It's NOT about time.
Posted Sep 03, 2020
FEAR: An emotion for some folks sparking action, to address issues in front of them. Sometimes we call those persons “heroes,” since they seem to go into danger sites with fear focusing on something or someone other than themselves.
FEAR: An emotion for other people causing them to freeze, becoming unable to think clearly, act effectively, to begin or complete tasks. That sense of anxiety leads to indecision, inertia, inactivity.
Fear may lead to asking, “Still procrastinating?”
What IS procrastination?
Besides scholarly books and scientific articles on procrastination, about a decade ago I wrote a book reviewing the causes and consequences, plus some data-based "cures" for chronic procrastination. Across all these years, I found that many people still see procrastination as just poor time management, as being lazy. Well, as I say when speaking to audiences, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” Procrastination’s definition has evolved as the psychological mechanisms underlying the tendency have been uncovered. Today, many in this field of study say procrastination is the purposive delay in the start and/or completion of an intended task with feelings of discomfort over postponing. In other words, the person consciously waits, and feels bad about it.
OK, that is the act of procrastinating, but for many people, procrastination is a maladaptive lifestyle, an ineffective way of life. They use procrastination to cope and escape from what they need to do (fear?). It's more than delay, waiting, postponing, pondering – these are adaptive if and only if one acts. The chronic procrastinator will not act; they are great excuse makers and they let others “bail them out” of deadlines; they are frozen in the concern of what others will think of them (trying for social esteem protection). We excuse them, let them “get away with what needs to be done,” because we see it as impolite to hold others to deadlines.
How prevalent is chronic procrastination?
I’ve seen authors recently claim that procrastination rates in the past decade are increasing. I respectfully disagree. In a 1991 published study I found that 20% of adult women and men self-identify as “chronic procrastinators,” meaning they purposively delay tasks at home, school, work, in relationships, appointments, etc. This is their lifestyle. Notice that rate is higher than diagnoses of depression, substance abuse or alcoholism, panic attacks, to name a few. Yet people consider it a humorous, non-important issue. And in the past 30 years I’ve found this rate to be rather consistent across the U.S. and globally, in England, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Peru, Venezuela, Poland, Italy, Austria, S. Korea, Japan, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and India to name a few.
I am talking of chronic procrastination – not the tendency to just delay studying, getting an oil change, or cleaning dishes, etc. Those examples are situational; for instance, a student might delay reading a text or studying or writing a paper – but will not delay if there is free beer in the dorm! That is why we hear that 70-75% (not 95%, like some now claim) of college students report they engage in “procrastination.” Students are talking about a specific behavior they do not want to do. My interest is about those 20% chronic procrastinators, across the varied tasks of responsibility.
The prevalence of procrastination has not risen; instead, the media and even research psychologists are discussing/studying the topic more often. When I decided to study “proc” [as I call it] for my doctoral dissertation in 1988-89, there was practically no published work on the topic, just a few papers on ‘writer’s block’ and ‘career indecision.’ As a social-personality psychologist, I wanted to know more about this common tendency. So began my mission for understanding.
Why do people procrastinate?
This is the key question. In fact, there have been many views and explanations. In 2017, Tim Tibbett (then a doctoral student at Texas A&M) and I published a short encyclopedia piece on types/causes of procrastination; I invite you to read. Also, read my book connecting topics on procrastination.
Some scholars claim chronic procrastination is a self-regulation failure mechanism. People fail to balance effectively tasks that need to be done. That is true for some people. Other scholars see chronic procrastination as a self-handicapping strategy, blaming poor task performance on something plausible but other than oneself. That is true, for some people. Still other scholars say chronic procrastination is the result of fear, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, attention deficit, revenge, passive-aggressiveness, etc. That is true, for some people.
So, what is the cause? Depends on whether you study procrastination as a cause or a consequence; whether exploring a specific act (like academically-related delays called academic procrastination) or a more dispositional tendency impacting one’s quality of life (like indecision). Above all, don’t let fear stop you from being you.
In future posts, besides issues about procrastination that you might ask me, I'll cover other topics of interest (e.g., spirituality, community-based change, homelessness, and clutter). I plan to share how and why we need to focus our time, talents, and treasures improving the lives of others. Thank you for your interest, patience, and openness in exploring these topics. Thanks for all you do for others.
Ferrari, J.R. (2010). Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Ferrari, J.R., & Tibbett, T. P. (2017). Procrastination. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T.K. Shackelford (Eds). Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, pp. 1 - 8. New York: Springer Meteor Press.