Past, Present, Future: Does Time Orientation Influence Procrastination?

Procrastination . . . is it about time?

Posted May 28, 2008

So, procrastination is about time?

A paper published last year by Joe Ferrari (DePaul University) and Juan Francisco Diaz-Morales (Complutense University, Madrid) indicates that procrastination is related to time orientation. In fact, they conclude that different time orientations reflect different motives for procrastination.

Their Research
Ferrari and Diaz-Morales collected data from 275 middle-aged adults in Spain. Their participants complete two measures of procrastination that Ferrari describes as measures of arousal and avoidance motives for procrastination, respectively. In addition, the participants' time-orientation was measured using a Spanish version of the Zimbardo's Time Perspective Inventory. This scale includes five dimensions:

1) past negative: a general negative, aversive view of the past ("I think about the bad things that have happened to me in the past."),

2) present-hedonistic: a hedonistic risk-taking attitude toward time and life ("Taking risk keeps my life from becoming boring"),

3) future: goal planning, and achieving ("I am able to resist temptations when I know that there is work to be done"),

4) past-positive: an attitude optimistic, and positive toward the past ("I enjoy stories about how things used to be in the ‘good old times'"), and

5) present-fatalist: a hopeless attitude toward the future and life ("My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence").

(You can see all of the items on this scale here).
(You can see all of the items on this scale here).

What they found - In their words . . .
"Avoidant procrastination was related positively with a present-fatalistic orientation, a sense that their future is predestined regardless of one's actions, whereas the present seems controlled by fate" (p. 712; emphasis added).

"Arousal procrastination was related with lower future orientation, perhaps because chronic arousal procrastinators avoid or dismiss future goals in favor of reducing present tension (Ferrari, 2001) or seek more immediate and pleasurable rewards than longer plans or future goals (Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau & Blunt, 2000). Thus arousal procrastination may arise from a lack of planning for future goals, and by orientation toward present enjoyment, pleasure, excitement, and an emphasis on novelty and sensation seeking" (p. 712; emphasis added).

What we might learn from their research
The authors note that the relations found were statistically significant, but small, so much more research is needed to tease out the effects of personality noted here. In addition, there were other effects that the authors note as "marginal" that are of interest. For example, arousal procrastination was related to higher scores on the present-hedonist time orientation. In other words, arousal procrastination was related to a desire to take risks. This makes theoretical sense, although the lack of statistical significance led to its omission from their discussion.

Despite these limitations, their results are provocative as this research begins to flesh out another individual difference variable related to procrastination. Their results indicate that not only do we differ in the way we think about time, but these differences relate to our tendency to procrastinate for avoidance and arousal reasons.

Overall, their results reveal that differences in the way we think about the present and the future are related to our tendency to needlessly delay tasks. Of course, there's a great deal of evidence that what we think influences what we do, and that changing how we think, the things we say to ourselves as well as how much and on what we ruminate, will change how we feel and the choices we make. This research marks the beginning of our understanding of how the various dimensions of time-orientation might be related to different motives for procrastination.

Concluding thoughts . . .
The results of this research can contribute to our individual insight. To the extent that we find ourselves thinking things like, "My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence," we are now aware that this thinking may contribute to our task avoidance. Similarly, if we find ourselves thinking things like, "I am not able to resist temptations when I know that there is work to be done," or even, "Taking risk keeps my life from becoming boring," we should recognize that we're vulnerable to impulsive decisions to delay now and pay later. I think of these sorts of thoughts as "flags." They should serve to signal us that we're about to undermine our own plans and goals. They should be signals that we need to bring our conscious awareness to the choices at hand so that we are not simply victims of our habits (see my previous blog about habits and procrastination).

Of course, as I wrote in my previous blog about wisdom, insight is only one part of the wisdom we need for effective self change. While necessary, it's seldom sufficient without the "good sense" to act on our self-understanding. In each case, whether procrastination is motivated by avoidance or arousal, it ultimately comes down to acting on our intentions despite our habitual response. For me, that always means the same first step, "just get started!"


Ferrari, J.R., & J.F Diaz-Morales (2007). Procrastination: Different time orientations reflect different motives. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 707-714.

Pychyl, T.A., Lee, J.M., Thibodeau, R., & Blunt, A. (2000). Five days of emotion: An Experience sampling study of undergraduate student procrastination. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 239-254

Zimbardo, P.G., & Boyd, N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable, individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 1271-1288.