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A New Way to Understand Procrastination

If procrastination is a problem for you, this new approach may just solve it.

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You’ve set a goal for the week, and all you have to do NOW is get started. However, just when you think you’re ready to dig into the task, something else catches your attention. Perhaps it’s an overflowing email inbox with tantalizing promotions, or some extra but unnecessary cleaning up you start to do around the house. After all, your closet really could use some reorganizing. As the hours go by, and then a couple of days, that goal for the week recedes further into the distance. Unfortunately, this means you’ll have to rush to get it done, or end up being a few days late when you do finally finish it.

If you find yourself stalling like this on a regular basis, you may think that ever becoming a punctual person is beyond you. But new research on the motivation behind procrastination can help you get out of a rut and see your delay tactics in a different light.

Many psychologists have attempted to understand the causes of procrastination — beginning, perhaps, with the great psychodynamic theorists. Freud related this behavior to problems stemming from poor toilet training, but the self-oriented psychodynamic theorists who followed him proposed more generally that people who procrastinate are showing signs of neurotic, self-defeating behavior. If you procrastinate, according to this view, you’re guaranteeing that you’ll fail, which you perversely wish to do if you believe that you’re fundamentally flawed. Over the decades since the writing of the self-theorists, psychologists addressing procrastination have shifted their focus from this inner-oriented dynamic approach to a motivational one: Procrastinators are now seen as lacking such qualities as self-regulation, time management, and learning strategies that would allow them to bridge the gap between intention and action.

University of Bieleland (Germany) psychologists Axel Grund and Stefan Fries (2018) set the ambitious goal of tying together competing approaches to understanding procrastination. They revamp the view of this behavior as reflecting not just failure to follow through with our intentions, but not holding the intention to be on time in the first place. People who don’t get things done on time don’t actually value the same goals as people who do. As they note, “In line with other researchers, we understand procrastination as reflecting difficulties in goal pursuit. However, in contrast to other approaches, we do not think the problem is solved by focusing on the volitional, implementation phase of action only." In other words, to understand procrastinators, you have to understand their values. Maybe they don’t see dilatory behavior as reflecting “a misconduct and a serious human weakness." Instead, they may value what the authors refer to as “post-modern (liberal) values such as well-being and tolerance."

To Grund and Fries, there is a tension between conservative views that ascribe procrastination to a moral failure and liberal values that regard procrastination as situational, and therefore not due to personal weakness. Toward this end, the team conducted a series of studies in which they first investigated the value orientations of self-described procrastinators. Would people who score high on a procrastination scale also value their own personal well-being (enjoying their free time) more than achievement (getting things done)?

Using a sample of 223 undergraduates — a perfectly appropriate set of participants for studying procrastination — Grund and Fries found, as they predicted, a positive relationship between procrastination and an orientation to personal enjoyment and well-being. Procrastination, they concluded from this first study, “reflects a mismatch between current engagement and basic motivational structures."

The second study in their series used a diary method in which a similar sample of undergrads completed a brief questionnaire for seven days in a row, reporting on five tasks they had planned to complete each day, followed by questions asking if they actually completed them. Participants also rated the extent to which they planned to do the activity because they actually wanted to, or whether the activity was being planned to comply with an external set of demands. This measure of "self-determination" was important, the researchers believed, because procrastinators would presumably be more likely to procrastinate when they were fulfilling duties assigned to them by others, rather than engaging in tasks they felt were important to them personally. As the authors expected, participants completed more of the activities they felt were within their own control. However, people high in the general tendency to procrastinate completed fewer of the activities they regarded as determined by their own personal interest. The procrastinators also tended to find fewer of their activities (presumably academic in nature) as determined by their own interests.

The final study conducted examined the belief in the Protestant work ethic as an influence on the way people perceive dilatory behavior. For this study, participants read a scenario describing a fictitious student who reported on intending to study over the weekend for an important exam, but who instead spent time with friends. Participants in this study rated the extent to which this student lacked self-discipline (a trait interpretation) versus recently not having spent enough time with friends (situational). They also rated themselves on conservatism (the importance of having a belief system), humanitarian-egalitarian values (the importance of being kind to everyone), and Protestant ethic (whether people spend too much time in unprofitable amusements). The general tendency to procrastinate was the final measure used in the study. The findings supported the authors’ prediction that people who held conservative values and ascribed to the Protestant work ethic regarded procrastination as reflecting a personal, moral failure.

Given that the entire study was conducted on undergraduates, the results were particularly relevant, because of the fact that young adults in college may feel that they don’t really have control over their time. They may procrastinate because the tasks don’t have that much inherent meaning to them. In general, though, the authors conclude that attempting to force procrastinators to complete tasks on time will only backfire. Instead, it is more effective to promote what they call “motivational competence,” so that people can choose and set goals for themselves that are in keeping with their own inner motives and values. Procrastination in and of itself, the authors claim, isn’t an irrational behavior, nor, returning to the psychodynamic interpretation, does it reflect neurotic, self-defeating tendencies.

To sum up: Procrastinators need not be seen as morally deficient or incapable of ever motivating themselves to get things done. If you, or important people in your life, fit the standard definition of procrastination, it is important to take this broader approach to understanding the role of values as influences on the ways that people expend their energies. Fulfillment in life depends on achieving the results you regard as important, results that may vary according to your overall values and belief systems.

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Grund, A., & Fries, S. (2018). Understanding procrastination: A motivational approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 121120-130. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.09.035

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