eli5: what is procrastination from a psychological perspective, and why is it so hard to stop?


eli5: what is procrastination from a psychological perspective, and why is it so hard to stop?

In: 47

Procrastination can stem from emotional responses, or stress, or a whole lot of other things. In those cases, it is difficult to stop because you have to go and deal with the underlying causes of that for the procrastination to get better.

Behaviorism would keep it simple: We do things to get or keep rewards, and avoid punishment. If a task is unpleasant or requires effort, there must be a reward for doing it, or a punishment avoided. We put off tasks because our brain estimates that the current cost/punishment exceeds the reward. This can continue for a while when the deadline is far off, because the cost-benefit hasn’t changed; as the deadline approaches, the reward or punishment becomes more real and immediate, finally outweighing the cost. Simply put, your brain is asking “What’s in it for me?”

People who procrastinate less would therefore be those who either can strongly anticipate delayed rewards/ punishments, who can add a reward in the moment, or who perceive a reward from doing something in the moment (like “What a relief I got that done and can move on to something fun.”) Times of general low motivation will tend to mean all costs seem higher, and all rewards lower.

Self-sabotage: two or more beliefs that in a situation are in conflict and fulfilling one actively hinders others.

I am meant to enjoy myself as much as possible.
I need good grades

These could come in conflict and cause you to procrastinate study, or cause you to stress when relaxing

Avoidance – moving away from things we don’t like, or possibly hurtful things.

It’s not that it’s hard to stop procrastinating – but it’s hard to start what you are procrastinating from, since you may not have a strong enough motivation to do it.


Procrastination has a chemical basis – our dopaminergic system regulates reward and motivation. Basically, dopamine is what helps you in any situation where you are pursuing a goal or a reward. `Different people have different levels of dopamine, so if yours is low, it’s hard to stop. Doing things which raise dopamine levels (healthy things like exercise/music or unhealthy things like food/alcohol) can help overcome procrastination.

There is an interesting scientific paper ([here](https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294109795_Procrastination_as_a_Fast_Life_History_Strategy)) that links procrastination with a general harsh life: more impulsivity, more risks taken and more impatient for the future. You live such a harsh life if the environment is also harsh. Your behavior will be changed by a degree from your original tendency. You may be quite focused when you were young, but when you get older you find you begin to procrastinate.

Procrastination could be a good thing: if the world changes very fast, or it is very stressful, thinking too much and taking action slowly will be a loss. Your brain will prioritize immediate benefits for you. You will consider and do whatever is at hand as long as it is not bad.

Scientists researching your brain find (for example, [here](https://www.nature.com/articles/srep33203)) that if you procrastinate more, your brain is (a) hyper-active for the network not involved in processing specific hard tasks (called *Default Mode Network*, DMN); and (b) more failure for the part that controls your decision to influence that network. (a) could make you have more dispersed attention to yourself and the general environment around you, and produce more random detailed thoughts; (b) make you have less self-control. The usually blamed “limbic system” for your emotion is more closely linked to the DMN, hence bad temper or depression will make you worse.

(So there is a paradox even yourself can feel it: you wanted to take more action but in reality, you did not.)

Your brain is flexible by and large. But it changes much slower than your everyday life. Harsh and stressful life is a common experience for modern people. That is why we find people procrastinating more and hard to stop.

Other explanations are good, but I’d like to add two more aspects.

1. Often we procrastinate on complex and less defined tasks. That’s why need to study for exam often evokes urges to clean the room. We know how to do it, how much time it will take, what the end result will look. With studying it is less defined. Ok, you may read the textbook, but you will remain unsure of your task’s completion quality until the exam tomorrow (similar thing with writing thesis – the end result is clearer, but its quality is still something less defined, as well as all those tasks needed to be done for it to be good enough). You are a bit unsure how to maximize your gains when studying. It is less defined, progress is difficult to measure, and that is a stressor you’re avoiding. From the other side, you’re avoiding the stressor of doing nothing, you want the marker of meaningful progress somewhere. So room it is.

2. Due to the combination of what is called decision fatigue and perfectionism or self-doubt, we can feel urge to postpone doing task until we can do it perfectly. So you’re afraid to make some choices too early, because what if they are not good enough due to a hurried research, and it will be hard to go back, or it will become a sunk cost? Therefore your progress towards further subtasks is blocked by the bottleneck at the very “entrance”. One day you have time, but not have the willpower. Another day vice versa. Third day you forget doing it at all. That can drag on really much. Nearing the deadline, however, the discomfort of actually doing “something” even if of less quality becomes lower than the stress of consequences of missing the deadline‌, and it finally kickstarts you.