Coping and Procrastination: The Role of Hope

Hope for procrastinators

Posted May 21, 2008

I am particularly interested in this topic for a couple of reasons. First, this study involved graduate students. It is a group that is not studied a great deal, particularly doctoral students. In noting the lack of research in this area, past presidents of Princeton and Harvard, William Bowen & Neil Rudenstine, respectively, wrote:

There has been considerable speculation about the reasons for the relative lack of scholarly interest in graduate education. . . One clinical psychologist has suggested the traumas associated with pursuit of the PhD may even have discouraged many scholars from returning to such a personally painful subject! (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; p. 2, emphasis added)

I know from the emails that I've received in response to my blog and my podcasts ( that there are many graduate students reading these entries. I'm sure you can relate to the quote above! Graduate studies are rich and exciting intellectually, but certainly stressful. My own doctoral research involved graduate students, and stress was a central theme from the participants' perspective (that and time urgency, time adequacy and procrastination - it was a turning point in my research).

The second reason that I'm particularly interested in this research is that it combines a number of interesting themes in psychological study including coping within the context of positive psychology. As you'll see, the role of meaning is important here, and I'll end with some comments on this.

From a psychological perspective, hope has been broadly characterized by Charles Richard ("Rick") Snyder (1944-2006) as the "will" and the "ways" to achieve our goals. Specifically, Synder defines hope "as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways" (2002, p. 249). The first part involves feeling capable to create a reasonable plan of action (the "way") and the second part is the motivation to follow the plan (the "will").

        Obviously, defined like this,
hope is the inverse of procrastination.

        Obviously, defined like this,
hope is the inverse of procrastination.

The recent article that links hope to procrastination is research conducted by Elizabeth Alexander (University of Texas at Austin) and Anthony Onwuegbuzie (University of South Florida). Not surprisingly, given Tony's interest in graduate-student education (and Elizabeth's current status in graduate school), they studied graduate students. Having reviewed the literature on hope, they knew that hope is positively associated with achievement from grade school through college as well as maladaptive studying and examination-taking coping strategies, and it is negatively associated with levels of anxiety among graduate students taking statistics courses . As they summarize this research, ". . . low-hope students appear to use more avoidant coping strategies, when facing stressful academic situations" (2007, p. 1304).

Given that hope is negatively associated with avoidance, they hypothesized that hope would be negatively related to procrastination, particularly fear of failure. The more hope a student has, the less he or she would procrastinate.

Their Research
In sum, for this study, they had 116 graduate students complete a measure of academic procrastination and a measure of hope. Both measures have multiple components, so they used a statistical technique that explored the associations among the components of each scale. Interestingly, the participants in their sample had greater-than-average levels of hope and average levels of academic procrastination. Their results revealed that "students who exhibited higher levels of hope were less likely to procrastinate on writing term papers, studying for exams, and reading weekly assignments, than were those with lower hope scores" (2007, p. 1307).

What we might learn from this
Given that hope has an already well-established relation with avoidant coping, the overall results are not surprising. And, on the surface, it would seem that helping people become more hopeful might reduce their procrastination. For example, changing our attributions about a situation, known as "attributional retraining," may help. Rather than attributing a recent failure to a lack of ability (something we can't do much about or be hopeful about), we can learn to see the important role of effort in our performance and attribute our performance more to our effort (or lack thereof). We can change effort and maintain hope in the future. In fact, attributional retraining has been shown to improve motivation for completing academic assignments and boost levels of hope.

Although this may be effective, I agree with Alexander and Onwuegbuzie who write in their concluding comments to the paper,

". . . it could be that helping graduate students clarify why they are in school and what they intend to do with their advanced degrees is equally effective" (pp. 1308-1309).

In saying this, Alexander and Onwuegbuzie are addressing the relation of hope to the goals in our lives, something which is integral to Snyder's "Hope Theory." As Snyder writes, ". . . my guiding assumption is that human actions are goal directed" (2002, p. 250). I agree, of course, and all of my research and thinking about procrastination is focused on goal pursuit. That said, it's beyond the scope of this blog entry to explain the psychology of goal pursuit, but I will come back to it as we explore procrastination further.

Closing thoughts . . .
The overall message relating hope, goals and procrastination is one of linking the personal meaning of our goals to the tasks at hand. As I've said in previous blog entries (e.g., ), we often need to transcend the current situation to see our current task within the context of our overarching goals and values. Doing this allows us to find the meaning in what may seem a meaningless task. Linking the task to our values and finding meaning in the task also reduces its aversiveness.

Hope springs eternal for those who transcend the immediate situation, particularly their feelings (e.g., Giving in to feel good), and find meaning in their goals. In that deliberate and conscious reflection on the meaning of the task, we find purpose and the reason to . . . just get started.

Alexander, E.S., & Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2007). Academic procrastination and the role of hope as a copying strategy. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 1301-1310.

Bowen, W.G., & Rudenstine, N.L. (1992). In pursuit of the PhD. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pychyl, T. A., & Little, B. R. (1998). Dimensional specificity in the prediction of subjective well-being: Personal projects in pursuit of the PHD. Social Indicators Research, 45, 423-473.

Snyder, C.R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get from there to here. New York: Free Press.

Synder, C.R. (2002). Target article: Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 249-275.