Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Why Do I Clean Out My Fridge?

The choices we make when we procrastinate

Refrigerator
Have you ever wondered why you end up cleaning out your fridge rather than writing a report. You could put off the report and go and have some fun instead. At a recent conference, my colleague proposed an answer.

I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago to attend the 7th Biennial Conference on Procrastination. Yes, it started on time! Ok, perhaps the biennial nature of our meetings says something about procrastination (not really). Face it. We've heard all of the procrastination jokes!

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Among the many formal, interesting papers presented, what stuck out in my mind was a casual comment made by my colleague Fuschia Sirois (Bishops University, Quebec). A debate had ensued about why people often engage in what might seem to be arduous tasks such as cleaning to avoid other work such as writing a report. Fuschia noted that this was because procrastinators are "self-efficacy starved."

Self-efficacy, a term central to Albert Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory, is defined as the belief that one is capable of acting in a manner that will attain specific goals. If we have a sense of self-efficacy in relation to a task, we believe we have the ability to complete the task successfully. You may even say we have confidence in our ability.

Of course, we are more inclined to take on a task if we believe we can succeed (where we perceive we have higher self-efficacy), and we avoid tasks where our self-efficacy is low. So, when faced with a few relatively daunting tasks, tasks for which our attributions of self-efficacy are low, we are likely to want to avoid these in favor of tasks for which we feel a sense of self-efficacy.

This may explain task choice when we procrastinate. When we avoid a task because we feel incapable, we make up for it by doing something that will fuel a sense of capability and achievement. Unfortunately, this can be a fleeting or specious sense of accomplishment, because the task we're avoiding is usually more important and time urgent than the substitute task. Nevertheless, we can end the day with a very clean fridge, or as the case may be today, a very organized barn.

There are other factors that influence task choice of course. I've written about why we end up cleaning out the fridge before without speaking of self-efficacy. I can end up doing tasks without really ever choosing to do them at all (to learn more about this, read the previous blog, "I'll just check my email, it will only take a minute"). In addition, we may avoid a task and then do other tasks on our task list that results in us being quite productive overall. John Perry (Stanford University) calls this structured procrastination. You can learn more about structured procrastination on my previous post Structured Procrastination: When all else fails.

Although there are many possible influences on our task choice, I think Fuschia has summarized something important when it comes to understanding some of the strangest things we do when we procrastinate. It's a new hypothesis for our research, and it's a new hypothesis to ponder the next time you find yourself alphabetizing your playlist on your MP3 player, reorganizing the shoes in your closet, sorting out the spices in your cupboard, updating your computer software or cleaning off your desk when you know you should be working on that report. The question you may want to ask yourself is, "Am I feeling self-efficacy starved?" I would like to know what you think.

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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