An analysis of the current research into why humans procrastinate
by Gabriel Freeman
University of California, Berkeley
It may be that what makes us human is that we actively choose what to spend our time on. We are always planning, whether it’s what to do with the next hour, when to meet a friend next week, or where we want to be next year. Compared to any other species, we seem to be exceptionally adept at this.
We think ourselves rational, and yet we put off going to the gym until we are forced to by our doctors. And yet we procrastinate buying Christmas presents until the day before. We imagine ourselves as masters of our fate, individuals making our way in the world, making decisions through experience and logic. But a new wave of behavioral scientists has been challenging these models, changing them from the inside out and incorporating research by psychologists into the growing field of behavioral economics: Kahneman, Rabin, Steel, and Tversky are a few of the most visible. In this article, we will examine some of the most recent research on the heuristics and biases that humans use in decision making as it relates to motivation and procrastination, and then examine how this blossoming field can be applied to our daily lives.
Although the wording may change, all definitions of procrastination include “postponing, delaying, or putting off of a task or decision.”1 According to low estimates, around 15 to 20% of the general populace consider themselves chronic procrastinators,3 with no difference found based on sex or gender in any study.4, 5 Using this estimate, this behavior affects three times more people in the United States than depression. Procrastination is not nearly as debilitating, but it can be highly problematic. Among college students a full 80 to 95% admit that they engage in procrastination, 75% describe themselves as “procrastinators,” and nearly 50% engage in procrastination “consistently and problematically,” with the students tested describing procrastinatory activities taking up a third of their average day.1 And while many procrastinators claim they work best under pressure, research is showing that this argument lacks a leg to stand on. In fact, chronic procrastinators actually work worse under pressure than non-procrastinators.4
Studies looking for the origins of procrastination found a positive correlation with impulsivity. Those who are more impulsive procrastinate more.5 There is evidence that this link may be genetic. Using data from the Colorado Longitudinal Twin Study, it turns out that 100% of the genetic variation correlated with impulsivity also correlated with procrastination, and 68% is shared with goal failure.5 Both impulsivity and procrastination are related to the underlying cognitive ability of goal-management—that is, the ability to to keep in mind one’s short and long term goals and make decisions based on them rather than the immediate surroundings. Piers Steel, a prominent researcher in the field, theorizes that procrastination may be an evolutionary by-product of impulsivity. From a historical evolutionary perspective, impulsivity was beneficial to survival: when taking too much time to think about future problems before satisfying one’s immediate needs could get you killed, following one’s impulse would keep you alive.5
But finding a genetic origin does not help us overcome the tendency on a day-to-day level. For that we turn to an examination of how our brains make the decision to procrastinate or not. A recent meta-analysis of a variety of social theories was put together using research in behavioral economics, expectancy theory, cumulative prospect theory (CPT) and need theory.6 From behavioral economics comes the idea of hyperbolic discounting, or people’s tendency to value benefits and costs now far more than in the future. From expectancy theory we take the idea that the value of an activity or event is tied to one’s understanding of the likelihood of its occurring. From CPT we understand that losses are valued far more highly than gains, and extreme but unlikely events more than everyday occurrences. And from need theory we are reminded that the balance of various universal motivations is still unique within an individual. This is all brought together in Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT).6
Motivation—and subsequently procrastination—can be understood by looking at the effects of expectancy and value (a concept from behavioral economics and expectancy theory), weakened by delay (taken from CPT), with weighted differences for rewards and losses (taken from need theory).6 For the mathematically or economically inclined, this model can be described by a relatively simple (all things considered) formula:6
Utility = i=1kECPT+x VCPT+Z+S+(T-t)+i=k+1nECPT-x VCPT-Z+S-(T-t)
So the Utility of an action can be described as the probability that the outcome will be achieved (E) multiplied by how much the expected outcome is valued (V), all divided by the sum of the subject’s personal sensitivity to delay of rewards (S) multiplied by the time to the reward minus the current time (T – t), and the Instantaneous Utility—when rewards are immediate—which keeps the function from approaching infinity (Z). For any project then, this formula predicts that as a deadline approaches the perceived value of working on that project increases following a hyperbolic curve based on how much the act of working on the project is valued—and as we see in Figure 1, data seem to support this model.7
With formulas like this in mind, researchers have begun to determine how procrastinators can reorient their thinking so that the utility of working on important tasks earlier outweighs the imagined utility of spending that time on less productive things.
In one study, prominent researcher Dan Ariely showed that, when students are given the choice to spread out the three deadlines for papers in a class, only 27% choose to have them all due on the last day.8 On a purely rational, standard-economic perspective, it makes little sense to impose deadlines any earlier than necessary—why would you give yourself less time to work on a project?—but the majority of students in this experiment knew that it would be difficult for them to manage their time throughout the semester and so chose to enforce deadlines that take advantage of hyperbolic discounting. By the end of the semester, grades showed a marked decrease between students in the no-choice (mandated deadlines) condition and self-mandated early deadline condition compared to students in the free-choice condition who had chosen later deadlines, implying that they had run out of time to work on their final project because of this choice—this latter section of the class was not better at managing their time than their fellows, they were naively underestimating the allure of procrastination.8
Promising research has also been done into what is known as “temptation bundling”—and the idea has already captured the minds of many workout and self-help programs. Temptation bundling takes advantage of people’s inherent appreciation for immediate value.10 In one experiment, participants opted to join a workout program where they were allowed to listen to their choice of several audiobooks—previously identified as highly addictive—only while at the gym.10 There were two alternative conditions. In one, participants had the audiobooks loaded onto their personal iPods and were told they should try to listen to these audiobooks only at the gym. In the other, participants were given a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble.10 The researchers found that within the first week the full-treatment condition—with the iPods only available at the gym—showed a 51% increase in participation over the control condition, and even the intermediate condition showed a 29% increase.10 Individuals can institute both of these techniques on their own.
The field of motivation research is developing rapidly, and is now supported by the US government. President Obama issued an executive order on September 15, 2015, requiring that all government agencies incorporate behavioral research into their decisions. As we learn more about ourselves and how we make decisions, we find that we can take advantage of our own weaknesses. Through self-knowledge, we gain power over our behavior.
 Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psych. bullet. 133(1), 65.
 Ferrari, J. R., Díaz-Morales, J. F., O'Callaghan, J., Díaz, K., & Argumedo, D. (2007). Frequent behavioral delay tendencies by adults international prevalence rates of chronic procrastination. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 38(4), 458-464.
 University of Calgary. (2007, January 10). We're Sorry This Is Late ... We Really Meant To Post It Sooner: Research Into Procrastination Shows Surprising Findings. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 2, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070110090851.htm
 Ferrari, J. R. (2001). Procrastination as self‐regulation failure of performance: effects of cognitive load, self‐awareness, and time limits on ‘working best under pressure’. European Journal of Personality, 15(5), 391-406.
 Gustavson, D. E., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J. K., & Friedman, N. P. (2014). Genetic Relations Among Procrastination, Impulsivity, and Goal-Management Ability Implications for the Evolutionary Origin of Procrastination. Psychological science, 25(6), 1178-1188.
 Steel, P., & König, C. J. (2006). Integrating theories of motivation. Academy of Management Review, 31(4), 889-913.
 Schouwenburg, H. C., & Groenewoud, J. (2001). Study motivation under social temptation; effects of trait procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 30(2), 229-240.
 Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.
 Perrin, C. J., Miller, N., Haberlin, A. T., Ivy, J. W., Meindl, J. N., & Neef, N. A. (2011). MEASURING AND REDUCING COLLEGE STUDENTS' PROCRASTINATION. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 44(3), 463-474.
 Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. (2013). Holding the Hunger Games hostage at the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling. Management Science, 60(2), 283-299.