Procrastination – Impact on productivity


As human beings who are meant to optimize their potentials in the present moment, we are taught to live most prolifically in the present. However, how each of us interprets the present gratification is very different. For some present moment is a precursor to future success while for others it is the present pleasure that has prime value. For the former kind of people it is easier to make a choice about engaging in the most productive behaviour in the present while for the latter kinds behaviour is guided by what we may term has the Freudian ‘id’ or impulse gratification. This in Freud’s terms refers to the human instinct to gratify immediate pleasures than to hold on, analyse and engage into behaviour which is more rewarding in the futuristic reality. That is to say that when we focus too much upon the present pleasure so much so that we discount the future benefit of taking any alternate action, we are experiencing what in the domain of behavioural economics is referred to as hyperbolic discounting. We are here discounting the value of a future reward or something that requires an intense action now but would pay up only in the long term future. With reference to Human psychological experiences, we may refer to this tendency for stalling as procrastination.


Examining from perspectives of people coming in from different age ranges i.e. whether it is a child’s tendency to pick a smaller box of chocolates right away as compared to a bigger box of chocolates 15 days from now or considering a promiscuous young adult ready for high risk sexual behaviour for immediate gratification over a long term committed relationship after a few years or for that matter a gambler who is ready to stake high amount for immediate benefits rather than putting in years of hard work to earn the same amount, each of these behaviours is reflective of consequences that will yield temporary and smaller rewards that occur sooner in time as compared to choosing an alternate that would yield higher rewards that occur later in time.

Such is the case of a procrastinating student, youth or adult who intellectually knows that he should do one task over the other for now but ends up doing the other for immediate gratification. Say for a student seeking to achieve admission into a prestigious University, it makes complete sense for him to work hard in the present moment, to build up a strong academic profile with a right balance of developing himself into extra-curricular activities. When s/he sits to study s/he imagines himself in that University and the great degree that s/he would graduate with and a dream job that this degree is going to lead him/her to. Now the time that s/he needed to spend on actual preparation for the entrance examination eventually gets replaced by day dreaming. Similarly a youth who tries to motivate himself to work hard and get rewarded as the employee of the year, begins to imagine himself as one. Through this imagination s/he mentally and emotionally lives the award winning moment, enjoys the social recognition and relishes the value of that award cognitively. However, this imagination reverses him by many steps from achieving the tangible victory as it truly is creating a physical and mental block towards a definite action that would lead the individual to a long term goal.


In a recent survey conducted by me with college students in the age range of 19-23 years pursuing courses like Business Management, Law, Journalism, Interior design and architecture, Clinical Psychology at Bachelor’s and Masters level, 40.9% of the students responded by saying that they mostly (on a 5 point Likert scale Always-5, Mostly-4, Sometimes-3, Hardly Ever-2, Never-1)spend very long time planning to do a task that they have been wanting to do than actually spending the time on doing it. To the question, “Do you ever delay the execution of a task, thinking, this can be completed later despite knowing that you need to do it immediately?” 22.7% of the students said mostly while 59.1 % responded with sometimes. 50% of the students affirmed that the delay in the execution of the tasks is due to their mood swings more than anything else.

In the qualitative interviews students identified the tasks that they most likely procrastinated about were their college assignments, weekly submissions, their diet plan and the like and the primary reason for their distractions were gadgets, lack of interest in the task or losing motivation in the middle of the task thinking that they would accomplish it soon. They did affirm that the lack of activity towards the accomplishment of the assignment leads them to day dreaming, which in turn hinders their actual action potential and further leads to the postponement of the task. As a result they entangle themselves into the vicious cycle of delaying the task until the last moment when the level of anxiety has been shot up high enough to delay any possible action.


Does this imaginary hedging bring in with itself a state of complete satiation or is it marked by certain signs of emotional unrest? Undoubtedly this imaginary fudging is bringing in temporary pleasure to the person but it is often followed by the emotional unrest. This happens when one is unable to rationalize one’s present choices as leading to desirable future outcomes. It is marked by feelings like anxiety, guilt, infamy and shame. This anxiety regarding not being able to invest one’s energy into productive work and shame regarding not being able to fulfil one’s own expectations from oneself is rather more painful than the pain/unrest caused by the actual execution of the task. This unrest mentally drains the individual and makes him/her less productive over time. The biggest reinforcer for procrastination is the pleasurable energy that it generates for that particular moment of his/her life when an individual is in the state of delusion about self.

Procrastination is like a credit card. It’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.