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Getting Around to Procrastination

What causes people to procrastinate? And is it necessarily a bad thing?

Procrastination rarely gets the respect that it deserves. When psychologists address procastinating at all, it is often with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour. While everybody procrastinates at some point, our justification for it usually fails to fool anyone (including ourselves).  

Most dictionaries define procrastination as  “To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness.” Occurring up to 25 percent of the time according to some research studies,  procrastination is considerably higher in students with over 70 percent reporting procrastination for assignments at some point. Procrastinating students can waste up to a third of their day with stalling activities such as sleeping, watching television, reading, or whatever other diversion they can devise. Though men seem more likely to procrastinate than women and the habit of putting things off becomes less common as we grow older, procrastination can be seen in people of all ages.

But is procrastinating necessarily a bad thing? While research studies have linked it  to various negative consequences including medical, academic, and financial problems, the question of why procrastinating can be so seductive is hard to answer. Despite more than forty years of research looking at procrastination, there still seems to be little agreement among researchers in different fields about what procrastination is and how it should be dealt with.

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Part of the problem may well be how we define procrastination. Despite decades of research, there is still no a commonly-shared definition (presumably researchers haven’t gotten around to it yet).  And coming up with a definition is harder than it seems. We all like to set priorities and decide that some tasks need to be finished before others. Is it procrastinating when we make a strategic choice about putting certain things on a back-burner while we work on something else? Some researchers suggest that this should count as procrastinating as well though they prefer to call it “active procrastination” as opposed to more “passive” kinds of delaying tactics. Or is all procrastinating pathological? 

In a recent review published in European Psychologist, Katrin Klingsieck of the University of Paderborn in Germany suggests that there is a difference between procrastinating and what she calls “strategic delay.” In both cases, you can make a choice to put off completing an important task but, for procrastinators, the delay is usually unnecessary and irrational (not to mention harmful at times). For people making a strategic delay however, it typically means weighing the costs and benefits of making that delay. In other words, a strategic delay involves deciding that the benefits of doing something else first outweighs the costs of not completing the other task sooner. For procrastinators however, it often means knowing that delaying an important task has negative consequences but still putting it off despite guilt feelings or anxiety.  

In other words, procrastination means an unnecessary delay that does more harm than good.  And, when I saw unnecessary, I mean really unnecessary. Though it can be hard to tell the difference between procrastination and strategic delay at times,  Klingsieck suggests that following definition based on existing research: Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended and necessary and/or [personally] important activity, despite expecting potential negative consequences that outweigh the positive consequences of the delay.  

But what causes people to procrastinate? Different fields of psychology have yielded different explanations for why we put things off. That can include seeing procrastination as a personality trait linked to other traits such as poor self-esteem,  increased neuroticism,  and increased perfectionism. One trait that is often linked to procrastination is self-handicapping, or avoiding effort to keep potential failure from damaging self-esteem. There have also been studies attempting to link intelligence to procrastinating though no real correlation has been found.

Motivational psychologists have suggested that procrastinating may be due to a lack of incentive making it hard to close that all-important gap between intentions and actions. People who procrastinate tend to have poor self-control, problems with self-regulation, and low self-efficacy making them less confident in their ability to carry out an important task. There are also numerous motivational theories linked to procrastination including Self-Determination Theory, Action Control Theory,  and Temporal Motivation Theory, among others. 

Clinical research looking at procrastination has linked it to a range of disorders including depression, stress, test anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, as well as attention-deficit problems. According to one recent psychological review of procrastinating behaviour, it would have to persist longer than six months or be linked with other psychological complaints including depression, anxiety or more extreme forms of mental illness to be considered pathological.   There are dangers associated with attaching the mental disorder label to procrastinators though. Addiing to the stigma already associated with people who spend too much time avoiding important tasks likely just increases the stress linked to procrastinating.

Another approach, and perhaps the one that best describes why some people procrastinate is  recogning that there are certain situations that encourage delaying behaviour.  When a task is too difficult or too unappealing, we are more likely to put it off as much as possible. There is also the well-known social loafing effect in which people in groups are more apt to put in less effort to complete a task than they do as individuals. Not surprisingly, the link between social loafing and procrastination is a strong one, especially if loafers who delay working on a group task are less likely to be caught. Students in particular are more inclined to procrastinate on assignments if they consider the task to be unreasonable or if they dislike the teacher who assigned it. 

While different theories weigh in on different aspects of the procrastination puzzle, it seems safe to assume that no one theory is going to answer the question of why it happens. To add to the confusion, researchers have also suggested that there are different types of procrastination, including arousal procrastination (waiting until the last minute due to believing that people work best under pressure) vs. avoidance procrastination (procrastination motivated by fear).  

Unfortunately, procrastination research is largely limited to university students. Though researchers have looked at other populations, including people planning for retirement, Christmas shoppers, and people filing their taxes (you didn’t wait until the last minute to file, did you?), studies of how and when procrastination happens with people across the lifespan are still limited.   

Though we all procrastinate once in a while, it only becomes a problem when we allow procrastination to become a way of life. The social and economic costs of procrastination at home and in the workplace are likely astronomical, especially when linked to reduced productivity and lost income. Whether due to personality, lack of motivation, poor confidence or other emotional issues, dealing with procrastination usually means dealing with the underlying problems that makes us put things off.   

Recognizing why we procrastinate can make the difference between having it happen occasionally or letting it take over our lives. 

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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