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To overcome procrastination, we must understand what causes it 

Procrastination, the intentional delay of tasks despite knowing the negative consequences, manifests in various forms. Sahiti Chebolu from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics has recently employed mathematical frameworks to dissect the patterns and underlying causes of procrastination, aiming to devise strategies for managing it.

“Why did I not do this when I still had the time?” This is a common lament when facing tasks like filing taxes or meeting deadlines. 

Focus of the research 

“Many of us have finished assignments at the last minute, repeatedly put off going to the gym, sat on tax returns for weeks and worse,” wrote Chebolu. 

“Procrastination is widespread, affecting some 80% of students and 20% of adults. Many suffer effects on their health and finances, and most procrastinators wish to reduce it. But what exactly is procrastination and what are the underlying mechanisms?”

Multiple types of procrastination behaviors 

Procrastination not only hampers productivity but is also linked to mental health issues. However, as Chebolu stresses, “procrastination is an umbrella term for different behaviors. If we want to understand it, we need to differentiate between its various types.”

One pattern involves failing to act on planned decisions. For instance, setting aside time for a task but opting for a leisure activity instead. Another pattern involves waiting for ideal conditions before committing to a task. 

Chebolu identified multiple procrastination behaviors, from starting late to abandoning tasks halfway, each with potential explanations such as time misjudgment or protecting the ego from potential failure. Such an approach frames procrastination as a series of temporal decisions. 

Maladaptive decision-making 

According to Chebolu, our brains weigh immediate rewards more heavily than future consequences, leading to maladaptive decision-making. 

“Only when we place excessive value on experiences in the present and not enough on those lying further ahead, such a decision-making policy becomes quickly maladaptive,” explained Chebolu.

To study real-life procrastination, she analyzed data from New York University, tracking students required to complete experiment hours over a semester. 

Causes of procrastination

The data revealed various procrastination patterns, which Chebolu simulated to find the best explanations. She found that procrastination often stems from more than just a preference for immediate rewards. 

“Uncertainty is another major factor in procrastination,” said Chebolu. This uncertainty could involve predicting task duration or self-confidence.

Chebolu believes that understanding procrastination as a series of decisions and identifying where we typically err can guide effective interventions. 

For instance, if you tend to seek instant gratification, rewarding yourself for small achievements might help. Those who underestimate task time could benefit from setting specific, time-bound goals. If distractions are your downfall, creating a focused work environment might be key.

Understanding the patterns of procrastination 

Regardless of the type of procrastination you experience, Chebolu argued that it’s not just laziness. Recognizing this and forgiving yourself for past procrastination is essential for improving productivity

By identifying and understanding the different causes of procrastination, individuals can develop personalized strategies to manage and overcome this common challenge.

This research provides a nuanced view of procrastination, highlighting its complexity and offering hope for those looking to break the cycle. 

With a better understanding of the mechanisms at play, tailored approaches can be more effectively developed to help people achieve their goals and enhance their productivity.

The study is available as a preprint in PstArXiv.


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