Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Procrastination Helps Creative Thinking

Beliefs about procrastination: the good, the bad and the wishful thinking.

Procrastination helps creative thinking. You might come back to it with a fresher approach if you procrastinate. These are two of 13 positive beliefs that some chronic procrastinators reported. There are some negative beliefs as well. A paradox? The truth?

In my research group yesterday, we were discussing an article published by Bruce Fernie (Royal Free Hospital, London) and Marcantonio Spada (Roehampton University, London). Fernie and Spada reported on a preliminary investigation they conducted which involved interviewing 12 people who self-identified as chronic problematic procrastinators. This small community sample volunteered to be interviewed about their procrastination-related thoughts.

The researchers had four goals for their study. They wanted to understand:

  1. whether the participants held positive and/or negative metacognitive beliefs about procrastination,
  2. what the participants’ goals were in procrastination and how they knew if they achieved this goal,
  3. how they directed their focus of attention when procrastinating, and
  4. what they perceived the advantages and disadvantages of these attentional strategies to be.

My students and I were fairly critical of the study, as the short report didn’t provide us with a great deal of information about the participants or the interview data. That said, there were some interesting results that are worth noting, and the authors did make it clear that this was a preliminary study (one that I think we might extend as a thesis project).

The goal of the participants’ procrastination was to regulate their thinking and negative emotions/mood. Despite this clear goal, many of the participants reported that they did not know how to determine if they achieved this goal, although seven participants did report that an improvement in mood would be their signal that procrastination is working for them. Not surprisingly given the goal of mood regulation, participants also reported that their attentional focus when procrastinating was on their emotional state.

These findings underscore a main theme in our research and my blog writing. That is, procrastination is a self-regulation failure related to the primacy of short-term mood regulation. We want to feel good now, and we needlessly delay aversive tasks to seek more pleasurable activities in the short term. Surprisingly, even though the participants clearly acknowledge and are aware of this mood-regulation function, they still listed apparent advantages of procrastination in terms of their beliefs.

The lists below summarize all of the positive and negative beliefs that the participants reported. Interestingly, as the authors note, “The disadvantages concerned the perseveration of procrastination because their [the research participants’] attentional energy did not lead to task initiation or completion, whilst the advantages often seemed directly contradictory to the disadvantages, insofar as they were associated with attaining an appropriate state of mind for initiating task performance” (p. 363).

Positive Beliefs

  • Procrastination helps creative thinking.
  • You might come back to it with a fresher approach if you procrastinate.
  • I would be better off leaving the task till later when I was in a better frame of mind to do it.
  • Procrastination gives you preparation time.
  • By procrastinating my thoughts wouldn’t be taken up with something that is boring.
  • When procrastinating it becomes clear exactly why I have been procrastinating.
  • By procrastinating I don’t have to take that particular anxiety-provoking decision there and then.
  • During procrastination I’ll have mulled the task over either consciously or unconsciously and by the time I come to do it the decision will be made, preferably unconsciously for me.
  • When procrastinating you are learning something else or achieving something else.
  • When I procrastinate I might put it off to a day when I have a high capacity.
  • Procrastination stops me from doing things at the wrong time.
  • Procrastination makes me sure that I’m not forgetting stuff.
  • When procrastinating I’m in control.

Negative Beliefs

  • Mentally, procrastination is a kind of tiring process.
  • Procrastinating gives you negative feelings about the whole thing.
  • Procrastination could get out of control.
  • Procrastination is the product of an unordered uncontrolled mind.
  • When procrastinating, you waste a lot of time and energy thinking about a task that you wouldn’t have to think about if you had completed it already.
  • Procrastination can make me more anxious.
  • I think procrastination can be harmful.
  • Procrastination makes me frustrated and that gets me really annoyed at myself.
  • Procrastination increases your stress.
  • Procrastination is uncomfortable.
  • Procrastination does provide a little bit of stress.
  • Procrastination can be difficult to control.
  • Procrastination can make me panic.

So what do we make of this? I can tell you that in addition to the critique of the study itself, my students were quick to say that the apparent “advantages” of procrastination are most likely rationalizations of the needless delay listed in part because the researchers asked them about the positive side of procrastination. It would be interesting to see how many, if any, of these chronic procrastinators who took the time to respond to a flyer in the community to participate in research would have said that procrastination has an “upside” in terms of their beliefs had they not been specifically asked. We might assume, given that procrastination is a problem for them, they would understand that their self-regulation failure is undermining their lives. There really isn’t an upside per se. As they note most frequently, they experience a lack of control, stress, and even panic from their procrastination. So, is it safe to say that they actually believe that “it gives them more preparation time” or that “it keeps them from doing the wrong stuff?” We think not.

I do think it’s safe to say that delay may mean that we tackle a task when future self is a bit fresher or mentally prepared, but that led our group into a discussion of whether this was actually procrastination at that point or an intention update. If I decide to put off a task because I determine that I will be better prepared for the task tomorrow, it’s not necessarily procrastination. It can be a sagacious delay. I guess a key point is how well we know our future self, and that is another issue altogether that our group began discussing.

I hope this was a stimulating for you as it was for us. Certainly some food for thought here as we ponder the paradox of our beliefs around procrastination. This is not the first study to examine metacognitive beliefs and procrastination, and I have written about worry in particular before. Certainly, what we think plays an important role in our procrastination and in solving the procrastination puzzle.

I would simply want to emphasize in closing that procrastination involves a great deal of self-deception as we try to reduce the cognitive dissonance between not acting on an intention when we know we ought to. I think many of our perceived positive beliefs about procrastination stem from these cognitive dissonance reduction strategies.

Reference

Fernie, B.A., & Spada, M.M. (2008). Metacognitions about procrastination: A preliminary investigation. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36, 359-364.

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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