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Procrastination: A Strategy for Change

A strategy to keep your appointments

It's not as effective to make yourself a "to do" list of goal intentions as it is to decide how, when and where you are going to accomplish each of the tasks you need to get done. In fact, a recently published study reveals that stating an implementation intention of when and where you'll act will make it more likely that you'll keep your appointments.

Shane Owens, Christine Bowman & Charles Dill of Hofstra University have explored the potential of implementation intentions as a way to overcome procrastination (see the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2008, 38, 366-384). Implementation intentions, a term coined by Peter Gollwitzer, is a specific type of intentional statement that defines when and where a specific behavior will be performed. Gollwitzer argues that forming an implementation intention causes the context specified in the intention to replace habitual acts making it the kind of plan that will overcome potential distractions. In addition, given that the context is the cue for behavior, there is less conscious intent needed, as environmental cues signal behavior.

There is an accumulating body of research that demonstrates the efficacy of implementation intentions for initiating behaviors, including following through on the intentions to take vitamins, participate in regular physical activity after surgery or ensuring that women perform breast self-examination. In short, implementation intentions seem like a powerful tool to move from a goal intention to an action.

Based on this research, Owens and his colleagues hypothesized that forming implementation intentions would help procrastinators. This makes sense to me and the students in my research group ( We have done a few studies of this sort with mixed results. Not surprisingly, Owens et al. also had some unexpected results.

Their method was simple yet elegant. They set up the appearance of two studies. Students who showed up for the first study were given a few questionnaires to complete including a measure of procrastination as well as a few items measuring behavioral intention. For the second study, now that they had some background information about the students, they had professors distribute sheets of paper that described an opportunity to earn extra credit through experimental participation. The paper listed 10 times at which the participants could report to take part in the second experiment. Here is where they did their experimental manipulation.

For one group, the non-implementation intention (Non-II) group, all they asked is that the students sign up for a particular time as explained above. For the second group, the implementation intention (II) group participants were given the following instructions along with the potential times:

"You are more likely to keep your appointment if you commit yourself to arriving to the assigned room at one of the times listed above. Select now the time at which you plan to come for the second experiment, write at the bottom of the second page, and return that page to your instructor."

In actuality, there wasn't a second experiment, and when participants showed up they were "debriefed" and the whole experiment was explained to them.

This research involved a series of statistical analyses that are beyond the scope of a blog posting to describe. Instead, I'm just going to summarize their main findings and what the authors interpreted them to mean about implementation intentions and procrastination.

1. There was a statistically significant difference between the implementation intention (II) group and the Non-II group in terms of attending the second experiment. A majority (61.8%) of the II participants got to the second study as opposed to 18.4% of the Non-II group.

2. The odds of getting to the appointment were about 7.73 times greater for the II group than the Non-II group.

3. Those who rated themselves low on procrastination kept their appointments more often than did those who rated themselves as high procrastinators.

4. Implementation intentions led to a more than a 40% increase in attendance, regardless of whether a participant was high or low on procrastination (this was a surprise, as we might expect high procrastinators to benefit more).

5. Lower intention (as measured at Time 1) and Non-II group participants kept their appointments 10.8% of the time, compared to Lower Intention/II-group participants who attended 48.6% of the time.

6. Finally, while the effects of implementation intentions within high or low procrastinators were nearly the same, it was evident that there was improvement for high procrastinators who formed implementation intentions (thus, both high and low procrastinators benefited from forming implementation intentions).

Owens and colleagues conclude, "With regards to a model of procrastination, the results indicate that the best prediction of behavioral enactment includes main effects for procrastination and implementation intentions." In other words, low procrastinators are more likely to keep their appointments and people who form implementation intentions are more likely to keep their appointments as scheduled, but procrastinators do benefit from making implementation intentions.

What can we take away from this study? Forming a specific implementation intention about what you will actually do, when and where will help. I certainly recommend this as a key strategy for anyone struggling with procrastination, even though our actual research results to date leave lots of questions unanswered. Implementation intentions seem to benefit us all, and those of us who procrastinate might just need them to combat the liability we face with our habitual task delay.

Although I'm not personally prone to chronic procrastination, there are some tasks that I find easy to put off such as flossing my teeth or doing daily push ups, sit ups and back exercises. To help ensure I get these important health behaviours done daily, I make implementation intentions about when and where I will do each, so that the context signals the behavior. The results make me a believer ☺

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