To do it now or later: The cognitive mechanisms and neural substrates underlying procrastination

Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci. 2019 Jul;10(4):e1492. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1492. Epub 2019 Jan 14.


Procrastination, the voluntary and irrational delay of an intended course of action, has troubled individuals and society extensively. Various studies have been conducted to explain why people procrastinate and to explore the neural substrates of procrastination. First, research has identified many contributing factors to procrastination. Specifically, task aversiveness, future incentives, and time delay of these incentives have been confirmed as three prominent task characteristics that affect procrastination. On the other hand, self-control and impulsivity have been identified as two most predictive traits of procrastination. After identifying contributing factors, two important theories proposed to explain procrastination by integrating these factors are reviewed. Specifically, an emotion-regulation perspective regards procrastination as a form of self-regulation failure that reflects giving priority to short-term mood repair over achieving long-term goals. However, temporal motivation theory explains why people's motivation to act increases when time approaches a deadline with time discounting effect. To further specify the cognitive mechanism underlying procrastination, this study proposes a novel theoretical model which clarifies how the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid vary differently when delaying a task, explaining why people decide not to act now but are willing to act in the future. Of note, few recent studies have investigated neural correlates of procrastination. Specifically, it was revealed that individual differences in procrastination are correlated with structural abnormalities and altered spontaneous metabolism in the parahippocampal cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which might contribute to procrastination through episodic future thinking or memory and emotion regulation, respectively. This article is categorized under: Economics > Individual Decision Making Psychology > Theory and Methods Psychology > Emotion and Motivation Psychology > Reasoning and Decision Making.

Keywords: cognitive mechanism; neural substrate; procrastination.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Decision Making
  • Humans
  • Motivation*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Problem Solving
  • Procrastination*
  • Time Factors