It’s about Time!! Exploring the Perilous Path of Procrastination
Procrastination, now a ubiquitous phenomenon, has been defined as the voluntary delay of an important task that we intend to do, all the while knowing that the delay will cause difficulties for us. Some potential signs of procrastination include filling one’s day with low priority tasks, leaving important tasks unattended, waiting to be in the ‘right mood’ to handle a task and deciding to focus on a important task but then diverting to something insignificant. Psychologists have now accepted procrastination to be a form of self-defeating behaviour (Tice & Ferrari, 2000) grounded in a gap between a person’s intentions and actions. Thus while a person knows what he or she is supposed to do, they cannot bring themselves to do it in a timely manner.
An increasing number of people are reporting themselves to be procrastinators. A widely-known meta-analytic study found that while in
1978, 5% of the population admitted engaging in chronic procrastination, this number had risen to 26% by 2007 (Steele, 2007). The same study established that 80 to 95% of college students procrastinate with respect to their academic work.
Psychologists have been keen to study the impacts of procrastination and the reasons underlying it. A large epidemiological study (Steele & Ferrari, 2013) showed that men tend to procrastinate more often than women. Further younger people procrastinate more often than older people. It has also been established that procrastination is also more common when it is enabled by the surrounding environment. Fitzsimons & Finkel (2011) report that people who believe their partner will help them with a task are more likely to procrastinate on it. On the contrary non-procrastinators are generally high on the Big Five trait of conscientiousness and tend to be self-disciplined, persistent and possess a strong sense of personal responsibility.
What triggers students and people in general, to procrastinate? Research has been able to identify a number of cognitive distortions that can fuel procrastination. These include overestimating the time left for task while underestimating how long certain activities will take to complete, overestimating one’s future motivation and incorrectly assuming that one will need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project (Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995). Dr. Joseph Ferrari, psychology professor at DePaul University, in Chicago has suggested that students’ beliefs such as it is thrilling to delay work to the last minute or that they work best under pressure, are the basis of procrastination. These beliefs appear to be incorrect in light of data collected on actual student performance. Students’ procrastination appears to be negatively linked to examination outcomes and assignment grades (Steel, 2007). In a study on undergraduate dental students in India, Lakshminarayan, Potdar and Reddy (2013) found that students high on procrastination scores, performed below average in their academics. Further, instead of being thrilling, procrastination increases stress.
Tice & Baumeister (1997) rated college students on a scale of procrastination. Students’ academic performance, stress, and general health were then tracked through the semester. Initially, procrastinators experienced lower levels of stress than others. However as the semester progressed they obtained lower grades and reported higher stress and illness levels than others. In the arena of work, procrastination has been associated with lower income, shorter duration of employment and more unemployment (Nguyen et al., 2013). With respect to matters of heath, procrastination has been linked to delays in obtaining medical treatments and under-utilization of mental health care (Rozental & Carlbring, 2014; Stead, Shanahan & Neufeld, 2010).
Another explanation for procrastination has been in terms of self-doubt. Dr. Timothy Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ontario, states that procrastinators worry about performing inadequately or fear that their success may raise others' expectations. Such anxieties cause them to avoid work. Pychyl and his co-researchers (2000) have also highlighted the role of mood and emotions on procrastination through a study in which:
Students were provided a pager and tracked for five days leading up to a school deadline. Students were required to report their level of procrastination and emotional state each time their pager beeped. Results indicated that as the preparatory tasks became harder, the students marginalized them for more pleasurable activities.
Yet, when they did so, they reported high levels of guilt. These results indicate that while procrastinators recognize the harm in what they’re doing, they are unable to overcome the emotional urge to divert away from work.
Some researchers believe that in certain forms, procrastination can be helpful and need not lead to negative outcomes. Choi (2005) for instance has differentiated between two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators and active procrastinators. The former tend to postpone tasks until the last minute because of an inability to act in a timely manner. The latter prefer the time pressure and purposely decide to delay a task but are still able to complete tasks before deadlines. In addition they manage to achieve satisfactory outcomes. Choi and Chu (2005) tested a 12-item scale they developed to distinguish the two procrastination types among a group of undergraduate students from three different universities. The results indicated that while active procrastinators reported the same level of procrastination as their passive counterparts, they also exhibited an industrious use of time, adaptive coping strategies and academic outcomes that were either almost nearly identical to or better than those of non-procrastinators. Choi's research points out that there is a clear difference between deliberate, thoughtful delay of action and the lack of self-regulatory abilities that are a feature of procrastination. In fact intentional delay of the kind found among Choi’s active procrastinators may for some people, be a necessary part of managing daily tasks while pursuing goals. Intentional delays that result in beneficial outcomes can include forms of proactive behaviours such pondering (which could lead to new ways of solving problems) and prioritizing, which involves organising tasks in order of their significance.
Possible Interventions for Procrastination
For chronic procrastinators, procrastination is a deeply entrenched habit. Habitual behaviours are not easy to reduce or eliminate, even when a person recognises them as harmful. Altering a habit demands a genuine motivation for change, a willingness to engage in new behaviours and remaining consistent in one’s attempts. Psychologists have suggested a number of practises that can curtail procrastination behaviours. However these practises have to be followed regularly in order for change to take place. One obvious suggestion has been to set deadlines for one’s self, when external deadlines are absent. While not as powerful as external deadlines, self-imposed deadlines do provide some impetus to begin work. Research by Ariely & Wertenbrochn (2002) has shown that procrastinators are willing to set meaningful deadlines for themselves, and that these do improve the probability of task completion. In cases where one can ask for an external deadline, it is good to do so if you know that you are likely to procrastinate without it. However simply setting a deadline may not be helpful enough. Some additional practises can help further.
When one is faced with a large and complex task, rather than attempting to follow a single deadline that may be set for after a month, it is better to break the task into more manageable units and associate a deadline for each small task. Having multiple deadlines, all leading to the final deadline may create a greater urgency to begin one’s work. Another way of doing things is to establish starting dates for each task along with the finishing dates. Ideally, these dates should be on display (say on one’s dressing room mirror) so that one is reminded of them regularly.
When faced with multiple but separate tasks that need to be completed, making and prioritizing a to-do list is important. Priorities may be assigned using the Eisenhower Urgent/Important principle presented by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. According to the principle, tasks may be prioritised on basis of their urgency and importance, resulting in 4 quadrants. The first quadrant is called Do first quadrant. Within this are put those tasks that you consider important, urgent and thus worthy of completion as soon as possible. An example could be preparation for a test or presentation scheduled within the next 24 hours. The second quadrant is the Schedule quadrant. This quadrant contains tasks that are very important for a person, but are not as urgent as those in the first quadrant. Not completing them right away will not have strong negative consequences in the short-run (although there may be negative consequences in the long-run). For example, re-starting one’s Yoga classes- while this ought to be done as it is important for one’s health, the classes can be joined once the test/presentation is over. And once the presentation is out of the way, this task can be shifted to the first quadrant. The third quadrant is for tasks that one can delegate to others. These are tasks which require urgent completion but are less important to one’s self and hence can be assigned to others. For example, sending a courier to a client or getting some notes photocopied from the market. The fourth and last quadrant is called Don’t Do because it refers to tasks that are neither urgent nor important. Clearly if a person is spending too much time on tasks in the don’t do quadrant, they need to revise their priorities.
Procrastination is often a result of the many pleasurable distractions that steal our attention. These include our phones, television and easy access to practically anything on our laptops. It is therefore important to block access to as many distractions as possible during one’s working time. Once the task is complete, one can get back to the distractions for a stipulated period of time. Thus, for example, it is only after someone has worked on their project for an hour that they can check their phone. It is also helpful to keep the phone on silent at a place slightly far away from where one is sitting. A silent phone if close by will still remain a distraction.
Sometimes it’s about changing one’s environment. Different environments can have varied effects on a person’s productivity. For one person, their drawing room may be the best to work. For others, the drawing room may mean watching television and talking to all the family members who pass through the room. In the latter case, attempting to complete work in the drawing room would certainly produce procrastination. In such a case it would be best to change the workspace.
It may also help to get those tasks that one finds least pleasant done early which leaves the rest of the day for tasks that one finds more enjoyable. Another related possibility can be to engage in harder tasks at one’s peak time. Thus for instance some persons work better in the afternoons than morning. In this case, the hard tasks may be scheduled for the afternoon. Finding something positive or worthwhile about the task one is engaged in and forgiving one’s self for past procrastinations have also been found to be helpful. Procrastination can also be a result of a mismatch between what one wants and what one is currently doing. Goals set up under social pressures may not align with what one desires. We may also lose interest in certain goals with time. In situations like these, an internal assessment becomes necessary to identify what it is that one really wants to achieve. If desires and goals do not align, at least one or both have to be re-visited and the alignment has to be re-set to reduce the procrastination.
Breaking any kind of habit becomes easier with social support. Counsellors can help procrastinators identify and break their pattern of compromising on long-time gains for instant pleasures. Friends or colleagues who are go-getters and hard workers can serve as excellent role models. Another set of excellent role models are people who have already accomplished what one is seeking to achieve. Connecting with them provides proof that one’s goals are achievable as long as the requisite action is put into place. Having a ‘buddy’ who can check one’s procrastination is also effective. Two people can hold each other accountable for completing tasks on their respective to do lists.
While things may not change in one go and while one strategy may not in itself suffice to break the pattern, consistent attempts, using multiple strategies within the context of a supportive environment can go a long way in breaking the procrastination pattern. The sooner attempted, the better it is. So, get going...It’s about time!