How We Choose When to Procrastinate

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Maybe it feels like a compulsion, but procrastination is generally a choice we make. We'd rather fritter away the chance to get it over with, even if we're not entirely sure why. There's been tons of research into why we procrastinate; now we know a little more about why we do it when we do.


Researchers at the University of British Columbia have just released a study about the decision-making process behind putting off tasks, both pleasant and unpleasant. It all comes down to a psychological phenomenon known as the sign effect. "A person's desire to get positive things right away is stronger than their desire to put off negative ones," as lead author David Hardisty puts it. "However, the timing of when a person wants to handle negative things is less obvious."

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We'd expect that the more an upcoming task or event generates unilaterally bad emotions (a bill payment, a dentist appointment), the more we'd avoid it. But Hardisty and his team found that people actually often tackle straightforward unpleasant tasks because anticipating them is too homogenously unpleasant. In other words, we tend to procrastinate on things we're a little more ambivalent about. If we feel strongly one way or another, we often forge ahead.


Some parts of our procrastination tendencies are about the brain itself, but often getting past that involves emotional questions we need to resolve. Time management is at least somewhat difficult for almost everyone, and sometimes we even put off doing things we like for no good reason. The thing does tend to come due, though, and we have the tools to choose when and how that happens.