The rationality of procrastination

Cynthia Vu


December 31st, 2013

An economic analysis into why we procrastinate and what we should do about it.

It is clear that students are the masters of not getting things done. When the semester settles in, students often find themselves buried in work. Instead of starting an essay we might decide to watch an extra episode of our favourite show. This eventually turns into a whole season in one sitting. Human beings naturally seem to prefer postponing tasks for the future rather than completing them immediately. Procrastination is costly. For university students it is estimated that between 80 to 90% of them procrastinate.[1]

Is it rational to procrastinate? The economic human is assumed to be self-interested and aims to fulfil their highest potential well-being given they have full information of the relevant costs and benefits. At first glance it does not seem so – procrastinating is not in our long-term interest. It would be more beneficial to complete tasks immediately rather than face the consequences later on, such as having to pull an all-nighter the day before an exam, or even failing a subject.

Procrastinating could be explained by the tendency of humans to value their time now rather than later when evaluating the costs and benefits of doing an action. Economists call it ‘time-inconsistent preferences’.[2] For example, buying a shiny new bag on credit overrides the fact you’ve accumulated debt you need to pay off in the future. Your happiness from buying the bag maximises your utility today even at the detriment of your lifetime satisfaction. In other words, as long as you are happy, your future state of being can take a back seat.

Behavioural economist George Akerlof was prompted to research the problem due to his own bout of procrastination of trying to mail a box from India to America. He argued that people are indeed rational. Yet, it is the opportunity cost of time today which are clearer than the opportunity costs of time tomorrow.[3] The benefits of being on Facebook for that extra 10 minutes is more immediate than the benefits of a complete assignment in the future, especially if the benefits are accumulated marginally as time goes on. As the deadline draws closer, we become more inclined to complete the task as the risk of an incomplete assignment increases.

Following on, Ted O’Donoghue and Matthew Rabin argued that people are overly optimistic about the likelihood of their actions in the future.[4] Even if the initial cost of doing an action is small, people will still put off doing that thing because they are convinced they will be able to handle it in the future.

Procrastination is often recurrent – we continue to procrastinate despite being fully aware of our behaviour and having accurate information from previous experiences of procrastinating. Not learning from previous mistakes does us no good. Perhaps the best way to control our time management is to magnify the future benefits or costs that come about due to our present actions. For example, the rationale behind plain cigarette packaging is to better inform consumers about the health risks that come with smoking, which would alert smokers to quit sooner. By being able to visualise ourselves in the future as relaxed and satisfied due to completing an assignment early, maybe we would be able to get off the couch more easily and dig into the books.

In the real world, human beings are not perfectly rational. We are affected by our individual motivations, emotions, and distractions in our daily life. Despite our best efforts, trying to stay focused on a given task at hand seems to naturally cause the mind to wander to something less important. On that note, let me go back to watching Sherlock.


[1] Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. American Psychological Association, 133(1), 65-94. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65

[2] Fischer, C. (1999). Read this paper even later: procrastination with time-inconsistent preferences (Discussion Paper 1999-2000). Retrieved from Resources of the Future website:

[3] Akerlof, G. A. (1991). Procrastination and obedience. American Economic Review, 81(2), 1-19.

[4] O’Donoghue, T., Rabin, M. (1999). Doing it now or later. American Economic Review, 89(1), 103-124.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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