Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

The Paradox of Procrastination

The four irrational beliefs that cause us to procrastinate.

Have an important task to complete? Behind on your deadlines? Stressed out because you know you might miss getting where you need to be on time? You are definitely not alone.

Procrastination is a common human tendency. About 20 percent of adults have regular bouts of procrastination, but as many as perhaps 70 to 90 percent of undergraduates are chronic putter-offers. Although some chronic procrastinators claim they work best under tight deadlines, the fact of the matter is that procrastination rarely pays off. University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel reported in a comprehensive 2007 review that procrastinators perform more poorly, feel miserable, waste money on their taxes, suffer more medical problems, and put off important economic decisions such as saving money for retirement. Procrastinators don’t just delay completing pleasant tasks. They also put off opportunities to enjoy themselves, such as waiting too long to buy tickets for vacations or concerts.

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Psychology tackles procrastination from a variety of approaches. According to Steel, there are correlations between personality traits and procrastination. People high in Conscientiousness, one of the Big Five traits, are less likely to procrastinate because they are higher in such qualities as self-discipline, industriousness, sense of responsibility, dutifulness, persistence, and good use of time management. Highly conscientious people are good worker bees.

It’s not enough to be a dispositional procrastinator. We also have to take into account the nature of the task. According to the notion of “temporal discounting,” we give less importance in our priorities to tasks that are far into the future than those confronting us today. Furthermore, being pleasure—seeking organisms, we are averse to aversive tasks. This means that, to no one’s surprise, we are also more likely to delay tasks that we expect to be unpleasant. People who are impulsive are also more likely to procrastinate because they tend to act on the moment-to-moment attractions that stand between them and sitting down to get started. As a result, they meander off in all kinds of directions other than the one that would lead to completion of the task, especially if it is far enough away in teh future. Self-regulation, the ability to plan and organize your mental efforts, is another factor related to procrastination. To meet a deadline, you have to be able to engage in planful problem-solving in which you set goals, evaluate your progress toward achieving those goals, and revise your strategy if necessary.

So far, you may be thinking, where is the paradox? People who procrastinate may have a predisposition to do so, they may not pay much attention to tasks with far-away deadlines, and tend to avoid tasks that seem unpleasant. They also have more trouble organizing their goal-setting strategies. No surprises there. The paradox comes into play when we look at people’s irrational beliefs—their thoughts about their abilities that have no bearing in reality and in fact, can make situations much worse. It's the irrational beliefs that can serve as insidious causes of procrastination.

The first set of irrational beliefs falls into the general category of self-handicapping. When we engage in self-handicapping, we create situations (usually unintentionally) that guarantee we will not succeed. Imagine you have a task to complete that you feel will challenge your abilities to the max.  You can choose to tackle it anyway, and get down to work on it right away in order to get it done. If you fail, you fail, but at least you gave it your best effort. That would be the rational approach. In contrast, if you adopt a self-handicapping, or irrational belief-based approach, you put off starting the task until the very last possible moment. At an unconscious level, you feel inadequate when faced with the task. Rather than have your self-esteem brought down by your failure, you instead concoct a situation that will guarantee you will fail, but you don't have to attribute it to your lack of ability. Instead, you now have a plausible excuse: “I didn’t have enough time.” Much better than “I didn’t have enough ability” if you’re trying to protect a fragile sense of self.

People may engage in self-handicapping for a number of other reasons. Some people seem almost to wish to fail because they are threatened by the notion of success. According to the perspective known as Control Mastery Theory, some of us wish to fail because to succeed would make other people we care about look bad. First-generation college students, for example, may be plagued by an irrational sense of guilt because they are acquiring an education closed to their parents or other family members. They believe, irrationally, that if they succeed, they will make the people who care about them look bad. Therefore, they set obstacles in their way that guarantee they will not succeed. They turn in work that is rushed, incomplete, or of otherwise poor quality. Certainly, some family members may reinforce these irrational beliefs in their children and create actual guilt. They may demand that the student come home every time there is a “family emergency” (broadly defined). The student, torn between these conflicting emotions, gives into guilt and eventually is forced to leave school. Even without direct family pressure, however, some students act on their own unconscious guilt and, ironically enough, disappoint their families.

A second and perhaps more common irrational belief is low self-efficacy: the conviction that you lack the ability to succeed at a task. Low self-efficacy is not just low self-confidence, it’s a specific belief that you cannot complete a particular type of task. When psychologists measure self-efficacy, they ask people to rate their likelihood of success on one type of activity. You can have high self-efficacy about your ability to succeed in a game of softball, but low self-efficacy about your ability to speak in public. There is no such thing as an overall sense of self-efficacy. When it comes to procrastination, low self-efficacy can cause you to put off a task because you don’t think you can get yourself organized enough to complete it.

In a study of college undergraduates, University of Alberta psychologist Robert Klassen and colleagues (2008) found that students lowest in self-efficacy to self-regulate were more likely to procrastinate. Among the procrastinators, 25 percent believed they were most negatively affected by procrastination. This group, the “negative procrastinators,” actually had lower grades, spent more hours each day procrastinating, and took longer to begin important assignments.  “Neutral procrastinators,” in contrast, wasted more time on other, more appealing tasks. Negative procrastinators have difficulty organizing themselves and planning their strategies to complete important tasks; these problems may both reflect and contribute to their low self-efficacy and, ultimately, academic performance.

Yet a third contributor to the paradox of procrastination is the feeling of danger that people experience when they live on the edge of not making important deadlines. This is not just the irrational feeling that you will perform more effectively when working under pressure. The excitement of almost failing to complete a task in time seems to have arousing tendencies in some individuals.  Although procrastinator researchers debate whether arousal procrastination is separate from general procrastination (Simpson & Pychyl, 2009), it seems that the some people are particularly subject to procrastination as a form of thrill-seeking  In research by University of Dallas psychologist Erin Freeman and colleagues (2011), undergraduates highest in the personality trait of extraversion were found to be most likely to engage in arousal procrastination. Compared to introverts, who tend to be more highly task-focused, extraverts may need that rush of stimulation to propel them into the higher level of arousal they need to get the task done well. 

Fear of making mistakes is yet a fourth contributor to the paradox of procrastination. People with strong perfectionistic tendencies, who want to make sure that their work is completely correct, may complete their tasks on time but stall as long as possible before they turn them in to be evaluated.  This behavior is paradoxical in the sense that by being late, or potentially late, with their assignments, these individuals may subject themselves to critical appraisals. Bosses like to see work done on time, but they really like seeing work that’s turned in early. The strongly perfectionistic individual appears no different in behavior than the less conscientious individual who squeaks in just before a deadline expires.

Italian psychologist Antonio Pierro (2011) and colleagues tested “regulatory mode theory” as a motivational approach to procrastination. They identified two orientations to action: assessment and locomotion. People high in the assessment orientation want to make sure they do the right thing.  People high in the locomotion orientation want to get on with the task or “just do it” (as the Nike motto states). This study was unusual in that they tested the theory not just oncollege undergraduates but also on an adult sample (insurance agents), but the results generalized across both samples. People high on the assessment orientation were more likely to procrastinate because they wished to consider all options before making a decision. They were also afraid of making the wrong decision. In contrast, people high in the locomotion orientation were less likely to procrastinate.  They were better able to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions, behaviors that can produce faster outcomes. 

Pierro's results could be helpful to perfectionistic procrastinators. If you tend to overthink a situation, you might want to consider focusing your efforts on the task and not contemplating all the things that could go wrong, especially if you have to work against a deadline.

Now let's tackle those four types of irrational beliefs that can lead you to procrastinate. Here's how can you turn these irrational thoughts into a blueprint for timeliness:

  1. Address the fear of success. If being constantly late with your obligations causes you to risk losing everything you’ve worked for, consider the possibility that self-handicappingis keeping you from going full tilt to reach your goals. Challenge your beliefs that those who love you don't want you to succeed because chances are that they will rejoice in your accomplishments.
  2. Build your self-efficacy to self-regulate. Convinced that you can’t handle your responsibilities in a timely manner?  Discouraged about your ability to organize and manage your time? Practice taking on small tasks that you know you can manage, focusing on jobs that are due in the not-too-distant future. Once you see that you can plan successfully, you can extend the range and time frame of your due dates, increasing both your sense of accomplishment and belief in your own abilities.
  3. Find your thrills in ways other than procrastinating. Stop flirting with danger by working too close to deadlines.  Instead of thinking about the times you managed to avoid disaster by coming in with your work at the last minute, focus your attention on the times you actually miscalculated and got into trouble. If you know you’re a hopeless deadline-pusher, though, then force yourself to adopt your own, internally generated deadlines. Eventually, you should be able to stretch those out over the longer term.
  4. Moderate perfectionism with an action orientation. It’s great to want to achieve the best outcome possible, but not if it comes at the price of missing out on an opportunity or seeming to be no more punctual than the careless procrastinator. If you feel that you can’t overcome this tendency on your own, find a work or study partner who is strong on “locomotion” and can help you learn ways to focus on getting the job done well and quickly.

Procrastination is such a common human tendency that no one can ever completely avoid it. You can, however, tackle the irrational beliefs that feed the chronic form of procrastination. As long as you’re willing to challenge and change these beliefs, time can truly be on your side. 

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

References:

Freeman, E. K., Cox-Fuenzalida, L., & Stoltenberg, I. (2011). Extraversion and arousal procrastination: Waiting for the kicks. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives On Diverse Psychological Issues30(4), 375-382. doi:10.1007/s12144-011-9123-0

Klassen, R. M., Krawchuk, L. L., & Rajani, S. (2008). Academic procrastination of undergraduates: Low self-efficacy to self-regulate predicts higher levels of procrastination. Contemporary Educational Psychology33(4), 915-931. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2007.07.001

Pierro, A., Giacomantonio, M., Pica, G., Kruglanski, A. W., & Higgins, E. T. (2011). On the psychology of time in action: Regulatory mode orientations and procrastination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1317-1331. doi: 10.1037/a0025943

Simpson, W. K., & Pychyl, T. A. (2009). In search of the arousal procrastinator: Investigating the relation between procrastination, arousal-based personality traits and beliefs about procrastination motivations. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(8), 906-911. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.07.013

 

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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