Procrastination: A Scientific Perspective

Pop psychologists and common people tend to formulate and believe in oversimplified explanations of the fairly complex dynamics of procrastination. These rarely work, or work only for their placebo effect. My explanations never worked either. For these reasons, I ventured into exploring the dynamics of this notorious trait purely on scientific lines. Ironically, many psychologists believe that having better understanding of the under-the-hood dynamics of procrastination is rarely useful, if at all.


The likelihood that a person will procrastinate in a given task depends on (1) The baseline tendency of that person to procrastinate , (2) Some specific variables related to the task in question and (3) a set of environmental and mood-related factors. The environmental/mood factors are of trivial importance and are hyperbolized by pop psychologists and the procrastinators alike. So we will ignore those for a moment. We’ll look into the remaining factors in detail.

1. Genetic makeup and personality:

Two important and scientifically supported personality traits which predict the chances of procrastination are Perfectionism and Impulsivity. Perfectionism is of relative importance and it’s effect over procrastination can be explained in terms of impulsivity as well. The single most important factor we’re left with is Impulsivity. Impulsivity has an inherited less modifiable and an acquired fairly modifiable component. I’m not sure which happens to be more important but it’s obvious that it’s generally modifiable and the effort required to modify it will greatly vary from person to person.

Impulsivity, in simple words, is one’s tendency to pick up tasks which lead to instant gratification or which save one from immediate threats. Organisms have evolved from very impulsive to less impulsive ones over time and so impulsivity is considered a lowly trait. The neurological circuitry by which impulsivity manifests has already been discovered and studied in detail. Freud also anticipated such an axis and even described it purely using psychological concepts of id, ego and superego.

On the other hand, Sheri Johnson, a well known psychologist, says “There is no rewind button in life and the psychological study of impulse control doesn’t propose to offer us one. “.

2. Defense mechanisms and Coping strategies:

Defense mechanisms and Coping strategy both are ways of reducing one’s guilt and anxiety and of resolving one’s conflicts. The former indicates simple, short-term and subconscious adjustments whereas the latter involves conscious interventions over relatively longer periods of time. Both of these, in quite similar ways, can be misused to defend as well as breed bad personality traits, the former being more important in case-to-case procrastination and the latter contributing more to the baseline tendency. Hundreds of varieties of both have described by psychologists. Of those a few are known to breed procrastination. We’ll discuss those in an another article.

3. Perceived chances of accomplishment:

The more you feel you wont be able to accomplish a task, the more you’ll procrastinate in it. Most people misjudge their ability to accomplish tasks in certain environments and mood states. Like they’ll say “It’s too hot, I wont be able to study” even if the actual effects of temperature happen to be trivial. This concept that one’s misperception of one’s abilities leads to procrastination is emphasized as a baseline intelligence disorder by the advocates of what we call emotional intelligence.

4. Nature of outcome:

An impulsive person will be driven more towards tasks in which the outcomes are instantaneous. A less impulsive person will pick up tasks of which the outcomes are more rewarding, regardless of the temporal distribution of those.

Next in this series: Impulsivity – The Greater Evil


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