The real cause of procrastination and how to prevent it

The Real Reason for Procrastination and How to Overcome it

You’ve probably read all kinds of theories about how to end procrastination. If you’re like me, then you’ve probably tried all of them. Some of them work, to be sure, but only for a while before everything resets back to its default settings.

In fact, I almost gave up on trying to kick my tendency to procrastinate until I finally came across an explanation for why we procrastinate. To date, I haven’t found a more convincing theory of procrastination, and I can finally write my essays long before the deadline comes up, without procrastinating.

The idea is that procrastination has more to do with our emotions than anything else. We procrastinate because we want to be happy. Understanding the dynamics of those emotions is key to helping us devise effective strategies that help us get rid of the habit of procrastination once and for all.

The Theory of Procrastination

We procrastinate because of the kinds of emotion we experience when we think about the work that we are trying to avoid. In essence, our mood gets damaged by the thought of the work we have to do. In reaction to this, we engage in a bunch of activities that are going to improve our mood in the presence, like scrolling through social media. This is known as mood repair.

Putting off the task we’re supposed to be doing in the present helps us to regulate our mood. However, studies show that the same procrastination that makes us feel good for putting off important work in the present, makes us feel worse later on. In fact, the negative feelings only get worse as we procrastinate more.

Another reason why we procrastinate is that the brain has an interesting way of comparing our present selves to our future selves. It actually sees them as two different people. As a result, the brain will prioritize what makes us happy in the present at the cost of what is actually good for future use. In fact, people’s brains have been shown to regard their future selves in the same way they would regard celebrities they have never met in person.

The fact that we think of our future self as someone other than who we are now  means we are going to give a greater priority to decisions that benefit us now, as opposed to decisions that would benefit us much more in the future. Even when the decisions that improve our present are actually going to leave us worse off in the future.

Overcoming Procrastination

Now that we understand what’s going on in our minds when we procrastinate, it’s much easier to devise a strategy that can help us overcome procrastination. The actual implementation of that strategy is mere tactics and is something anyone can figure out on their own. However, I’ll show some of my own tactics in the hope that they will be of help to you.

To stop procrastinating, we have to employ a two-part strategy: first, we should try to reduce the feelings of discomfort that are associated with whatever task it is that we’re supposed to do but are procrastinating on. Second, we should figure out how to make our present self-care more about our future self.

That said, here are some things you can do to help yourself stop procrastinating based on the strategy above:

1. Lower the Threshold Associated with Starting the Task

You know how they say that ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’? Well, as cliché as it may sound it’s actually pretty true. The hardest part of most tasks we procrastinate on is starting. Therefore, if we want to actually get them done we just have to make it easier to start.

To start with, when you finish something that you were actually supposed to do, your mood enjoys a huge boost, which can easily spill over into the rest of your work. That progress you make by starting the task, no matter how small it may be, is usually enough to motivate you to continue.

A good way to do this is to just take some time to get your mind acquainted with the task. If it’s something you’re writing on your computer, open the file and take some time to just stare at it and think about it. Eventually, you’ll find yourself starting it and getting immersed in it.

Write that first word; take that first step; don’t be too strict on yourself and just tell yourself to do it for five minutes. And then, if you don’t like it, you can try something else. More often than not, you find yourself going the whole way.

2. Use the Power of Reward Substitution

The idea behind reward substitution is that we can substitute what we are supposed to do with a reason why we can actually enjoy it. In essence, we can do the right thing for the wrong reason. Think about exercise, for example. Exercise is good for you. Your body will be healthier and your appearance will also be enhanced. But that does not sound like a very motivational reason to exercise. So how do we get ourselves to exercise on schedule, rather than procrastinate?

One trick you can use is to do your favorite activity immediately after you are done exercising. If you love to watch movies, you can watch a movie immediately after you’re done exercising as a reward. Over time, you will be looking forward to exercising, simply because you look forward to the movie that comes after. This is you doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

Essentially, the best kind of reward is one that is short term, does not negate the gains made by the task you are supposed to be undertaking, and is large enough to motivate you to do the task. Since the rewards are coming in the presence, your brain still gets to prioritize your present wellbeing while also doing stuff that benefits your future self.

3. Structured Procrastination

Another way to fight procrastination is through the method of structured procrastination. This is where you use procrastination to your advantage. Rather than fight procrastination, you let it flow, but productively. So there’s a huge task you have to complete and you’ve been putting it off. Good; put it off, but in the meantime, do something else that is productive. You can do your chores or work on some other big project that you are more comfortable with — or do some exercise. In the end, you will have less regret about procrastinating because you were productive anyway.

In fact, the best way to apply this method is to avoid doing small mundane tasks while procrastinating and instead do something that is even more important than the task that you are avoiding. That way you achieve even more during procrastination than you would have achieved otherwise. This is known as good procrastination.

4. Use the Pomodoro Technique

This is an age-old method that works to this day.

The Pomodoro technique involves timing yourself for little bursts of productivity with breaks in between. You can, for example, commit yourself to focusing on the task you’re supposed to do for 30 minutes non-stop then take a 10-minute break where you can reward yourself with some pleasurable activity.

It works on the same principle of your mind getting an immediate reward for carrying out a task that benefits your future self.

5. Don’t be Too Hard on Yourself

Inevitably you will procrastinate, even as you work hard on kicking the habit. What you should do is forgive yourself for these lapses. Studies show that people who forgive themselves for procrastinating are less likely to procrastinate in the future, simply because they are more committed to change.


Procrastination is the result of how our brains have been wired. Understanding what is happening under the hood is the first step to programming ourselves to perform better and be more productive. With the right tools in your toolbox, you can say goodbye to procrastination forever.

Justin Osborne
Justin is a blogger from Leicester, England, UK. When not teaching his little students and rooting for Leicester FC, he loves to share his thoughts and opinions about education, writing for Assignment Holic and blogging with other people on different blogs and forums.
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