Re-Thinking Procrastination: Towards a Computational Cognitive Model of Mental Energy


  • Marie-Therese Sauer University of Vienna


Procrastination: Self-Defeating Failure or Self-Protective Mechanism?

It is easy to forget how little we know about the causes underlying procrastination [1]. Multiple studies have linked procrastination to higher stress, mental and physical illness, disabling pain, lower academic scores, slow job promotions, economic difficulties, and loneliness [2], negatively impacting the work quality, productivity, and efficiency of workers, departments, and organisations, and — most crucially — procrastinators’ day-to-day quality of life. At surface level, procrastination thus appears to be a self-defeating, paradoxical behaviour. This thesis seeks to re-think that interpretation: what if procrastination was not only useful, working as intended and in our best interest, but could even allow us to reach higher, and more sustainable levels of productivity?

Treating the Symptom, not the Cause?

This thesis will explore previous models of underlying and contributing constructs from various paradigms, contrast them in a systematic literature review, and summarise subsequent findings as an Evidence Gap Map. The hypothesis is that previous models have accounted for symptomatic aspects of procrastination, but not for the underlying cause (which is postulated to be mental energy) and the wider self-protective system of the mind (see e.g. [3] for mental fatigue acting to preserve the chemical integrity of the brain). Previously, procrastination has been modelled as a self-handicap that justifies bad performance; an emotion-regulation strategy resolvable through self-forgiveness; as related to time blindness; the ego gap; ego depletion; the strength model of self-control, etc. The latter, for example, has come under fire in the Replication Crisis in Psychology, as it is unclear why probands seem able to “override” their ego depletion, given a strong enough incentive to do so.

Working with — not against — Procrastination

The model will incorporate the symptomatic aspects mentioned above, while building atop the criticisms levelled against ego depletion. It aims to provide insight into how procrastination arises, functions, and malfunctions, can be harnessed and put to rest, and how the model could be validated (e.g. in a subsequent PhD thesis). Efforts will be directed towards creating a first computational model and establishing links to 4E Cognition and active inference. The thesis may shift the common view of procrastination from “the enemy” towards “a helpful, psycho-somatic warning sign of a functioning mental protection mechanism, where problems (like chronic delay, burn-out, or psychosomatic illnesses) only arise if warning signs go ignored for too long”.


[1] B. Yan and X. Zhang, “What Research Has Been Conducted on Procrastination? Evidence From a Systematical Bibliometric Analysis,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 13, Feb. 2022, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.809044

[2] F. Johansson et al., “Associations Between Procrastination and Subsequent Health Outcomes Among University Students in Sweden,” JAMA Network Open, vol. 6, no. 1, p. e2249346, Jan. 2023, doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.49346.

[3] A. Wiehler, F. Branzoli, I. Adanyeguh, F. Mochel, and M. Pessiglione, “A neuro-metabolic account of why daylong cognitive work alters the control of economic decisions,” Current Biology, vol. 32, no. 16, Aug. 2022. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2022.07.010