Procrastination (from Latin's "procrastinare", that translates in to: the prefix pro-, 'forward', and the suffix -crastinus, 'till next day' from cras, 'tomorrow') is the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. Sometimes, procrastination takes place until the "last minute" before a deadline. Procrastination can take hold on any aspect of life—putting off cleaning the stove, repairing a leaky roof, seeing a doctor or dentist, submitting a job report or academic assignment or breaching a stressful issue with a partner. Procrastination can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression, and self-doubt.
In a study of academic procrastination from the University of Vermont, published in 1984, 46% of the subjects reported that they "always" or "nearly always" procrastinate writing papers, while approximately 30% reported procrastinating studying for exams and reading weekly assignments (28% by and 30% respectively). Nearly a quarter of the subjects reported that procrastination was a problem for them, regarding the same tasks. However, as many as 65% indicated that they would like to reduce their procrastination when writing papers and approximately 62% indicated the same for studying for exams and 55% for reading weekly assignments.
A 1992 study showed that "52 [percent] of surveyed students indicated having a moderate to high need for help concerning procrastination." It is estimated that 80–95% of college students engage in procrastination, and approximately 75% consider themselves procrastinators.
In a study performed on university students, procrastination was shown to be greater on tasks that were perceived as unpleasant or as impositions than on tasks for which the student believed he or she lacked the required skills for accomplishing the task.
Gregory Schraw, Theresa Wadkins, and Lori Olafson in 2007 proposed three criteria for a behavior to be classified as academic procrastination: it must be counterproductive, needless, and delaying. Steel reviewed all previous attempts to define procrastination, and concluded in a 2007 study that procrastination is "to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay." Sabini & Silver argued that postponement and irrationality are the two key features of procrastination. Putting a task off is not procrastination, they argue, if there are rational reasons for doing so.
An approach that integrates several core theories of motivation as well as meta-analytic research on procrastination is the temporal motivation theory. It summarizes key predictors of procrastination (expectancy, value, and impulsiveness) into a mathematical equation.
The pleasure principle may be responsible for procrastination; one may prefer to avoid negative emotions, and to delay stressful tasks. As the deadline for their target of procrastination grows closer, they are more stressed and may, thus, decide to procrastinate more to avoid this stress. Some psychologists cite such behavior as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision. Piers Steel indicated in 2010 that anxiety is just as likely to get people to start working early as late, and that the focus of studies on procrastination should be impulsiveness. That is, anxiety will cause people to delay only if they are impulsive.
Main article: Perfectionism (psychology)
Traditionally, procrastination has been associated with perfectionism: a tendency to negatively evaluate outcomes and one's own performance, intense fear and avoidance of evaluation of one's abilities by others, heightened social self-consciousness and anxiety, recurrent low mood, and "workaholism". However, adaptive perfectionists—egosyntonic perfectionism—were less likely to procrastinate than non-perfectionists, while maladaptive perfectionists, who saw their perfectionism as a problem—egodystonic perfectionism—had high levels of procrastination and anxiety. In a regression analysis study of Steel, from 2007, it is found that mild to moderate level of perfectionists typically procrastinate slightly less than others, with "the exception being perfectionists who were also seeking clinical counseling".
Negative coping responses of procrastinating individuals tend to be avoidant or emotional rather than task-oriented or focused on problem-solving. Emotional and avoidant coping is employed to reduce stress (and cognitive dissonance) associated with putting off intended and important personal goals. This option provides immediate pleasure and is consequently very attractive to impulsive procrastinators at their first knowledge of achievable goals. There are several emotion-oriented strategies, similar to Freudian defense mechanisms, coping styles and self-handicapping.
Coping responses of procrastinators include the following.
- Avoidance: Avoiding the location or situation where the task takes place (e.g. a graduate student avoiding driving into the university).
- Denial and trivialization: Pretending that procrastinatory behavior is not actually procrastinating, but rather a task which is more important than the avoided one, or that the essential task that should be done is not of immediate importance.
- Distraction: Engaging or immersing in other behaviors or actions to prevent awareness of the task (e.g. intensive video game playing or web browsing). They are very sensitive to instant gratification and become powerless.
- Descending counterfactuality: Comparing a life situation with others who have it worse (e.g. "Yes, I procrastinated and got a B− in the course, but I didn't fail like one other student did.")
- Valorisation: Pointing in satisfaction to what one achieved in the meantime while one should have been doing something else.
- Blaming: Delusional attributions to external factors, such as rationalizing that the procrastination is due to external forces beyond one's control (e.g. "I'm not procrastinating, but this assignment is tough.")
- Mocking: Using humor to validate one's procrastination. The person uses slapstick or slipshod methods to criticize others' striving towards the goal as funny.
Task- or problem-solving measures are taxing from a procrastinator's outlook. If such measures are pursued, it is less likely the procrastinator would remain a procrastinator. However, pursuing such measures requires actively changing one's behavior or situation to prevent and minimize the re-occurrence of procrastination.
In 2006, it was suggested that neuroticism has no direct links to procrastination and that any relationship is fully mediated by conscientiousness. In 1982, it had been suggested that irrationality was an inherent feature of procrastination. "Putting things off even until the last moment isn't procrastination if there is a reason to believe that they will take only that moment". Steel et al. explained in 2001, "actions must be postponed and this postponement must represent poor, inadequate, or inefficient planning".
To a certain degree it is normal to procrastinate and it can be regarded as a useful way to identify what is important, due to a lower tendency of procrastination on truly valued tasks (for most people). On the other hand, excessive procrastination can become a problem and impede normal functioning. When this happens, procrastination has been found to result in health problems, stress,anxiety, sense of guilt and crisis as well as loss of personal productivity and social disapproval for not meeting responsibilities or commitments. Together these feelings may promote further procrastination and for some individuals procrastination gets almost chronic. Such procrastinators may have difficulties seeking support due to procrastination itself, but also social stigma and the belief that task-aversion is caused by laziness, lack of willpower or low ambition. In some cases problematic procrastination might be a sign of some underlying psychological disorder, but not necessarily.
Research on the physiological roots of procrastination have been concerned with the role of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for executive brain functions such as impulse control, attention and planning. Which is consistent with the notion that procrastination is strongly related to exactly these functions, or lack of them. The prefrontal cortex also acts as a filter, decreasing distracting stimuli, from other brain regions. Damage or low activation in this area of the brain can reduce an individual's ability to filter out distracting stimuli and result in poorer organization, a loss of attention, and increased procrastination. This is similar to the prefrontal lobe's role in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, where it is commonly underactivated.
In a 2014 U.S. study surveying procrastination and impulsiveness in fraternal- and identical twin pairs, both traits were found to be "moderately heritable". The two traits were not separable at the genetic level (rgenetic = 1.0), meaning no unique genetic influences of either trait alone was found. The authors confirmed three constructs developed from the evolutionary hypothesis that procrastination arose as a by-product of impulsivity: "(a) Procrastination is heritable, (b) the two traits share considerable genetic variation, and (c) goal-management ability is an important component of this shared variation."
Psychologist William J. Knaus estimated that more than 90% of college students procrastinate. Of these students, 25% are chronic procrastinators and they are usually the ones who end up dropping out of college.
Perfectionism is a prime cause for procrastination because demanding perfection usually results in failure. Unrealistic expectations destroy self-esteem and lead to self-repudiation, self-contempt, and widespread unhappiness. To overcome procrastination, it is essential to recognize and accept the power of failure without condemning,[better source needed] to stop focusing on faults and flaws and to set goals that are easier to achieve.
To overcome procrastination:
- Be aware of habits and thoughts that lead to procrastinating.
- Seek help for self-defeating problems such as fear, anxiety, difficulty in concentrating, poor time management, indecisiveness, and perfectionism.
- Evaluate your own goals, strengths, weaknesses, and priorities.
- Set realistic goals, and develop a personal positive link between the tasks and the concrete, meaningful goals.
- Restructure activities of daily life.
- Modify your environment for that newly gained perspective. For example, eliminate or minimize noise or distraction; put effort into relevant matters; reduce day-dreaming.
- Discipline yourself to the priorities you set.
- Motivate yourself with enjoyable activities, socializing and constructive hobbies.
- Tackle issues in small blocks of time, instead of trying to solve whole problems at once and then be intimidated.
- To prevent relapse, reinforce your pre-set goals based on needs and allow yourself to be rewarded in a balanced way for accomplished tasks.
Making a plan to complete tasks in a rigid schedule format might not work for everyone. There is no hard-and-fast rule to follow such a process if it turns out to be counter-productive. Instead of scheduling, it may be better to execute tasks in a flexible, unstructured schedule which has time slots for only necessary activities.
Piers Steel suggests that better time management is a key to overcoming procrastination, including being aware of and using one's "power hours" (being a "morning person" or "night owl"). A good approach is to creatively tap one's internal circadian rhythms that are best suited for the most challenging and productive work. Steel says that it is essential to have realistic goals, to tackle one problem at a time and to cherish the "small successes". Ann McGee-Cooper says that "if we learn to balance excellence in work with excellence in play, fun, and relaxation, our lives become happier, healthier, and a great deal more creative."[better source needed]
After contemplating his own procrastination habits, philosopher John Perry authored an essay entitled "Structured Procrastination", wherein he proposes a "cheat" method as a safer approach for tackling procrastination: using a pyramid scheme to reinforce the unpleasant tasks needed to be completed in a quasi-prioritized order. In other words, the procrastinator should postpone tasks with a mental note that one feels to do while engaged in a work that requires their current attentional focus.
For some people, procrastination can be persistent and tremendously disruptive to everyday life. For these individuals, procrastination may be symptomatic of a psychological disorder. Procrastination has been linked to a number of negative associations, such as depression, irrational behaviour, low self-esteem, anxiety and neurological disorders such as ADHD. Others have found relationships with guilt and stress. Therefore, it is important for people whose procrastination has become chronic and is perceived to be debilitating to seek out a trained therapist or psychiatrist to see if an underlying mental health issue may be present.
With a distant deadline, procrastinators report significantly less stress and physical illness than do non-procrastinators. However, as the deadline approaches, this relationship is reversed. Procrastinators report more stress, more symptoms of physical illness, and more medical visits, to the extent that, overall, procrastinators suffer more stress and health problems.
As noted above, procrastination is consistently found to be strongly correlated with conscientiousness, and moderately so with impulsiveness.
Though the reasons for the relationship are not clear, there also exists a relationship between procrastination and eveningness; that is, those who procrastinate more are more likely to go to sleep later and wake later. It is known that conscientiousness increases across the lifespan, as does morningness. Procrastination too decreases with age. However, even controlling for age, there still exists a relationship between procrastination and eveningness, which is yet to be explained.
Testing the hypothesis that procrastinators have less of a focus on the future due to a greater focus on more immediate concerns, college undergraduates completed several self-report questionnaires, which did indeed find that procrastinators focus less on the future. Researchers had also expected to find that procrastination would be associated with a hedonistic and "devil-may-care" perspective on the present; against their expectations, they found that procrastination was better predicted by a fatalistic and hopeless attitude towards life. This finding fits well with previous research relating procrastination and depression.
According to an Educational Science Professor, Hatice Odaci, academic procrastination is a significant problem during college years in part because many college students lack efficient time management skills in using the Internet. Also, Odaci notes that most colleges provide free and fast twenty-four-hour Internet service which some students are not usually accustomed to, and as a result of irresponsible use or lack of firewalls these students become engulfed in a world of procrastination.
"Student syndrome" refers to the phenomenon where a student will begin to fully apply himself or herself to a task only immediately before a deadline. This negates the usefulness of any buffers built into individual task durationestimates. Results from a 2002 study indicate that many students are aware of procrastination and accordingly set binding deadlines long before the date for which a task is due. These self-imposed binding deadlines are correlated with a better performance than without binding deadlines though performance is best for evenly spaced external binding deadlines. Finally, students have difficulties optimally setting self-imposed deadlines, with results suggesting a lack of spacing before the date at which results are due. In one experiment, participation in online exercises was found to be five times higher in the final week before a deadline than in the summed total of the first three weeks for which the exercises were available. Procrastinators end up being the ones doing most of the work in the final week before a deadline.
Other reasons cited on why students procrastinate include fear of failure and success, perfectionist expectations, as well as legitimate activities that may take precedence over school work, such as a job.
Procrastinators have been found to receive worse grades than non-procrastinators. Tice et al. (1997) report that more than one-third of the variation in final exam scores could be attributed to procrastination. The negative association between procrastination and academic performance is recurring and consistent. Howell et al. (2006) found that, though scores on two widely used procrastination scales were not significantly associated with the grade received for an assignment, self-report measures of procrastination on the assessment itself were negatively associated with grade.
In 2005, a study conducted by Angela Chu and Jin Nam Choi was published in the Journal of Social Psychology, in which they intended to understand task performance among procrastinators with the definition of procrastination as the absence of self-regulated performance, from the 1977 work of Ellis & Knaus. In their study they identified two types of procrastination: the traditional procrastination which they denote as passive, and active procrastination where the person finds enjoyment of a goal-oriented activity only under pressure. The study calls this active procrastination positive procrastination, as it is a functioning state in a self-handicapping environment. In addition, it was observed that active procrastinators have more realistic perceptions of time and perceive more control over their time than passive procrastinators, which is considered a major differentiator between the two types. But surprisingly, active and passive procrastinators showed similar levels of academic performance. The population of the study was college students and the majority of the sample size were women and Asian in origin. Comparisons with chronic pathological procrastination traits were avoided.
Different findings emerge when observed and self-report procrastination are compared. Steel et al. constructed their own scales based on Silver and Sabini’s "irrational" and "postponement" criteria. They also sought to measure this behavior objectively. During a course, students could complete exam practice computer exercises at their own pace, and during the supervised class time could also complete chapter quizzes. A weighted average of the times at which each quiz was finished formed the measure of observed procrastination, whilst observed irrationality was quantified with the number of practice exercises that were left uncompleted. Researchers found that there was only a moderate correlation between observed and self-reported procrastination (r = 0.35). There was a very strong inverse relationship between the number of exercises completed and the measure of postponement (r = −0.78). Observed procrastination was very strongly negatively correlated with course grade (r = −0.87), as was self-reported procrastination (though less so, r = −0.36). As such, self-reported measures of procrastination, on which the majority of the literature is based, may not be the most appropriate measure to use in all cases. It was also found that procrastination itself may not have contributed significantly to poorer grades. Steel et al. noted that those students who completed all of the practice exercises "tended to perform well on the final exam no matter how much they delayed."
Procrastination is considerably more widespread in students than in the general population, with over 70 percent of students reporting procrastination for assignments at some point. A 2014 panel study from Germany among several thousand university students found that increasing academic procrastination increases the frequency of seven different forms of academic misconduct, i.e., using fraudulent excuses, plagiarism, copying from someone else in exams, using forbidden means in exams, carrying forbidden means into exams, copying parts of homework from others, fabrication or falsification of data and the variety of academic misconduct. This study argues that academic misconduct can be seen as a means to cope with the negative consequences of academic procrastination such as performance impairment.
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Is procrastination a good thing?
I just finished doing a TV interview on Al Jazeera's the Riz Khan show, and that was one of the questions I and co-panelist Professor George Ainslie were asked. Dr. Ainslie's 1992 book, Picoeconomics, essentially kick started both the behavioral revolution that is presently happening in economics as well as my own research into procrastination. When I discovered the book in the late 1990s, I read it cover-to-cover - twice. It ultimately helped inspire my own book.
The show has a very international crowd and there were several big questions, including "Is procrastination cultural" and "What are the public policy implications?" I will tackle these latter two questions in later posts as they each deserves exclusive focus. (Which begs the question: by putting off everything else until later, am I now procrastinating? Answers and comments below, please?)
Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first comprehensive English dictionary, had procrastination defined as "delay" and some still maintain this definition. The Free Dictionary, for instance, maintains it is "slowness as a consequence of not getting around to it."
However, if procrastination means simply delay, then we should be comfortable placing it along with the similar concepts of scheduling or prioritizing. But we aren't. Consider the following two examples.
Imagine you are a surgeon and about to put a patient under general anaesthetic. If you find out that he or she if you just ate at a buffet and went back for seconds, you should hold off on the operation. There is a real risk unconscious patients could empty their stomachs directly into their lungs, where the digestive juices start to dissolve more than their last meal.
Or imagine you are vacationing in the Caribbean and have scheduled some sport fishing when a category five hurricane blows in. With winds in excess of 155 miles or 250 kilometres per hour and waves ten stories high, a category five is two full notches above hurricane Katrina when it devastated New Orleans. So you put your plans aside for a day or two.
Both of these examples have elements of delay, but would you characterize either of these delays that avoid dissolving or drowning as dilly-dallying? Likely not. Implicitly, like the Grinch regarding Christmas, we understand that maybe procrastination ... perhaps ... means a little bit more.
My fellow procrastination researcher (and uniquely accomplished dogsledder) Timothy Pychyl points out that "all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination." Procrastination is a very special type of postponement; unlike the delays in the examples above, procrastination is irrational. This important distinction is increasingly recognized. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines procrastination as "To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness," while Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary calls it "To put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done."
But it is the Oxford English Dictionary that gets closest to the irrational dark heart of the word. It defines procrastination as a postponement, "often with the sense of deferring though indecision, when early action would have been preferable," or as "defer[ing] action, especially without good reason."
Which is surely what Dr. Johnson meant, despite his original one-word definition. He later described procrastination as "one of the general weaknesses, which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind."
(And Dr. Johnson knew of what he spoke; the good doctor put off writing his article condemning procrastination until the last possible moment, composing it in Sir Joshua Reynolds' parlor while the errand boy waited outside to bring it to press. It appeared in the weekly periodical The Rambler in 1751.)
So is procrastination a good thing? Only by accident. If you put off something purposefully because you think it's a good idea to delay, you're not procrastinating. You're scheduling or prioritizing, sometimes just to feel the motivational thrill of doing it all at the last moment. Procrastination is when you planned or felt that you should have done the thing earlier, and then delayed anyway. In short, it is putting off despite expecting to be worse off.
Now the world doesn't always unfold according to our expectations, and sometimes Lady Luck steps in and we find that the task we have been putting off didn't need to get done after all - a truly happy moment, like when a project gets cancelled and it turns out the boss doesn't need that report you never got around to writing in the first place. This is "beneficial procrastination." But because it only happens when the world operates against your own expectations, on average, procrastination is only a good strategy for the clinically insane or the perpetually deluded. The way the world is and the way you believe it to be have to be at odds. Otherwise, you are just getting lucky occasionally by procrastinating. It's like going to Las Vegas and spinning the roulette wheel - once in a while you'll win, but most of the time you won't.
Still, a lot of people continue to misuse the word "procrastination" to describe useful delays, when there are plenty of other words that describe these delays better (e.g., "prudence"). And people misuse lots of other words, like "irony." For example, in the cartoon Futurama's Emmy- and Annie-nominated episode "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings" (which in itself is a reference to procrastination), the Robot Bender corrects everyone's use of the word "ironic". Whether you want to use the word "procrastination" correctly is up to you. But I do ask you this.
If you hear the munching of cookies and glugging of milk in your living room on Christmas Eve, and, after a brave decision to investigate, find a chubby and jolly old elf who has waited 365 days to deliver a sack full of brightly wrapped presents, thank him for his timeliness. He could have come earlier, but please don't characterize his choice to delay his Yuletide travels as procrastination.
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