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Self-Forgiveness Reduces Procrastination

Going easy on yourself may curb procrastination.

Some of our most recent research indicates that self-forgiveness plays a role in decreasing our procrastination. As the image says, "Forgiveness - we do it for ourselves to get well and move on." The interesting thing is that we may actually move on with the task we've been avoiding, like studying for that next exam!

I have written about this study previously after a conference presentation last spring. The focus then was on gender differences we found in the data.

Since that time, we did a re-analysis of these data. This new approach statistically revealed an important role for negative emotions in the relation between self-forgiveness and future procrastination. Let me explain briefly.

We asked the question:
If we self-forgive after we procrastinate, do we procrastinate less the next time we face a similar task?

There are three essential parts to self-forgiveness. We must:

  1. acknowledge the commission of an objective wrong and accept responsibility for that wrong,
  2. experience feelings of guilt and regret, and finally
  3. overcome these feelings (i.e., self-forgiveness), and, in doing so, experience a motivational change away from self-punishment toward self-acceptance.

For example, results of recent research by my co-author Michael Wohl showed that for people who experienced the unwanted end to a romantic relationship, increases in self-blame predicted an increase in depressive feelings. However, self-forgiveness was also involved; self-forgiveness reduced negative feelings toward the self. Importantly, self-forgiveness also accompanies a resolution to change one's behavior and act differently in the future.

In our current study, we argued that self-forgiveness for procrastinating may play a role in helping people overcome the negative effects of procrastination and encourage a change in behavior. If procrastination is viewed as a transgression against the self and results in negative feelings such as guilt, forgiving oneself for procrastinating should reduce this feeling. By reducing emotional distress associated with procrastination, the individual becomes less likely to avoid the stimulus associated with the feelings in the first place (i.e., studying for an exam). Moreover, because self-forgiveness is typically accompanied by a vow to change one's behavior in the future, this encourages the individual to engage in approach behaviors rather than behaviors motivated by avoidance. Thus self-forgiving for procrastinating may make it less likely that the individual will be motivated to avoid unpleasant tasks like studying and more likely that he or she will approach success by procrastinating less in the future.

Our study - the nerdy details
We collected data from a single section of an introductory psychology course. Participants were measured on procrastination, their mood/emotions (also known as "affect"), and self-forgiveness immediately before both their first and second midterm examinations in their psychology course. We hypothesized that self-forgiveness for procrastinating on the first exam would predict significantly reduced procrastination on the second exam. We also expected that self-forgiving for procrastinating is likely to have more of an effect at higher levels of procrastination than at lower levels of procrastination because the transgression against self is more salient when the procrastination is greater. Finally, we investigated whether the relationship between self-forgiveness and subsequent procrastination was mediated by negative affect. This means we expected that high-levels of self-forgiveness would predict lower levels of negative affect, and this in turn would predict lower levels of procrastination.

Our results
The results of this study indicate that forgiving oneself for procrastinating on a given task is related to less procrastination on a similar task in the future. As predicted, this relationship is mediated by negative affect, such that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination by reducing negative affect. However, the presence of this relationship depends on the extent to which the individual procrastinated on the first exam.

Only at high levels of procrastination on the first exam was self-forgiveness negatively related to procrastination on the second exam. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to consider that low levels of procrastination are unlikely to be perceived as having had much of an effect on one's performance or engender much negative affect. Although procrastination can be still be considered a transgression as self-regulatory failure, if procrastination did not have much effect on performance or produce subjective distress the individual may not perceive the transgression to be particularly serious. He or she therefore will not need to self-forgive to the same extent as someone who procrastinated at higher levels. If self-forgiveness is lower, then the effect on motivation is likely to be similarly small. It is therefore logical that self-forgiveness would not predict procrastination on the second exam at low levels of procrastination on the first exam, as people who are only procrastinating slightly would be able to overcome any negative effects of transgressing against themselves without experiencing the motivational benefits of self-forgiveness.

Implications and concluding thoughts
Strange, isn't it? I think we could find the opposite effect for some people. If they forgive themselves for procrastinating, it would be just part of their "forgive and forget" strategy with "business as usual" (i.e., procrastination) on studying for the next exam. It reminds me of Fuschia Sirois' research on counterfactuals. Students who said things like "well, it could have been worse" after procrastinating on their exams or assignments were less likely to learn from the experience (but they felt better about the situation). These people know how to take care of their immediate emotional experience, but seldom learn anything new. Certainly, they don't acknowledge that something went wrong or won't feel guilt this way, so self-forgiveness may not even be necessary.

In the end, we have many other questions raised by this study that will fuel future research, but we did learn that forgiveness may play a role in reducing procrastination. That's worth thinking about it.

Bennett, S., Pychyl, T.A., & Wohl, M. (2009). The role of self-forgiveness for procrastinating in the prediction of future procrastination. Manuscript under review.

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