The 4 Causes of Procrastination According to Research

Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist, writer, teacher, and podcaster.

Hundreds of research studies confirm that there are four primary causes of procrastination. Understanding which ones you are especially vulnerable to is the key to overcoming procrastination.

If you’ve spent any amount of time reading about procrastination on the internet, you will have noticed a strong tendency to assume that there is a single cause of procrastination and therefore a single solution.

It seems like every productivity guru out there has their pet theory about what causes procrastination, along with a custom-built solution based on that theory.

But what struck me after doing my own research recently is the strong possibility that there isn’t just one cause of procrastination. And by extension, there can’t be just one cure.

By desperately clinging to the idea of a silver bullet solution for procrastination, we end up never really making any headway on it because no one strategy is sufficient to genuinely help.

This idea that none of us really know what we’re doing when it comes to overcoming procrastination was starting to get a little discouraging until I stumbled upon a very interesting research paper…

In 2007, University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel wrote a paper called The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure.

The paper was fascinating because it showed scientifically what I was starting to sense intuitively—that the causes of procrastination are actually multiple, and that many of the popular notions of what caused procrastination were either simply not true or had extremely small effects.

Nerdy Side Note: Steel used a technique called meta-analysis which allowed him to combine all the data from decades worth of research on procrastination and show which factors are significantly and reliably associated with procrastinating.

Interestingly, Steel’s research showed that the two oldest psychological theories for why we procrastinate—anxiety and rebelliousness—in reality, had only a weak connection with the tendency to procrastinate.

On the other hand, four primary factors stood out as by far the strongest true predictors of procrastination.

The 4 Causes of Procrastination

  1. Low Self-Efficacy: A person’s belief and expectation that they are capable of completing a task. When we don’t have much confidence in our ability to complete a task (or to complete it well), our likelihood of procrastinating goes way up. This shows up most commonly when we’re uncertain about how to start a task.
  2. Low Value: How enjoyable or painful is the task at hand? In general, the more enjoyable a task, the less we procrastinate on it. Although, it seems that mildly painful and boring tasks are actually more likely to lead to procrastination than extremely difficult tasks—which helps explain why we tend to procrastinate so much on busywork.
  3. Impulsiveness: Difficulty maintaining focus in the face of immediate and more appealing distractions. If we’re vulnerable to lots of distractions—or work in a highly distracting environment—and have a hard time resisting those distractions, we’re much more likely to procrastinate.
  4. Delay: How much time there is in between the decision to take on a task and the point when it must be completed. Basically, the longer you have to finish a task, the longer you’ll wait to get started on it.

The Procrastination Equation

Besides clarifying these four as the most influential factors in procrastination, Steel’s research also showed that they work together in a particular way, what he calls The Procrastination Equation.

The Procrastination Equation says that our likelihood resisting procrastination on a given task will be equal to the product of our self-efficacy and the value of the task divided by the product of how impulsive we are and the amount of delay between taking on a task and its due date.

As a formula or equation, it looks like this:

Odds of Overcoming Procrastination = Self-Efficacy x Value / Impulsiveness x Delay.

This is exciting because it suggests that we may be able to finally stop bumbling around in the dark for hit-or-miss procrastination tips and actually find something that works.

Specifically, it may allow us to generate effective strategies for overcoming procrastination in an individualized and situation-specific way.

How to fight back against procrastination

The Procrastination Equation is an incredible tool for resisting our natural inclination to procrastinate because it’s based on scientifically-validated causes of procrastination.

Here are some suggestions for using this knowledge to stop procrastinating:

1. Be careful of taking other people’s advice about procrastination.

Because there are multiple factors that lead to procrastination, the reasons you tend to procrastinate may be very different than the reasons other people procrastinate.

As a result, it’s unlikely that a particular strategy or technique that worked for one person will work in the same way and to the same degree that it does for someone else.

To some extent, this means that we all have to custom-build our own solutions to procrastination.

2. Identify your unique vulnerability to procrastination.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, think about the four factors in The Procrastination Equation (Self-efficacy, Value, Impulsiveness, Delay) and try to determine which one tends to be strongest for you personally.

Do this routinely, and you should start to see patterns and trends. Understanding these individualized patterns will be important for anticipating and effectively dealing with future procrastination.

3. Use targeted anti-procrastination strategies.

Once you’ve identified which of the four factors is the strongest in your case, implement a strategy to combat that specific factor.

Here are the four factors along with some suggestions for how to address each:

  1. To address problems of Self-Efficacy, create small wins. Procrastinating on that big report you have to write? Break it down into smaller sections and commit to just completing one doable section. Still procrastinating on your smaller section? Break it down even more. By giving ourselves small, quick wins, we build up our self-efficacy and belief in ourselves, which increases our odds of getting started on future elements of the task.
  2. To address problems of Value, create “artificial” systems of reinforcement. Ideally, all of our work would be incredibly meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable. Sadly, this isn’t the case for any of us all the time. And when a task is not intrinsically enjoyable, the next best thing is to make it artificially enjoyableHate processing a weekend’s worth of work emails Monday morning at the office? Create a Monday morning routine where you go to your favorite coffee shop, order your favorite fancy coffee drink, and process your weekend emails there before even getting to the office. Once you pair an aversive task with something enjoyable, it’s overall value increases—which means your likelihood of procrastinating on it decreases.
  3. To address problems of Impulsiveness, ruthlessly eliminate distractions. Addicted to facebook but have an important afternoon project to complete? Leave your phone in your car until it’s done. Social butterfly but need to turn in your TPS reports by Friday at 5:00? Work on them in the smelly basement conference room nobody will dare visit you in. TV junkie but need to get your taxes done by the end of the week? Unplug your TV and put it in the garage until they’re done. The key element will all of these is this: Don’t rely on willpower to resist distractions; change your environment instead.
  4. To address problems of Delay, set micro due dates. Similar to Step 2, when the due date on a task is far away by nature, we have to artificially make it sooner. Do this by breaking down a project or task into reasonable chunks, and making each chunk its own task with its own specific due date.

4. Remember that procrastination is highly situation-specific.

Just like different people tend to be vulnerable to different causes of procrastination in different ways, different situations or contexts can make us differently vulnerable to procrastination.

For example: While low Self-Efficacy may typically be your issue when it comes to procrastination, it’s still possible to procrastinate in an area you’re very talented in—in which case the factor you need to address may be Value rather than Self-Efficacy.

Similarly, you may be someone who’s typically pretty good about maintaining focus and avoiding distraction, but when you’re around a specific person, your ability to resist distraction crumbles. Rather than getting down on yourself about this, anticipate it and have some strategies ready at hand.

5. Consider working with your procrastination rather than fighting against it.

With a little outside-the-box thinking, it’s possible to approach the problem of procrastination in an entirely different way.

What if instead of fighting against procrastination, we used it to get things done? Sound like a contradiction in terms?

Check out this article I wrote about how I use procrastination to actually be more productive: Productive Procrastination: How to Get More Done by Procrastinating on Purpose

Summary and Conclusion

Procrastination is a complex phenomenon with four primary factors that contribute to it: low self-efficacy, low task value, high impulsiveness and distraction, and a long delay between task onset and completion.

The key to overcoming procrastination is to understand how we are uniquely vulnerable to procrastination and then to tailor our strategies to those unique vulnerabilities.

For more on procrastination, I’ve included a section below that compiles some of my favorite resources and reading related to procrastination.


Five ways to radically multiply your time and boost productivity

Scott Steinberg is a bestselling expert on leadership and innovation, and the author of Netiquette Essentials: New Rules for Minding Your Manners in a Digital WorldMillennial Marketing: Bridging the Generation Gap and Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty. The founder of SELECT nightlife and entertainment magazine, and among today’s leading providers of keynote speeches, workshops and seminars for Fortune 500 firms, his website is

As fast-paced and hyper-kinetic as today’s business world is, we all want to get more done – and in less time. Happily for modern professionals, it’s never been easier to take back control of your schedule, and take back control of your working life. Using a few simple tips, tricks, and high-tech solutions, including a variety of apps and online services, virtually anyone can get a handle on their workday again, and get back to feeling more organized.

Below, you’ll find five ways to multiply your time, boost productivity, and get the most out of any given workday, regardless of whether you’re staying put, on the move, or sprinting through crunch time.

Organize and manage your schedule

How can the average working professional (let alone working parent) squeeze in sales appointments, power lunches, after-school activities with the kids, and the occasional yoga class all into the same day? Short of hiring an executive assistant, or cloning yourself, a variety of free and paid time management apps offer the next best solution.

Download myriad options to your desktop, laptop, or mobile device, and you can quickly optimize your calendar – or even let artificially-intelligent advisors automatically find holes in your schedule waiting be filled in. Some can even help you spot regular openings when you can slot in tasks you’ve always been meaning to get to, but can never seem to find time for.

Delegate and outsource tasks

It’s practically in every upwardly-mobile, career-minded individual’s DNA to want to micromanage everything – doubly so for freelancers and other self-employed workers. But until they invent 30-hour days, learning to outsource is the fastest way to multiply your time and output – a task online freelance service marketplaces can assist with.

Got a task or project that needs assigning? From creating killer packaging to building better logos, conducting market research, or revamping your website, countless providers are waiting to bid on it. To connect with writers, graphic designers, e-commerce consultants and more, just login to these online services, write a project description, and set a price – then watch the bids roll in. The next thing you know, you’ll be delegating tasks, freeing up time on your schedule, and sitting back smiling, watching as the busywork gets done while you finally get to knuckle down and focus on high-priority tasks.

Take back control of your time

Ever look up from your desk at 5 o’clock and wonder: Where did the day go? Start tracking your time with helpful stopwatch and timer software programs and keeping daily diaries and you can find out – then cut out all the attention-diverting distractions that keep you from getting things done.

A number of time sheet applications can also help in this regard, as can a few productivity-boosting tips. For example: Waking up earlier each day (to get more done before other distractions encroach). Focusing on the most important tasks first every morning (to get them out of the way faster, and make the rest of the day seem easier by comparison). And, of course, setting specific hours each day during which your door is closed (and email and instant messengers are shut down), so you can fully concentrate on the work at-hand.

Skip the busywork

Need to catch-up on email, send a text, or get back to a colleague stat? There’s no sense wasting time typing everything out when you can simply dictate messages instead. Many popular desktop and mobile devices and applications (as well as in-car-compatible systems) make it simple for you to speak your mind – and transcribe or share your thoughts on-screen in seconds.

Simply activate speech-to-text (a.k.a. voice recognition) features, and/or a Bluetooth wireless headset, and you can quickly get your point across by vocalizing thoughts… all without lifting a finger. Better yet, a growing number of solutions even let you save out lengthier conversations to full-fledged documents. So the next time you’re thinking of writing that great American novel or cutting-edge business book you’ve always dreamed of? Remember that it can be as easy as dictating 600 words every morning for a couple months while running on the treadmill.

Tap into high-tech solutions

You’ve got a great idea for a new or side business, a working plan, and the perfect audience in mind – but how to quickly grow and market it? Easy: Just drag and drop to setup a website, e-commerce platform, mobile interface and more, thanks to a growing range of providers that offer plug-and-play templates for basic business functions. Literally dozens of solutions exist that can help you mix-and-match photos, copy, and online shopping carts to build a homepage, blog, Internet storefront, and more in minutes. Likewise, you can also find countless off-the-shelf providers that can help you fulfill orders, or manufacture and deliver everything from books to branded memorabilia and even streaming online video courses on-demand.

As you’ll soon discover, the moment you’ve got a great idea is the moment you can tap into countless resources for quickly testing and promoting it – so what’s stopping you from prototyping or launching your next great business idea today?