The Secret Life of Procrastinators and the Stigma of Delay
Procrastinators have been shamed, so it is no wonder why they hide.
Posted Aug 14, 2017
Many successful people have a secret life: They procrastinate. People who are deadline driven have good reason to hide the way they get things done. After all, they have probably been shamed, punished, reprimanded, or berated for their delay, and, for some, the stigma of being a procrastinator has lingered since grammar school. Procrastinators commonly experience shame or guilt about their task completion style, since the judgments of others lead them to feel humiliated or blameworthy, even though they are not inclined to change their way of doing things.
Numerous studies have investigated procrastination behavior, often seeking to find some underlying pathology or undesirable characteristic that leads people to delay.[i] The possible “causes” of procrastination that have been investigated are wide-ranging, and a prevailing objective of these studies, aside from trying to figure out what is “wrong” with people who procrastinate, is to search for successful interventions to reduce the frequency of procrastination in those who do it.
I do not want to shame my colleagues for inadvertently or intentionally shaming procrastinators, but any internet search regarding procrastination will reveal many studies in which derogatory attributions are made about those who are driven by deadlines. Such studies attempt to correlate procrastination with, for example, a lack of conscientiousness,[ii] impulsivity,[iii] pathological worry,[iv] behaving and thinking irrationally,[v] cheating and plagiarism,[vi] a work-avoidant goal orientation,[vii] problems with distress regulation,[viii] neuroticism,[ix][x] task averseness,[xi] avoidance motives,[xii] fraudulent excuses,[xiii] self-handicapping,[xiv] role conflict,[xv] avoiding shame and guilt,[xvi] fear of failure,[xvii] and cyberslacking.[xviii]
Regrettably, these studies were not designed to explain why some people procrastinate and still successfully complete tasks, while others procrastinate and do not succeed. To determine why some fail in their endeavors, study participants would have to be separated on the basis of those who are successful at task completion, whether or not they procrastinated in the process, from those who do suboptimal work or fail. Thus, in most procrastination studies, procrastinators who succeed are in the same pool of shame with people who fail. As I noted in a previous post, those who fail may try to save face by blaming their failure on procrastinating, and they are very different than individuals who are driven by deadlines. I define procrastinators as people who are primarily motivated to complete tasks when their emotions are activated by an imminent deadline. They are deadline driven. Purposely delaying an intended course of action — a common understanding of procrastination in the research literature — is not synonymous with insufficient action or a failure to act. Nevertheless, successful individuals who procrastinate are unfairly denigrated for their way of doing things.
Although both task-driven people (those motivated by their emotions to attend to things immediately) and deadline-driven procrastinators experience heightened emotional states during task completion, to date only procrastinators have been targeted in studies that seek to understand such behavior. Unfortunately, those studies do not consider the potential positive effect of intense emotions as being sources of energy that motivate task completion. Instead, the research has been geared, for example, toward attempting to demonstrate that “arousal” or “thrill-seeking” are simply motives for procrastinating.[xix] In one comprehensive study researchers expected to find that procrastinators were more likely than others to have arousal‑based personality traits, but they failed to find significant differences.[xx] Nevertheless, ignoring the role of emotions in motivating behavior, these researchers published an unfortunate and erroneous speculation that “individuals who claim that they are motivated to procrastinate because they believe they work better under pressure are likely fooling themselves, providing a seemingly believable explanation to excuse their procrastinatory behavior.”[xxi] Thus, they offer an accusatory and shaming interpretation regarding the behavior of procrastinators.
In actuality, racing the clock emotionally stimulates those who procrastinate. Since emotions serve to direct one’s attention, we might consider such deadline stimulation highly adaptive as well. Moreover, procrastinating enables some people to perform at peak efficiency,[xxii] and their task delay enables them to work diligently and attain optimal efficiency.[xxiii] Professionally successful procrastinators report that when they try to get something done ahead of time, often they are compromised in terms of both motivation and concentration. Thus, for procrastinators, the energizing quality and focus provided by emotions that are activated upon nearing a deadline are essential.
Assuming that procrastinators have low conscientiousness, a researcher wondered how procrastinators would evaluate the performance of coworkers who miss deadlines. Participants in this study evaluated the performance of a nonexistent contrived colleague who was late for business deadlines that would affect the company’s productivity.[xxiv] Whether you procrastinate yourself or not, if you are successful at meeting deadlines, it’s likely you would evaluate their performance as inadequate. However, the researcher expected to find that procrastinators would excuse the behavior of the contrived colleague. Instead, he found that people who identified as procrastinators were more inclined than nonprocrastinators to blame the contrived colleague, and not external factors, for poor performance. Unfortunately, the researcher did not consider the fact that successful people who procrastinate are effective at meeting deadlines, and, therefore, of course they would be critical of someone who misses them. Nevertheless, the researcher speculated that blaming the colleague was reflective of the procrastinators’ projection of displeasure regarding their own inadequacies, and thus believed that the target, though similar to themselves, should be punished.[xxv] This particular study illustrates the confusion that occurs in research when procrastinators who are successful at meeting deadlines are not separated from those who miss deadlines. More important, the stigma of procrastination leads researchers to infer pathology when it isn’t present.
Researchers tend to be surprised when their studies reveal that successful students procrastinate. In an investigation of academic procrastination and course anxiety, a researcher noted “an extremely disturbing finding” that a large proportion of graduate students, who represented the upper echelon of academic achievers with a mean grade point average of 3.57, had reported that they always or nearly always procrastinate on studying for examinations and on weekly reading assignments.[xxvi] Actually, this is not surprising at all. By effectively using time pressure as a stimulus, procrastinators activate anxiety, which motivates them to get things done.
Even when procrastinators consistently meet deadlines, they are assumed to have pathological traits or conditions that account for their delay. In this regard, I want to let you know about a study that pertains specifically to deadlines. It involved how well college students estimate the amount of time they need to get something done.[xxvii] The assumption of the researchers was that procrastinators, more than nonprocrastinators, would tend to underestimate the amount of time required to complete a task. Thus, they predicted that procrastinators would be prone to “planning fallacy.” In terms of stigmatizing procrastinators, this notion seems to suggest they are delusional. Unexpectedly, the researchers found procrastinators to be as competent as nonprocrastinators in matters pertaining to time estimation and at attaining the study goals they predicted. The investigators explained that where a deadline is absolute, such as an exam date, procrastinators and nonprocrastinators alike set realistic study plans and met them. However, the researchers then speculated that when the prediction of a deadline is more flexible, such as predicting the completion date of a thesis, procrastinators would fall short. Of course, they were once again searching for flaws in deadline-driven procrastinators where none were found. The fact is, when deadlines are not absolute or clearly defined, procrastinators do successfully meet them. They have their ways.
In a forthcoming post, I will reveal how deadline-driven procrastinators meet deadlines that are not absolute and effectively use the octane provided by their emotions when a deadline is imminent. In the meantime, let’s understand differences rather than shame procrastinators for the way they get things done.
This post was, in part, excerpted from my book, What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. For more information, please visit marylamia.com or whatmotivatesgettingthingsdone.com
[i]. Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure, Psychological Bulletin, 133: 65-94.
[ii] Schouwenburg, H. C., & Lay, C. H. (1995). Trait procrastination and the big-five factors of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 18(4), 481-490.
[iii] Ferrari, J. R. (1993). Procrastination and impulsiveness: Two sides of a coin? In W. G.McCown, J. L. Johnson, & M. B. Shure (Eds.),The impulsive client: Theory, research,and treatment (pp. 265-276). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
[iv] Stöber, J., & Joormann, J. (2001). Worry, procrastination, and perfectionism: Differentiating amount of worry, pathological worry, anxiety, and depression. Cognitive therapy and research, 25(1), 49-60.
[v] Ellis, A., & Knaus, W. J. (1979). Overcoming procrastination: or, how to think and act rationally in spite of life's inevitable hassles. Signet.
[vi] Roig, M., & DeTommaso, L. (1995). Are college cheating and plagiarism related to academic procrastination?. Psychological Reports, 77(2), 691-698.
[vii]. Wolters, C. (2003). Understanding Procrastination from a Self-Regulated Learning Perspective, Journal of Educational Psychology 95,179-87.
[viii]. Tice, D. Bratslavsky, E., and Baumeister, R. (2001). “Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence Over Impulse Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It!” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80, 53-67. doi: 10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.168.
[ix].McCown, W., Petzel, T., and Rupert, P. (1987). An experimental study of some hypothesized behaviors and personality variables of college student procrastinators, Personality and Individual Differences, 8, 781-786; Henri C. Schouwenburg, H. and Lay, C. (1995). Trait procrastination and the big-five factors of personality. Personality and Individual Differences,18, 481-490.
[x] Lee, D. G., Kelly, K. R., & Edwards, J. K. (2006). A closer look at the relationships among trait procrastination, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(1), 27-37.
[xi]. Blunt, A. K. and Pychyl, T. A. (2000). Task aversiveness and procrastination: A multi-dimensional approach to task aversiveness across stages of personal projects. Personality & Individual Differences, 28, 153-167; Milgram, N., Marshevsky, S., and Sadeh, C. (1995). Correlates of academic procrastination: Discomfort, task aversiveness, and task capability. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 129, 145–155.
[xii] . Ferrari, J. R. (1992). Procrastination in the workplace: Attributions for failure among individuals with similar behavioral tendencies. Journal of Individual Differences 13, 1315-319. Doi: 10.1016/0191-8869(92)90108-2.
[xiii]. Joseph R. Ferrari, J. R. and Beck, B. L. (1998). Affective responses before and after fraudulent excuses by academic procrastinators. Education, 529–537; Roig, M. and DeTommaso, L. (1995). Are college cheating and plagiarism related to academic procrastination? Psychological Reports,77, 691-698.
[xiv]. Beck, B. L., Koons, S. R., & Milgrim, D. L. (2000). Correlates and consequences of behavioral procrastination: The effects of academic procrastination, self-consciousness, self-esteem and self-handicapping. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 3-13.; Ferrari, J. R., & Tice, D. M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in Personality, 34,73-83.
[xv]. Senecal, C., Julien, E., & Guay, F. (2003). Role conflict and academic procrastination: A self-determination perspective. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 135-145. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.144.
[xvi]. Fee, R. L. and Tangney, J. P. (2000). Procrastination: A Means of Avoiding Shame or Guilt? Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 167-184.
[xvii]. Schouwenburg, H. C. (1992). Procrastinators and fear of failure: an exploration of reasons for procrastination. European Journal of Personality, 6, 225–236.
[xviii] Lavoie, J. A. and Pychyl, T. A. (2001). Cyberslacking and the procrastination superhighway: A web-based survey of online procrastination, attitudes, and emotion. Social Science Computer Review, 19(4), 431-444.
[xix]. Burka, J. B. and Yuen, L. M. (1983). Procrastination: Why you do it and what to do about it. Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley.; Ferrari, J., Barnes, K., and Steel, P. (2009). Life regrets by avoidant and arousal procrastinators: Why put off today what you will regret tomorrow? Journal of Individual Differences, 30, 163-168.
[xx]. Simpson, W. K., & Pychyl, T. A. (2009). In search of the arousal procrastinator: Investigating the relation between procrastination, arousal-based personality traits and beliefs about motivations. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 906–911.
[xxi]. Simpson, “In Search of the Arousal Procrastinator,” 910.
[xxii]. Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007). Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 12-25.
[xxiii]. Lay, C. H., Edwards, J. M., Parker, J. D., & Endler, N. S. (1989). An assessment of appraisal, anxiety, coping, and procrastination during an examination period. European Journal of Personality, 3, 195–208.
[xxiv]. Ferrari, J. (1992a). Procrastination in the workplace: Attributions for failure among individuals with similar behavioral tendencies. Journal of Individual Differences, 13, 315-319. doi: 10.1016/0191-8869(92)90108-2.
[xxv]. Ferrari, “Procrastination in the Workplace,” 318.
[xxvi]. Azure, J. (2011). Correlates of course anxiety and academic procrastination in higher education. Global Journal of Educational Research, 10, 55-65.
[xxvii]. Pychyl, T., Morin, R. & Salmon, B. (2000). Procrastination and the planning fallacy: An examination of the study habits of university students. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 135–150.