Where Does My Procrastination Come From?
"Daddy made me NOT do it."
Posted Sep 17, 2020
There is a growing belief in the press and even by some scholars that people are “born procrastinators.”
Let me end this one at the start: not true.
You are not born a procrastinator; you are not just the product of “bad genes” from your parents. You learn procrastination as a way of life, to avoid responsibility, to complete or begin tasks.
True, there are few published studies exploring the origins of "proc" [as I call it]. Dr. Michael Olivette (formerly at Syracuse University) and I engaged in a couple of studies looking at the origins of procrastination from within one’s family. In one study (Ferrari & Olivette, 1993), we surveyed women on their reflections of their parent’s parenting style and their tendency toward indecision (what scholars call decisional procrastination). We found that women who reported indecisiveness claimed controlling, demanding family environments.
In our second study (Ferrari & Olivette, 1994) we extended that result with behavioral, general procrastination and found that for women, procrastination tendencies begin with authoritarian parents who take rules seriously, and they want their kids to know it. They are not particularly warm, not keen on excuses, and expect obedience. This style seems to lead to a failure to bond emotionally as well as rebellious behavior, anxiety, and delinquency. In our study, it seems to lead to procrastination tendencies too.
These studies prompted me to dive deeper into that family setting and these learned tendencies. A few years later at DePaul University, I expanded the study of proc. In one study, participants completed procrastination measures and an inventory on the quality of their relationship with mom, dad, best friend same sex, and best friend opposite sex. Plus, we asked parents of our college student sample (men included this time) also to complete the same decisional and behavioral procrastination measures (Ferrari, Harriott, & Zimmerman, 1999).
Then a doctoral student, Jessie Harriott, and I found evidence that dads (not moms) have the parental influence on kids to become procrastinators. Mom, you are off the hook this time (since usually, Freud blames you for everything). And that dad was authoritarian—cold, demanding, believing “as long as you live under this roof, you do as I say.” Procrastinators reported a high conflict, shallow, and distant relationship with dad. We proposed that the child could not rebel so the only way to maintain some independence was to procrastinate (which probably made dad even angrier!).
Furthermore, Ferrari et al (1999) found that procrastinators turned to their friends, not their family, for social support when times were rough. Sure, if you lose a job or a relationship goes sour, your friends will feel bad for you and may comfort you. Your family, if you are a procrastinator and this happens often, instead say things like, “there you go again!” We don’t want to hear that. But I digress…
I know you are thinking: “Deacon Joe, those cited studies are only self-reported and seem to be mostly correlations; what do we know genetically about procs?”
In July 2017, I hosted the 10th Biennial International Meeting on the Study of Procrastination at DePaul, in Chicago, IL. See, there is a serious group of scholars who meet every other year to report their latest research on procrastination and it was my turn to host. We alternate between North America (mostly in Canada; only once before in the USA), and internationally—like Peru, England a few times, The Netherlands a couple of times too, and Germany. Attendees at early conferences with around a dozen scholars and practitioners; in 2017, over 65 attended.
Scholars in 2017 from the University of California, San Diego, Drs. Gustavson and Mikake, presented exactly what we needed to know. Gustavon and Mikake (2017) compared identical twins on procrastination tendencies and found that less than 50% of the common variance was attributable to genetics. By the way, the Ferrari et al. (1999) study above also showed no correlation between parents and their children’s reporting of procrastination rates.
Recently, Dr. Tom Tibbett (then, Texas A and AM, USA) and I examined what develops a procrastinator identity (Tibbett & Ferrari, 2019). We found across three randomized partitions, indecision (decisional procrastination) and regrets about education, career, and finances most increased the likelihood of identifying as a procrastinator.
Dr. Ranjana Dutta and her students at Saginaw Valley State University examined varied procrastination types with students, and the influence of parenting (Dutta, Truax, & Bouchard, 2017). Her work replicated/supported the earlier developmental studies reported above, suggesting that procrastination is learned. Prof. Bilge Uzun (Bahcesehir University, Turkey: Uzun, LeBlanc, Guclu, Ferrari, & Aydemir, 2020) just completed a study with Turkish emerging adults finding that family factors (family cohesion and control) mediated the relationship between life satisfaction and (academic) procrastination tendencies.
Summary ~ SO WHAT?
You are who you are in large part because you learned it. And so (here is the great part) because you learned it, you can unlearn. Absolutely: It may be hard, challenging, and difficult. You can "teach old dogs new tricks,” I say—we just must use a different bone and take more time. Do not make excuses, make change—it is possible. You are not alone as a proc, and you can change (maybe, with professional help, but you can change).
Dutta, R. Truax, J.P., & Bouchard, J. (2017: July). General and domain-specific delays in students and their relationship to parenting. Paper presentation at the 10th Biennial Meeting on the Study of Procrastination, Chicago, IL.
Ferrari, J.R., & Olivette, M.J. (1993). Perceptions of parental control and the development of indecision among late adolescent females. Adolescence, 28, 963-970.
Ferrari, J.R., & Olivette, M.J. (1994). Parental authority influences on the development of female dysfunctional procrastination. Journal of Research in Personality, 28, 87-100.
Ferrari, J.R., Harriott, J., & Zimmerman, M. (1999). The social support networks of procrastinators: Friends or family in times of trouble? Personality and Individual Differences, 26, 321-334.
Gustavson, D.E. & Miyake, A. (2017: July). Genetic influences on procrastination underlie its correlations with personality, cognition, and psychopathology. Paper presentation at the 10th Biennial Meeting on the Study of Procrastination, Chicago, IL.
Tibbett, T.P. & Ferrari, J.R. (2019). Return to the origin: What creates a procrastination identity? Current Issues in Personality Psychology, 7, 1-7.
Uzun, B., LeBlanc, S., Guclu, I.O., Ferrari, J.R., & Aydemir, A. (2020). Mediation effect of family environment on academic procrastination and life satisfaction: Assessing emerging adults. Unpublished manuscript: Under review.