top of page

I'm Never So Productive As When I'm Procrastinating

Do you procrastinate? I do. Ever notice how motivated and successful you are at finding one task (or several) to engage in to justify avoiding the first task? The more I try to avoid one behavior, the value or importance of other behaviors seem to rise. In fact, at times I am never so productive as when I’m procrastinating! For example, why is it that when I’m struggling to write a blog post it seems like the perfect time to clean out the refrigerator? Why do I feel an urgency to cut the dog’s nails just when I am supposed to get across town to a dentist’s appointment? I know I’m not the only one who experiences this phenomenon. Are we consciously “choosing” to be lazy, or inefficient? Are we afraid of failure, or success? What really is going on here?


When we examine the context, we can understand WHY we behave.


To understand procrastinating, we must document our behavior using the 3-term contingency of:

Remember, the 3-term contingency documents the influence the context has on our learning behavior and shaping our behavior patterns. When we examine the context, we can understand WHY we behave. The big idea of the 3-term contingency is: Through repeated practice in similar antecedent conditions we learn to associate certain behaviors to the consequence stimuli that are consistently added or removed from our environment when we engage in that behavior. (readers are encouraged to visit the Behavior Primer for more info on this and other important concepts used in this posting)

So let’s review a couple quick examples of how the 3-term contingency helps us understand behavior:

Consider young “Maggie”, who is just beginning the process of learning to read:

Antecedent: Maggie is presented a “D” on a flash card and her parent says, “Say ‘Dee’.”

Behavior: Maggie says, “Dee”.

Consequence: Parent says, “Nice job! Yes, this is, “Dee!”

Antecedent: Maggie then goes to pre-school where her teacher presents, “D” on board and says, “This is a, ‘D’, now you try”.

Behavior: Maggie says “Dee”.

Consequence: Teacher says, “Yep you know your letters!”

Do this a bunch of times until…

Antecedent: Kindergarten teacher puts “D” on board and asks, “What letter is this?”

Behavior: Our well-taught Maggie says, “Dee”, and

Consequence: Teacher says, “Outstanding you got it!”

Notice that the consequences across these examples are all forms of adult attention. That attention likely triggers happiness and excitement in Maggie, and a feeling of “accomplishment”. Documenting what actually occurred across these learning opportunities allowed us to see a pattern in the consequence and hypothesize, at first, the reinforcer for making the correct sound associated with the letter, “D” is adult attention. But over time, as Maggie correctly decodes “D” when reading words, then when she reads sentences, she learns that reading leads to accessing new content and knowledge on topics she enjoys. She feels the satisfaction of reading, and a sense of accomplishment, and independence. Eventually these serve as the reinforcement for reading.

Let’s look at another example of the 3-term contingency:

Antecedent: New driver Matthew sees his car veering to the left side of his lane, and his drive instructor says, “Slightly move wheel to right.”

Behavior: Matthew engages his arm muscles and moves the steering wheel to the right.

Consequence: Matthew’s car position moves to the middle of lane, and Matthew sees this better positioning and the instructor says “good”.

Matthew does this a bunch of times until…

Antecedent: When in car on highway and there are lane markers,

Behavior: Matthew maintains car in between lane markings,

Consequence: Matthew is able to maintain desired speed and car position and safely get to where he wants to go.

Matthew learned by moving the steering wheel he could position his car safely in his lane and that resulted in him maintaining his safety and getting to where he wanted to go. Just like with Maggie, this example, when seen through the lens of the 3-term contingency, shows us how reinforcing consequences shape what we learn and in part explain why we engage in behaviors.

But isn’t life more complex than these two examples? Aren’t there many behaviors we can “choose” to engage in at any moment in time? And how does this explain why I PROCRASTINATE?!


When we “choose” behavior, we are selecting between our options of competing schedules of reinforcement.


Well…the answer to the first two questions is, “Yes!”. The answer to question three is…we procrastinate because there are multiple 3-term contingencies operating at the same time and each of these is competing with the others. Behaviors “compete” in that each behavior represents a different schedule of reinforcement. When we “choose” behavior, we are selecting between our options of competing schedules of reinforcement. When we “choose” we are allocating resources and energy to engage in that behavior based on the perceived/anticipated momentary value of each competing contingency. If you engage in Behavior A at some level of effort, you will likely get access to some reinforcer at some rate and intensity. If instead you engage in Behavior B, another of your “choices”, you access its corresponding schedule of reinforcement. Behavior B may require you to engage in it for a longer duration than Behavior A to get the reinforcement and/or it may be of a differing quality of reinforcement than what you want/need at that moment in time.


...remember often our behavior “choices” are not conscious decisions, but rather we are influenced by simply what we have experienced.


What defines the momentary value of each contingency, and how do schedules of reinforcement compete? An individual “chooses” one behavior over another based on the efficiency (amount of effort required) and effectiveness of that behavior in allowing access to its consequence reinforcer. Ever wonder why when we see a baby in front of us we almost always smile. “Babies are just so darn cute!”, while true, is not the only reason. Rather, when we smile, they tend to smile back. We learned that smiling, an easy behavior (efficient) results in almost always a cute smile back (a highly valued stimuli or strength). So we learn that smiling is effective at accessing a strong reinforcer. The baby is also learning the same thing. A low effort behavior like smiling on their part, results in a lot of funny, goofy, and warm stimuli back. Over time, as that baby grows up, they have learned that social interaction is a positive context as it results in accessing reinforcing stimuli. As we age we add saying, “hello” to smiling, and usually this elicits a smile and “hello” back. If smiling did not work, in other words not effective in delivering a valued stimuli in response, smiling would stop. If there was too much of a delay of time between the baby smiling and our smile back (or what we call latency) the baby wouldn’t know their smiling was eliciting our smile, and they wouldn’t smile. And indeed think in your own life most of us have been socialized (i.e. learned) that we should greet colleagues with a warm and sincere, “Hello!”. But have you ever worked in an environment where that didn’t work, i.e. it wasn’t effective? What happened? Likely you stopped being so darn social! I am purposely using the baby as an example because we need to always remember often our behavior “choices” are not conscious decisions, but rather we are influenced by simply what we have experienced. We allocate our energy, i.e. we choose to behave in ways that are related to reinforcing outcomes.


...rather than thinking of simply motivation for one behavior, we need to focus on understanding the competing schedules of reinforcement available for engaging in different behaviors .


So if we want to more fully understand behavior as it occurs in real life and in real time, rather than thinking of simply motivation for one behavior, we need to focus on understanding the competing schedules of reinforcement available for engaging in different behaviors. In essence, when we procrastinate, we are “choosing” behaviors that have a different reinforcer, and/or a different reinforcement schedule than the behavior we are avoiding. Usually when we procrastinate we are choosing behaviors that have a shorter-term and more reliable pay off, rather than those behaviors that require us to further delay our gratification. This understanding more accurately reflects how behavior occurs in real time and suggests what the human brain is doing when we “choose” one behavior over another.

Let’s go through some examples:

Example 1: Consider Sam, a college student. He is sitting in his dorm room at 5 PM knowing he has to read 100 pages in his structural engineering textbook, a new topic he finds difficult to understand. His roommate, a fellow gamer, suggests they go down to the basement to play a new release on the dorm large screen TV.

Antecedent for both behavior options: In dorm room with textbook, and roommate,

Behavior Option 1: Sam reads textbook

Potential Available Consequence: The subject matter is difficult for Sam to understand so the reinforcer available is of a low quality and there are low levels of immediately available reinforcers as the feeling of accomplishment only comes once done with entire chapter. In other words, there is a long latency between “choosing” to engage in reading, the reading itself, the reinforcer of a sense of accomplishment (or getting one thing off “to do” list).

Behavior Option 2: Play video games

Potential Available Consequence: Peer attention which is of high value to Sam, and high levels of sensory stimulation that have been designed using behavioral science principles for optimal enjoyment.

Now what do you think Sam “chose”? Less effort was required in Behavior 2 and a shorter latency was required for a higher degree of payoff. Looking at it this way may give us a bit more empathy for why Sam went downstairs.

Example 2: I recently worked with a company who wanted some of their staff to use their “down-time” (defined as the time between required customer engagement and during scheduled time on floor) to help keep the environment clean, organized and well-stocked. Management and individuals reported they were concerned colleagues were using their “down-time” to access their smart phones for emailing, accessing social media posts, making phone calls, to surf the internet, make appointments…

We documented the behavioral choices and the related available reinforcers individual employees faced:

Antecedent: On floor, not directly working with customer,

Behavior 1: Clean, stock floor.

Potential Available Consequence: This was difficult to document as many reported no need for a clean orderly arranged environment, but perhaps maybe at some later time employees would have items they needed readily available?)

Behavior 2: Use aps on smart phone in various ways

(Potential Consequence: immediate gratification in terms of peer attention, getting things off to do list and high levels of sensory stimulation that have been designed using behavioral science principles for optimal enjoyment)

Looking at these two behavior contingencies we can see that they lead to different reinforcers. There was more reinforcement available and much more immediately for smart phone use than for cleaning. The reinforcement available for looking at smart phone was immediate and personal, thereby likely more valued. The reinforcement available for cleaning wasn't well defined, and for many, being organized was not likely a valued reinforcer at all. Without clarification of duties and an incentive program that provided reinforcement in some other manner, this pattern was not likely to change.

Example 3: A recent client, Alyssa, was struggling to get motivated to go out for a run, a new behavior routine she was building into her weekly schedule. So far that week she had stopped a previous run early because it was too painful, and as a result of not meeting her goal she was doubting her status as a, “runner”. Her old habit of finding some excuse not to (usually repositioning the living room furniture, or other house tidying task) was winning out. Her daughter came home and surprisingly wanted to go running with her. Her daughter’s desire to go running with her added reinforcement value to the behavior of getting out the door and running and therefore Alyssa “chose” to go running. She clearly communicated to me that if it was not for her daughter, the need to re -organize the house for the second time in the week would have surely won out.

Antecedent: Afternoon at home,

Behavior Option 1: Go running (a new behavior)