Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Last Minute Holiday Shopping, Procrastination and Planning: Tell Me More

What do researchers say about last-minute holiday shopping?

NPR National Public Radio
I just finished an interview with Michel Martin of NPR's "Tell Me More" program. Our discussion was focused on last-minute holiday shopping, so the broadcast was recorded for airing on Christmas Eve, as last-minute as possible, of course. With that in mind, I thought I'd do a "rebroadcast" of my own with a post from 2008 about what researchers say about procrastination, planning and holiday shopping.

We all have good reasons to put off shopping until the last minute. Sales often get better. The Internet provides the last-minute shopper with easy access without fighting traffic or full parking lots, and many on-line retailers offer last-minute, free shipping.

If we wait on purpose to take advantage of sales, then it's not procrastination at all, just last-minute shopping. However, if we intended to shop earlier, but put it off despite the stress and problems this delay might create, we're certainly talking about procrastination.

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Joseph Ferrari, a dear colleague from DePaul University (Chicago) and prolific procrastination researcher agrees. He also notes that holiday shoppers use situational attributes such as sale prices in their decision around when to shop. They know that delay can pay.

The question is, why do we typically associate holiday shopping and procrastination? The results of two studies might help us understand what contributes to the last-minute shopping frenzy at the local malls. It may even help us distinguish procrastination from sagacious delay. Remember, all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.

The first and earliest study was published by Ferrari in 1993. I particularly enjoyed this study, as my colleague collected the data himself, posing as a mall employee on a series of weekends between "Black Friday" (the Friday after Thanksgiving) and Christmas Eve at a large rural mall in New York state. He collected data from 240 shoppers (151 women, 89 men with an average age of 38 years). Not surprisingly, his results indicated that shoppers had higher scores on trait measures of procrastination on Christmas Eve than the 5 weeks earlier. He also found that shoppers attributed their delay to such things as the competing demands of work, lack of energy, indecisiveness, the perceived aversiveness of shopping, and sale prices closer to Christmas. At least some of the procrastinating shoppers attributed their delay as "procrastination pays!"

Based on these findings, we might conclude that last-minute holiday shopping is just one other earmark of individuals who typically procrastinate in other areas of their lives. Their trait procrastination typically predicts their last-minute shopping, and there are a variety of reasons that they attribute to or rationalize these delays as.

The Planning Fallacy
There may be another reason apart from the notion of trait procrastination that might explain last-minute shopping at the holiday season, that is unrealistic planning. In fact, the second study makes this the explicit hypothesis with the notion that a commonly held optimistic bias known as the "planning fallacy" may be a causal influence on last-minute shopping.

Roger Buehler (Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) and Dale Griffin (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) have been researching the notion of the planning fallacy for many years. In a 2003 publication in the journal, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, they conducted a study that specifically targeted Christmas shopping and procrastination.

Their research indicates that, at least in western cultures, there is a common planning bias that leads to overly optimistic predictions. Generally, people underestimate how much time tasks will take and overestimate how much they will get done. Buehler and Griffin argue that two general cognitive processes produce this optimistic task-completion estimate, people:

1) overweight their specific plans for a given future project, and

2) underweight more general distributional information (about similar past projects).

For example, when thinking about grading the exams that sit next to my desk at the moment, I would put too much emphasis on a plan to spend 15 minutes per exam beginning at 2 p.m. so that I can finish by midnight tonight, and less emphasis on my knowledge that this never works out like that as family commitments interrupt this process, exams vary in their complexity, fatigue sets in, etc. (Yikes, I know why we underweight this type of information, who wants to go there?! I digress.)

What Buehler and Griffin did in the first of two studies was to experimentally manipulate the degree of future focus by having participants in their study (roughly half of the 85 undergraduates who participated) make detailed, step-by-step plans about their Christmas shopping plans, while the other half of participants merely reported their predictions about their Christmas shopping. They found that the future focus manipulation strongly affected the expressed predictions. Participants from the experimental group who made detailed plans predicted more optimistic completion times for their Christmas shopping than the "control" group, but this had no effect on the actual completion times. Interestingly, a measure of trait procrastination did not correlate with these optimistic predictions but it did correlate with actual completion times. Individuals who scored higher on procrastination finished their shopping later than individuals who scored low on the trait measure of procrastination, replicating Ferrari's previous findings.

Most interesting to me and my research group (procrastination.ca) was that the procrastinators also predicted that they would finish with less time to spare. This replicates earlier research that we had published on the planning fallacy and procrastination (Pychyl et al., 2000). Procrastinators are not more prone to this optimistic bias, they know they will study later and study less, much as the results of this study indicate that procrastinators know they will shop later than other people will.

In terms of procrastination, Buehler and Griffin conclude that "The present studies also indicated that the planning fallacy was not moderated by individual differences in dispositional optimism or procrastination . . . people's optimistic time estimates reflect general cognitive processes involved in planning for tasks rather than self-related motivational factors such as the desire to maintain a positive view of oneself and the future [and this bias] . . . cannot be attributed simply to a subset of individuals who tend to delay working at their tasks" (p. 88).

What does this mean for your holiday shopping?
Drawing on the results from both studies, if you tend to procrastinate generally (i.e., you're a trait procrastinator), you will likely procrastinate on your shopping. There is no surprise here. That said, Buehler and Griffin speak directly to the implications of their study in terms of making more realistic forecasts about your task completion. They write,

"The present findings suggest that requiring a detailed plan-based justification may actually accentuate the tendency to make overly optimistic forecasts and projections. Individuals and organizations seeking more realistic forecasts may be advised to adopt an alternative approach to prediction that gives less weight to plans and more weight to other potentially useful sources of information, such as distributions of completion times for related projects or the views of neutral, outside observers" (p. 88; emphasis added).

In other words, look back to last Christmas or a previous family birthday, or ask friends and family for input on your shopping history. Of course, this means being honest with yourself, not a strategy typical of procrastinators as I've argued earlier (see Existentialism and procrastination (Part 2): Bad Faith for a discussion of self-deception and procrastination)

My closing comments
As with all procrastination, we have to take into account the person and the situation. Certainly, individuals who score high on trait measures of procrastination are more often found in the mall on Christmas Eve as Ferrari's research clearly demonstrates. In addition, situational influences such as busy schedules and better sale prices closer to December 25th contribute to our task delay.

In sum, holiday shopping delay is a mixture of needless and perhaps irrational task delay of an intended act that defines procrastination, as well as sagacious delay based on pressing priorities in our lives and a rational approach to saving money. In the end, you can only tell the procrastinating from the non-procrastinating shopper on Christmas Eve by the "sweat on their brow." The procrastinator will most likely be in a panic, full of self-loathing for once again leaving it all to the last minute for "no good reason." The last-minute shopper who has deliberately delayed to take advantage of those last-minute bargains will have a smug look and a feeling of satisfaction as this delay can really pay (that is, if they still have the size and color you're looking for!).


References

Buehler, R., & Griffin, D. (2003). Planning, personality and prediction: The role of future focus in optimistic time predictions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 92, 80-90.

Ferrari, J.R. (1993). Christmas and procrastination: Explaining lack of diligence at a "real world" task deadline. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 25-33.

Pychyl, T.A., Morin, R.W., & Salmon, B.R. (2000). Procrastination and the planning fallacy: An examination of the study habits of university students. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 135-150.

 

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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