Why do you leave things until the last minute?

It’s been three years coming, yet on Tuesday night, thousands of us had spent too long chillin and chattin to get registerin for #votin; the government’s online voter registration site for the EU referendum crashed as midnight approached, leaving many unsure whether they would have a say on 23 June.

Like a kindly but not disinterested teacher in need of good results, David Cameron has extended the deadline, allowing the mainly youthful (and, he might quietly hope, more EU-friendly) late surge to register. It’s safe to assume most of them were aware of the deadline but had just put things off.

Procrastination can feel like a self-destructive compulsion, but a lot of research suggests it can be a good thing, whether or not your deadline gets moved. Professor Adam Grant, an American psychologist and author, says we should make time to procrastinate as a way to fuel creativity. In his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, he argues that creative people tend to procrastinate more.

Anna Abramowski, a British psychologist who studied the construct of procrastination at Cambridge University (and she handed in her masters thesis on time), says people who “actively procrastinate display a certain level of self-reliance, autonomy and self-confidence because they are aware of the risk of subjecting themselves to last-minute pressures and still consciously decide to. That can be a good thing, because it stimulates creativity and enables them to engage in multiple tasks at the same time.”

Woman stares into space

I’ll get round to it some time later …

Photograph: Getty Images/Blend Images

Other suggested causes include a strict upbringing, in which putting things off till the last minute becomes a form of rebellion, inherited personality traits, and a fear of failure or even success. Do something too soon and too well and you risk getting saddled with more work and responsibility. Or, put something off and do it worse so you get to blame the failure on procrastination more than any other shortcoming.

There is a simpler reason which may apply in the EU referendum case: the illogical perception of time, which we tend to see in terms, semesters, seasons or quarters. In a study devised to show how this works, 295 people were told to open a bank account for a charitable fund. They would be rewarded if the fund accumulated a certain amount in six months. But those who were given a December deadline in June were much more likely to open the account sooner than those who were given a January deadline in July. Much like the EU referendum – it just felt too distant to worry about.