Personality: Risk and Resilience Factors for Procrastination
How your personality may affect task delay
Posted April 28, 2008
Not surprisingly, the answer varies from study to study, but the major themes are informative, at least a place to start.
- We're discussing personality traits right now, but this does not mean that we'll ignore the situation. We'll discuss situation shortly and then think about the interaction of Person by Situation - something that we have to consider when we think about any behavior.
- I tend to write a lot in these blogs. Some readers really like this. Others don't have the time to digest it all. So, I'm going to structure the longer blogs into sections. Skim down through the sections if you want to skip over the research for example. I'll always pull it together near the end to discuss the relevance or implications of the research. I hope this helps all of us.
Over the past 2 decades, there have been a number of studies exploring the relation between the "Big 3" or the "Big 5" trait models and a variety of measures of procrastination. You may recall from the last blog entry that the Big 3 and Big 5 refer to the major traits of personality, the highest level of a taxonomy of personality traits.
Hans Eysenck defined the three-factor solution with Neuroticism, Extraversion and Psychoticism. Costa & McCrae, among others, championed the five-factor model: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience and Extraversion (CANOE). You may also recall that the debate goes on in personality psychology about what the best taxonomy of traits is, but we're working with what we have here. (If you want to read the previous blog entry about personality traits, here's quick link to it.
Important Caveat ("warning")
In preface to summarizing the findings from the various studies, I want to quote from a colleague at Grant MacEwan College (Edmonton, Alberta - the "oil province" of Canada), David Watson, who writes,
"The results indicate the complexity of procrastination as a psychological phenomenon"
(p. 156, 2001, note full reference below).
I couldn't agree more, the relation between personality and procrastination is complex, and yet some colleagues and researchers want to gloss over the complexity in favor of simple "procrastination equations." There simply isn't enough research done to date to rule out personality traits or limit our understanding to the few broad relations we've found. The point is, the results are complex because quite a number of traits and interactions between traits are related to procrastination. Any counselor can tell you this. In any case, I'll stick to some of the main trends in my blog today.
Executive Summary of the Research Results
Below is my executive summary of a number of studies. These data are mainly based on the 5-factor model, as the few studies using the 3-factor model revealed similar overall trends. In sum, aspects of all traits except Agreeableness are related to procrastination. To date the research indicates whether you're a "nice" person (trustworthy, compliant, altruistic) doesn't seem to be related to irrational delay (So, nice people procrastinate too! ☺ )
Low conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of procrastination. The lower your conscientiousness score, the higher your procrastination. In fact, all of the facets of conscientiousness are correlated with lower procrastination, including: Competence (efficient), Order (organized), Dutifulness (not careless), Achievement striving (thorough), Self-discipline (not lazy), and Deliberation (not impulsive).
(Lack of) Self-discipline is the strongest facet-level predictor of procrastination. Given the very strong relation between Conscientiousness and procrastination, Clarry Lay (retired, pioneer researcher in the area) has referred to Conscientiousness as the "source trait" of the lower-order trait of procrastination.
Neuroticism is the next most important predictor, although neuroticism's role in predicting procrastination has varied, with the strongest facet-level predictors being impulsiveness and vulnerability.
(Just to confuse things a little, both self-discipline and impulsivity have been reported to be related to [cross-load on] both Conscientiousness & Neuroticism. There's something interesting happening here. In addition, not all studies use the same measures of the Big-Five traits, so facets are defined slightly different from study to study.)
For Openness to Experience, the fantasy facet has been found to be positively related to procrastination: the more fantasy, the higher the procrastination.
For Extraversion, the activity facet was found to be negatively correlated with procrastination in one study: the higher energy of extraverts is related to less procrastination.
What does all this mean? Personality - Risk or Resilience Factor?
At the highest level of the personality taxonomy of traits, we see some interesting relations. First and foremost, individuals who would be described as not very conscientious are most prone to procrastination. Put the other way, if you're conscientious "by nature," you have an important resilience to irrational and needless task delay. This finding is a focus for intervention, which I discuss in a moment.
But it's more than just conscientiousness. Sticking to just the two consistent and major findings across the various studies, we also need to take into account Neuroticism. There are a number of studies that report that worry, fear of failure, vulnerability and anxiety are predictors of procrastination. In addition, a very important risk factor in terms of personality is impulsivity. To the extent that you tend to be an impulsive person, you're less able to guard one intention from another. You're more likely to drop the task at hand impulsively.
So, our tendency to be self-disciplined and structured help us defeat procrastination on the one hand, and for some of us, the tendency to worry and fear failure, or impulsively move from one task to another leads to more task avoidance on the other.
But remember, these are just broad trends based on over-arching traits. There's more to take into account.
Why this is only a partial answer
That was relatively easy to summarize, but it is an oversimplification. It's true, but not the whole story. In fact, that's what I like most about David Watson's study of traits and procrastination; he "digs around" defining various components of procrastination like fear of failure, rebellion against control as well as procrastination on various types of academic tasks such as writing essays, taking exams, etc. (all academic tasks given the context of his research). In splitting out personality to the facet level of the major traits and then exploring components of academic procrastination within various tasks, his data hint at the complex interactions that are important to understand.
He explains, for example, that we might not see a large relationship of extraversion with procrastination when considered as broad traits, but his finding that "low assertiveness" (an introverted characteristic) correlated with procrastination on some academic tasks (e.g., exam preparation) may indicate how the more introverted students are less inclined to ask professors or other students for help. It's at this level of understanding that we might be able to identify the contribution of personality to procrastination.
In addition, one of the most recent papers that addresses personality traits and procrastination by Dong-gwi Lee, Kevin Kelly and Jodi Edwards (Purdue University), begins to address the relation among personality traits. Although it is beyond the scope of this blog to explain their work with structural equation modeling, I can summarize their findings by noting that their results support Clarry Lay's argument that Conscientiousness is a higher-order trait that is likely to influence trait (chronic) procrastination.
Implications for intervention
Finally, can we conclude anything about how we might deal with procrastination based on these results? Given the prominent relation with Conscientiousness, Lee and colleagues think that the focus needs to be on raising levels of organization and goal-directedness. They put less attention on regulating negative emotions, and I agree. As we discussed in a previous blog, "giving in to feeling good," is often associated with regulating emotions, and it ends up undermining our other self-regulatory acts, like getting the task done. In fact, Lee and colleagues argue that we can think about this as a need for more problem-focused coping. It's a question of, what can I do to solve the problem at hand? - not - What can I do to feel better?
What can I do to make the task more manageable? What's the next step I can take to make progress on this task? These are good questions to focus on to reduce procrastination in our lives. Then, "just get started!"
Blogger's Note: We'll also consider other ways to think about personality other than just traits. For example, does coping style relate to procrastination?
Lay, C. H. (1997). Explaining lower-order traits through higher-order factors: The case of trait procrastination, conscientiousness, and the specificity dilemma. European Journal of Personality, 11, 267-278.
Lee, D., Kelly, K.R., & Edwards, J.K. (2006). A closer look at the relationships among trait procrastination, neuroticism and conscientiousness. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 27-37.
Schouwenberg, H.C., & Lay, C. L. (1995). Trait procrastination and the big-five factors of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 18, 481-490.
Watson, D.C. (2001). Procrastination and the five-factor model: A facet level analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 30, 149-158.
Van Eerde, W. (2003). A meta-analytically derived nomological network of procrastination. Personality and Individual Difference, 35, 1401-1418.