. So I know it’s deserved when she gets all stern with me in an effort to force me into completing the tasks at hand. “Rachel, it’s the right thing to do,” she’ll tell me. Thing is, I know this. I know this all too well, but knowing it still doesn’t make me to do it. In fact, being reminded of these tasks often forces me down a deeper hole, with less motivation to do it and all the motivation to avoid it. I was relieved to find it’s not just I who is inflicted with this contrarian compulsion. In the New York Times, Robert Benchley is quoted as saying, “The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” It’s unclear what it is specifically that drives me to procrastinate other than the feeling of revolt that bubbles up inside of me whenever I feel pressured to complete a task.

But still; this doesn’t explain why procrastination is often our default course of action. I know I can’t pinpoint what it is about procrastination that I’m so drawn to and take such immense comfort in. But the fact is, I do. As do countless others. I just wish that my most frequently chosen path didn’t always bring me anxiety. In The New Yorker, James Surowiecki expounds on this paradox that’s sort of inherent to procrastination, “This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.” And this is the ultimate irony of it all: we take refuge in procrastination—or at least we think we’re taking refuge in it—but this refuge is riddled with guilt and anxiety. It’s not fun, and it doesn’t feel good.

And yet, the part of me that knows it’d be best if I just completed the task is always eclipsed by my overwhelming urge to procrastinate.

In searching for the root cause of this impulse, it’s impossible not to bring up instant gratification. For, the self-lacerating relationship between the self and procrastination seems akin to the detrimental relationship between the self and pursuing instant gratification. We know that pursuing both of these paths isn’t the most promising route for our future selves, but we’re willing to take that risk anyway in exchange for insurmountable pleasure.

In his book, British philosopher Derek Parfit names this urge for instant gratification as the fundamental reason we all procrastinate—particularly, due to the divide we establish between our present and our future selves. Of Parfit’s theory, Alisa Opar writes, “It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us. This impedes our ability to make good choices on their—which of course is our own—behalf.”

This theory seems to provide answers—if hazy ones—as to why people are incapable of following, say, Warren Buffett’s approach to managing money. His triumphant, lucrative method relies essentially on one thing: patience. Well it turns out man’s capacity for patience is much smaller than we expected. Opar continues, “We can focus on that version of our self that derives pleasure, and ignore the one that pays the price.” Hence why someone like Lena Dunham’s character on Girls can take Adam’s sister’s made-up story (the one about “Margaret”), call it her own, and then use it on Adam. She isn’t thinking about how this will effect her or the relationship in the future, just that it gives her a free pass for now. Maybe James Surowiecki was right when he said “it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.”

It’s interesting to look at the various definitions of procrastination. The Free Dictionary by Farlex describes it as “to put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness.” Merriam-Webster gives this definition: “To be slow or late about doing something that should be done. To delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy, etc.” And the Cambridge International Dictionary of English says it’s “To keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring.” What all of these definitions have in common is the implication that procrastination is a willful act—a colossal blunder, in my opinion. For people like myself, who have such epic inner battles with procrastination, it never feels like a willful act. It actually feels closer to a compulsion.

Just as people suffering from OCD can’t stop themselves from performing rituals and compulsions, chronic procrastinators can’t stop themselves from their own compulsion to procrastinate. And perhaps if we didn’t look so disapprovingly upon procrastination, but rather saw it more as an addiction, we’d all have a better shot at overcoming it.