Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination

Posted on November 29, 2016

Procrastination isn't just hateful, it's downright harmful. In research settings, people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being. In the real world, undesired delay is often associated with inadequate retirement savings and missed medical visits.

In the past 20 years, the peculiar behavior of procrastination has received a burst of empirical interest. Psychological researchers now recognize that there's far more to it than simply putting something off until tomorrow. True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we'll suffer as a result. A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions seems to be its very foundation.

A major misperception about procrastination is that it's an innocuous habit at worst, and maybe even a helpful one at best. Sympathizers of procrastination often say it doesn't matter when a task gets done, so long as it's eventually finished. Some even believe they work best under pressure. Stanford philosopher John Perry, author of the book The Art of Procrastination, has argued that people can dawdle to their advantage by restructuring their to-do lists so that they're always accomplishing something of value. Psychological scientists have a serious problem with this view. They argue that it conflates beneficial, proactive behaviors like pondering (which attempts to solve a problem) or prioritizing (which organizes a series of problems) with the detrimental, self-defeating habit of genuine procrastination. If progress on a task can take many forms, procrastination is the absence of progress.

A study with college students and procrastination found that the costs of procrastination outweighed its benefits. College students were rated on an established scale of procrastination, then their academic performance, stress, and general health were tracked throughout the semester. Initially there seemed to be a benefit to procrastination, as these students had lower levels of stress compared to others, presumably as a result of putting off their work to pursue more pleasurable activities. In the end, however, the costs of procrastination far outweighed the temporary benefits. Procrastinators earned lower grades than other students and reported higher cumulative amounts of stress and illness. True procrastinators didn't just finish their work later - the quality of it suffered, as did their own well-being.

Chronic procrastinators have perpetual problems finishing tasks, while situational ones delay based on the task itself. A perfect storm of procrastination occurs when an unpleasant task meets a person who's high in impulsivity and low in self-discipline. (The behavior is strongly linked with the Big Five personality trait of conscientiousness.) Most delayers betray a tendency for self-defeat, but they can arrive at this point from either a negative state (fear of failure, for instance, or perfectionism) or a positive one (the joy of temptation). All told, these qualities have led researchers to call procrastination the "quintessential" breakdown of self-control.

"I think the basic notion of procrastination as self-regulation failure is pretty clear," says Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, in Canada. "You know what you ought to do and you're not able to bring yourself to do it. It's that gap between intention and action."

Research has found that this gap may be due to our emotions. A study, led by Tice, reinforced the dominant role played by mood in procrastination. Tice and colleagues reported that students didn't procrastinate before an intelligence test when primed to believe their mood was fixed. In contrast, when they thought their mood could change (and particularly when they were in a bad mood), they delayed practice until about the final minute. The findings suggested that self-control only succumbs to temptation when present emotions can be improved as a result.

"Emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination, because to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task," says Pychyl. "When you say task-aversiveness, that's another word for lack of enjoyment. Those are feeling states - those aren't states of which [task] has more utility."

To read the full article, click on the link below.


Category(s):Academic Issues, Other, Workplace Issues

Source material from Association for Psychological Science


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