The Most Common Cause of Procrastination (and How to Stop it)

To understand the cause of procrastination, let’s look at a former Youtuber named Jaystation.

Jaystation infamously faked his girlfriend’s death for views. And no, he didn’t tell her parents before he did it. Oops.

Laugh at or scold him all you want, because he’s won. He has claimed to have made over $2 million by posting fake paranormal videos intended to shock the viewer. It’s just another example of how all the wrong people find success in today’s world.

While I can’t say I respect the content Jaystation makes (shudder), I do respect his understanding of human psychology. His success, in fact, reveals the most common cause of procrastination, and it’s tied to human nature. I hesitate to shine light on such people, even in criticism, but his YouTube channel has recently been deleted by YouTube, so I don’t mind using this example.

Interestingly enough, the people who watched his videos were kids. It’s B-level “horror” content that adults just don’t find interesting, unless we’re criticising it (there are dozens or hundreds of videos criticising JayStation).

Children’s behavior is fascinating because it’s always a little bit “purer.” Over time, our behavior is conditioned by our environment, but the younger we are, the more our natural human instincts are visible and dominant.

So… why are so many kids watching Jaystation instead of doing their math homework?

The Power of Urgency

Every clickbait blog or video title in history is meant to draw you in through (typically feigned) urgency. Urgency comes in a few categories, such as…

Shock: Jaystation wants to shock the viewer with a title (My Girlfriend Died) that makes us think, “How did it happen?” This is, in fact, the first question I have every time a celebrity dies. I Google “[person] cause of death.” It’s curiosity, but it’s also shock. You wonder what took this valuable life away from the world.

Missing Ingredient: The title of this post fits here. You see “most common cause of procrastination” and either have an answer yourself to compare my answer with, or you aren’t sure and want to see what I think causes procrastination the most. The potential reward of finding out the root cause of procrastination for life is an enticing reward for quickly reading an article.

Interest: There are some categories of articles that I always read. Any news about the Detroit Lions, my favorite football team, is an immediate read. Do I need to know that they signed a practice squad guy who I’ll never see on the field? No, but that’s the thing about urgency—it often takes precedent even when it’s meaningless.

Then there’s texts, phone calls, emails, and Facebook notifications. They all say, “Look at me now! I just arrived. I’m urgent!”

So if urgency has this kind of hold on us, what’s it competing with?

Importance and Urgency

Important things are, well, important. They need no building up because they are self-labeled. But important things are often at odds with urgent things. Laundry can be more urgent than exercise, but the latter is generally considered more important in a human life.

When it comes time to do things, we often weight importance vs urgency. And when something is both important and urgent, we drop everything to do it.

For example, people will rush to the emergency room for a heart attack. Do people stop at McDonald’s on the way to the ER? Do they watch TV first? No, because it’s an emergency! Emergencies are that rare combination of ultimate urgency and importance.

  • Living vs. Dying = ultimate importance
  • Treatment needed now = ultimate urgency

Looking at a typical life, it’s clear that urgency drives people’s behavior more often than importance. For example, people drink, smoke, and do other things that may kill them slowly. You could say it’s vitally important to not do many things we do, but perhaps not urgent. If the next cigarette or drink would kill people instantly, how many would quit right now? But if it’s a slow and gradual health decline over decades, then maybe it’s okay. And really it might be. There’s a risk/reward to consider there.

The cause for procrastination is, invariably, a lack of urgency associated with that thing. Because if it were truly, direly urgent, it would get done. And with that said, here is the cure to procrastination.

The Procrastination Cure: Manipulate Time

Urgency is a function of time. If you have 35 years to visit Alaska, that’s not urgent. If you must visit in the next 2 years, that’s kind of urgent. If you must visit in the next month, you’re looking at places to stay.

The only way for us to control the urgency of something is to manipulate the timing we associate with it, and it works both ways.

Procrastination can be a two-part problem. You place great urgency on some things, but they are the wrong things. So the cure is generally two-parts—decrease the urgency of one thing as you increase the urgency of another.

Either “side” could be the cause of procrastination. Maybe you’re so drawn to TV that you can’t peel yourself away. Or maybe you’re so psyched out about your latest project that you’ll do anything to take your mind off of it. So we’ll cover each side.

1. How to Make Procrastination Activities Less Urgent

If you want to make something less urgent, say, Facebook (or email/texting/etc), expand the time you expect/give yourself to act on it. For example, if you check Facebook incessantly, set a once-a-day time to check your notifications and don’t check it otherwise.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but if you find yourself checking outside of that time, gently remind yourself of the plan and close the app. Or better yet, remove notifications or the app from your phone and check on your computer once per day.

Frequency and speed denote urgency. If you do something every time immediately, you deem it urgent. Expanding the time from cue to action decreases the urgency you associate with FB (or other) notifications dramatically. Instead of instant distraction multiple times a day, you only give it attention once per day.

It’s interesting to note that there are two phases to it. Some people check things urgently, but don’t respond as urgently. Others both check and respond urgently.

If you look at every notification instantly, you are giving it extreme urgency because of the short time between notification and viewing.

If you respond to every notification instantly, you are giving it extreme urgency because of the short time between viewing and responding.

All of this is to say that if you don’t manage how you respond to notifications, it could get out of control. Before you know it, you’ve taught yourself that a text message from Nancy about her daughter’s easter egg hunt is as critical to your day as a heart attack. No offense to Nancy, but hearts are more important than eggs. I probably could have worded that better, but imagine the added stress from every notification being treated as urgently as a heart attack. No wonder we’re stressed out!

And look, this isn’t a social media shaming thing. I don’t care if you check Facebook 1103 times a day (but 1104 gets you the side eye).

It’s helpful to understand how urgency drives our actions. If you find yourself doing anything more than you would like, it’s because you’ve given it too much urgency, and this is the way to change it. Control the timing. Expand it.

If it’s something like watching TV, expand the time from desire to action. If you have the idea to watch a show, do something small first. Maybe do the laundry or clean a counter or take a short walk. This works wonders for all temptations, by the way. Every time you do this, you weaken the hold it has on you and reduce the implied and felt urgency of your cravings.

The beauty of this strategy is that you still get to do the fun thing. You still get to check Facebook or watch TV or whatever, and it’ll be immensely more satisfying when you do, because you’re doing it less as a habit and more as a thoughtful choice. And you’re going to feel good about reducing the urgency you give it in your life. This can snowball into a lifestyle where you feel like you have more control over your behavior.

2. How to Make Important Actions More Urgent

Time is either your enemy or your friend. The answer depends on how you manipulate it, and I don’t mean like Dr. Strange.

You know what’s important? Taking dream trips. Completing big projects to help yourself and others. Making a difference in whatever way matters to you. But we have a whole lifetime to do these things, we tell ourselves. That can seem like a long time, but less so as our “dead”lines approach.

Think of life as a school project. Some students go crazy complete it on the first day (overachievers become workaholics). Some students complete it halfway through (“normal” people). Some students complete it all on the very last night with four energy drinks and no sleep (89% of people?).

For a school project, it’s okay to do it on the last night (I guess), but for life, the last night is your deathbed, when it’s too late to swim in a cage with great white sharks (have you done this? I would do it, and pee).


The way to do what’s important in life is to compress the time you associate with it. That means two things because it applies to two spectrums of time.

The Big Picture: Give yourself deadlines or goals. If you want to swim with great whites, create a plan to do it within the next year or two. The deadline sets planning in motion. It slices through the primary cause of procrastination like a shark bites through tuna. Then you can start considering the cost, the lodging, and if peeing in the water will send the sharks into a frenzy.

The Now: Use timers in everyday life to accomplish all sorts of important tasks. There are a lot of ways to do it.

  • Countdown timer: Set a countdown timer to make a decision, accomplish a task, and so on. Get it done before the clock strikes zero!
  • Timed sessions: Plan to do something important for X minutes. Set your timer and go. Now, instead of the expanse of your unknown lifetime, you’ve compressed the work session into something you can mentally grasp. How relieving to have a clear endpoint! No more overwhelm from vague “I must work forever” thinking.
  • Countdown to action: If you’re really frazzled, you might not be ready to roll. No problem, just set a timer for 10-30 minutes and promise to begin when it goes off. Alternatively, you can watch one episode of a show first. Then you can transition into a timed session.

In addition to timers, you can use quantity to compress the activity into something manageable and concrete. Instead of “researching Australian shark cage operations” you can set out to find exactly three, and take a few notes on pricing, location and reviews. The more concrete you make an action, the less intimidating it will be and the harder it will be to procrastinate on.

In summary, the main reason people procrastinate is because they don’t set boundaries. They let their life become a giant string of minutes, hours, and days. Instead, they can manipulate and structure the timing of their actions to make important actions easy and unimportant actions less urgent. Give it a shot!

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