Why Wait? The Psychological Origins of Procrastination

We’ve all been there. We sit, we stare, we even start to clean as long as it means that we don’t have to do what we’re supposed to for another hour. Even if we want the satisfaction of completing a task, it can be impossible at times to find the motivation to do it. But why do we often opt for procrastination over productivity? The explanation is rooted in psychology.


Elliot Berkman, Ph.D.,
explains that “the decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project in that moment.” Psychologists call this subjective value. Thus, procrastination arises when the value of completing an alternative task outweighs the value of working on what you should be doing now.

So how do we solve this problem of procrastination?

Here’s a trick: we have to find a way to increase the subjective value of doing the hard stuff now, relative to the other things we could be doing. For example, make the boring project you have to get done seem better than cleaning the house to minimize distraction. Sounds simple, right? Not exactly…

One of the primary factors of procrastination is called delay discounting. This means that people discount the value of getting things done ahead of time because the reward is delayed; subsequently, the present value of doing a difficult task is reduced.

Another important element to consider is that work takes effort. When we expend our energy on a hard project, we become aware of the accompanying opportunity costs. Instead of doing a boring or difficult job, you could have been spending your time and mental effort on something more enjoyable.

With all of this standing in the way of productivity, how are we supposed to overcome the tendency to procrastinate?

Dr. Berkman suggests that,

Connecting projects to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.

 

If you are able to identify with your future self, you may be able to make significant strides in your work right now.

For more insight on the psychological origins of procrastination, read here.

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