Why do we procrastinate?
Answered by Lu Fong and Discovery Fit & Health
  • Lu Fong

    Lu Fong

  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. Composing a symphony is no small task. Beethoven's Fifth took four years to finish and even Mozart averaged a year. But George Gershwin? Eight weeks. The composer behind the now iconic American jazz symphony, "Rhapsody in Blue," waited until the absolute last minute, only scrambling to finish after he heard about a competitor working on a similar piece [source: Schiff]. The orchestra that premiered the symphony was only given four days to rehearse.

    It's a comforting thought that even the most brilliant people in history have put things off. Other famous procrastinators include Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Bill Clinton (according to Al Gore) [source: Glicksman]. In a study of professional adults in high-ranking positions, 20 percent admitted to being chronic procrastinators while another study pegged chronic student procrastination at 50 percent [sources: Harriet, Thakkar].

    What keeps procrastinators from just buckling down? The answer ranges from the strictly clinical to the ambitiously philosophical. Psychological analysis has tentatively identified three different breeds of procrastinator: arousal types, avoiders and decisional procrastinators. Arousal types get off on the thrill of cutting it close. Their motivations lie in the rush of adrenaline that comes from intense deadline pressure. In contrast, avoiders are exactly what they sound like: people who avoid work due to a fear of failure or judgment. Many of these procrastinators worry that if they give themselves enough space, they risk losing the fallback excuse of "Oh, this isn't my best effort because I ran out of time." Finally, decisional procrastinators are driven by the inability to make a decision or accept responsibility for their decision [source: Marano].

    Of course, these are only a few of the possible causes for procrastination. Various studies have pointed fingers at anything from perfectionism to a general human reluctance to think abstractly [sources: Economist, McGarvey]. There's even a philosophical branch of argument that claims that an inherent "divided self" jostles for control within each human being [source: Surowieki].

    Neuroscience has attempted to be more concrete about the problem by mapping where procrastination lies in the brain itself. Studies have implicated the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and planning. It's possible that if a person has low activity in this part of grey matter, there's a higher chance of procrastinating behavior [source: Evans].

    However, nobody has offered a more literal answer than a research team at the University of Calgary that claims to have developed an equation for procrastination called the "Temporal Motivation Theory."  The team's logic is complex. Let's say "Percy the Procrastinator" needs to clean his room. The equation used by the researchers breaks the situation into four variables: E represents Percy's expectations for the task; V represents how valuable a clean room is; Gamma, represents the difficulty of cleaning; and D is how generally impatient Percy is. All of this is used to calculate "utility," or how much Percy ultimately wants to clean his room. The final equation reads: Utility = E x V / (Gamma) x D. Translated, this means that if your motivation stays the same over time, you'll only gear up as a deadline approaches [source: CNET]. Seems like an awful lot of math to determine something we know already.

    procrastination in progress
    Procrastination in progress (Michael Blann/Digitial Vision/Thinkstock)

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  2. Love to procrastinate? You're not alone. But the reason you put off doing whatever it is you're supposed to be doing may not be laziness. You could be depressed. And while that news may not cheer you up, it could explain why your mind goes adrift during particularly taxing tasks.

    Oh well, nobody's perfect. Still, many perfectionists procrastinate because they fear failure or doing a job that's less than their best -- even though, truly, that would be better than nothing.

    Feel overwhelmed? Don't worry. That's another common cause of procrastination. Too much to do means too much to focus on. If this sounds familiar, you could be in luck. One solution could be learning to properly prioritize your schedule. By better managing your time and learning to deal with distractions, you may finally be able to see one task through to completion.

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