There's more than one type of procrastination. We can needlessly delay tasks - behavioral procrastination. We can also needlessly delay making decisions - decisional procrastination. A recent study indicates that both behavioral and decisional procrastination are related to maladaptive beliefs known as metacognitions.
Three British psychologists with psychotherapeutic training and research interests published a short report on their study of "Metacognitions, emotions and procrastination" in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy. Marcantonio Spada (Roehampton University), Kalliopi Hiou (London Metropolitan University) and Ana Nikcevic (Kingston University) collected data from 179 students, measuring their procrastination (behavioral and decisional), worry, anxiety, depression and metacognition. The real focus of their research was on this notion of metacognition.
"Metacognition refers to the beliefs, psychological structures, events and processes that are implicated in the control, modification, and interpretation of thinking itself" (p. 320). In short, these processes are proposed to be part of the executive functions of the brain, the control components of information processing.
Of course, if the beliefs and processes are biased towards selecting maladaptive thought patterns or control strategies, there will be a problem in functioning. According to "Self-Regulatory Executive Fucntion" theory proposed by Wells & Matthews (1994), dysfunctional metacognitions are responsible for a whole host of disorders including anxiety, phobias and obsessions, to name a few that have been studied.
The purpose of the study by Spada and colleagues was to extend this theory and approach to research with procrastination. They hypothesized that there might be maladaptive metacognitions related to procrastination, and they did find some evidence of this (Note: Their study has quite a few limitations which they note, but the preliminary findings they present are of interest in terms of thinking about procrastination).
What they found
1. Beliefs about cognitive confidence (e.g., "my memory can mislead me at times") was related to behavioral procrastination.
2. Positive beliefs about worry (e.g., "worrying helps me cope") was related to decisional procrastination.
In both cases, the relation between these thoughts and procrastination were independent of depression.
What this means
In the words of the study authors, "In the case of behavioral procrastination, it is plausible to postulate that individuals who hold negative beliefs about their cognitive efficiency (a metacognitive dimension that is closely associated with negative emotions; Wells, 2000) may doubt their task performance capabilities. This is likely to adversely impact motivation as well as task initiation and persistence, leading to behavioral procrastination." [emphasis added]
"A possible explanation of the link between positive beliefs about worry and decisional procrastination could be that when an individual experiences an emotional trigger, positive beliefs about worry lead to the activation of ‘internal reality testing' or ‘mental problem solving' routines. The latter are likely to hinder decision-making processes leading to decisional procrastination" (p. 322).
Concluding thoughts . . .
This research underscores the destructive effects of doubt and worry, particularly the false belief that something like ruminative worry can be productive. These irrational beliefs sustain task delay. As Spada and colleagues write, "From a therapeutic perspective these findings indicate that the modification of beliefs about cognitive confidence and positive beliefs about worry might be helpful in the treatment of procrastinatory behavior" (p. 3322).
I couldn't agree more. As I discussed in the blog entry on a Rational Emotive Therapy approach to procrastination, the key thing is to discover what the individual said to him- or herself at the time in order to justify the procrastination. If you don't change these thoughts or beliefs, the procrastination will remain a perfectly rational reaction to these very irrational beliefs.
Spada, M.M., Hiou, K., & Nikcevic, A.V. (2006). Metacognitions, emotions and procrastination. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 20, 319-326.
Wells, A. (2000). Emotional disorders and metacognition: Innovative cognitive therapy. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
Wells, A., & Matthews, G. (1994). Attention and emotion: A clinical perspective. Hove, UK: Erlbaum.