Why Do We Procrastinate

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  • 8/6/2019 Why Do We Procrastinate

    1/218 THE TRIPLE HELIX Easter 2009 2009, The Triple Helix, Inc. All rights reserved.


    According to Timothy A. Pychyl, director of the Pro-crastination Research group at Carleton UniversityProcrastination is a needless, often irrational, vol-

    untary delay of an intended action (or task) even when weknow that this delay will most probably compromise ourperformance or task completion itself. [1]. It is not a newphenomenon, with the earliest recorded mention of procras-tination dating back to 800 B.C. [2]. However, the problemhas not always been as common as it is now. In 1978, onlyfive percent of the population considered themselves to bechronic procrastinators compared to 26 percent in 2007. Theproblem seems to be especially widespread among students,with an estimated 8095 percent of students having problems

    with procrastination [2].Economist Piers Steel has researched procrastination and

    thinks new technology may be to blame for its spread.He has devised a

    formula that tells us theutility of a task - howdesirable a task is to anindividual. To illustratehow the equation works,

    let us say that a person has a choice to either study, with thelong term advantage of getting a good grade, or to succumbto the temptation of procrastination. According to Steels

    equation, people procrastinate because the temptation, thoughcomparably low in value (V) and expectancy (E), still givesa higher utility due to the fact that the delay (D) is so small[2,3]. With the instant rewards of video games, the web andmobile phones readily available it is therefore no wonderthat people are finding it harder to get on with their workand are spending more time procrastinating.

    In the equation above, stands for personal sensitivityof delay and takes into account that humans can be more orless prone to procrastinate. But are genetic or environmentalfactors to blame for this? Studies done among teenagersshow that the environment may be the main influence asprocrastinators are more likely to have authoritarian par-

    ents [4]. However, a study done on monkeys indicates thatthere might be a genetic contribution as well. In the study,the monkeys had to complete a task with the aid of a vi-sual cue indicating how much of the task remained beforethe reward. As the reward came closer, all of the monkeysmade fewer errors, and all had the same error rate on thepart of the task where the reward was closest. However,the error rates on the non-rewarded sections of the taskdiffered significantly [5]. Though we cannot tell whetherthe monkeys performed worse when the reward was dis-tant due to a form of procrastination, the results indicatea biological component of sensitivity for delay () which

    may, according to Steels formula, translate into a geneticbias towards procrastination.Whether procrastination is genetically or environmen-

    tally based, most people are only moderate procrastinatorsand do not suffer significantly from it. But too much procras-

    tination can be costly, literally. An estimated 40 percent of allpeople have experienced financial loss due to procrastination[6] and procrastination endangers health both in terms ofthe detrimental effects of increased stress and the delayedtreatment of other health conditions [7].

    In spite of the negative effects of procrastination, manyprocrastinators say that the habit is an advantage to them[8]. When asked why they procrastinate a common answerwas I work better under pressure However, this seemsto be nothing more than self-deception for most people, asprocrastinators generally produce inferior work to thosewho do not procrastinate [8].

    Another misconception among procrastinators is that

    procrastination allows people to do the maximum amountof work with minimum amount of effort or pain [8]. It istrue that when deadlines are distant, procrastinators havereduced stress levels and suffer less from illness than non-procrastinators. However, this advantage is counteractedtowards the end of the assignment when the effects of stressare reversed. Overall, people who start on time feel betterand are in better health than those who procrastinate andstart later [8].

    With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why nearly allprocrastinators want to get rid of the habit. Ninety-five percentof all procrastinators would like to stop but find themselves

    unable to do so because it has become an automatic behaviour[6]. But though fighting procrastination is difficult, it is notimpossible, and in researching the phenomenon scientistshave found several ways of minimising the habit.

    A study made at Hofstra University showed that peoplewho made implementation intentions goals with speci-fication on when and where the task will be performed

    were up to eight times as likely to follow through on theircommitment [9].

    Another group found that when asked to reply to aquestionnaire, students were more likely to reply and did somore quickly when the questions were concrete rather thanabstract. This is in agreement with the action-identificationtheory, which states that individuals are more likely to executea difficult task by thinking of the task on a more specific leveland indicates that a person will procrastinate less if he orshe is structuring the work in a more concrete way [10].

    If you are already setting concrete implementation

    intentions, breaking the task up into smaller chunks and settingmore goals might be your salvation. Dan Ariely and KlausWertenbroch asked their students to set their own deadlinesand then awarded penalties for papers that were turned inlate. Though setting the deadline for all papers at the end of

    Why Do We Procrastinate?Rebecka Skarstam

    80-95% of students haveprocrastination problems

  • 8/6/2019 Why Do We Procrastinate



    19THE TRIPLE HELIX Easter 2009 2009, The Triple Helix, Inc. All rights reserved.

    References:[1] No time to delay [online]. 2008 March 24 [cited 2009-02-13]; Available from: URL:http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/200803/no-time-delay/[2] Steel P. The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Reviewof Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychological Bulletin 2007 Jan; 133(1):65-94[3] Borstein S. Study is a put off: Scientists research why procrastination is gettingworse. USA today[Online] 2007 Dec 1 [cited 2009 Jan 29]; Available from: URL http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2007-01-12-procrastination-study_x.htm[4] Wenstein A. Why kids procrastinate and how to help. education.com magazine

    2009 March 9 [cited 2009 March 11]; Available from http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Why_Kids_Procrastinate/%20/?page=2[5] Liu Z, Richmond BJ, Murray EA, Saunders RC, Steenrod S, Stubblefield BK, MontagueDM, Ginns EI. DNA targeting of rhinal cortex D2 receptor protein reversibly blockslearning of cues that predict reward. PNAS 2004 Aug 17;101(33):12336-12341.[6] Gura T. Ill Do It Tomorrow. Scientific American Mind 2008 Dec/Jan; 27-33.[7] Sirois FM.Ill look after my health, later: A replication and extension of the

    procrastinationhealth model with community-dwelling adults. Personality andIndividual differences 2007 Jul; 43(1): 15-26[8] Tice DM, Baumeister RF. PERFORMANCE, STRESS, AND HEALTH: The Costsand Benefits of Dawdling. Psychological Science 1997 Nov; 8(6): 454-458[9] Owens SG, Bowman CG, Dill CA, Overcoming Procrastination: The Effect ofImplementation Intentions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 2008 Jan 18; 38(2):366-384.[10] McCrea SM, Libermann N, Trope Y, Sherman SJ. Construal Level and Procrastination.Psychological Science 2008 19(12): 1308-1314.[11] Ariely D, Wertenbroch K. Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-controlby precommitment. Psychological Science 2002 June; 13(3), 219-224.[12] Grpel P, Steel P. A mega-trial investigation of goal setting, interest enhancement,and energy on procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences 2008 Jul 2;45(5): 406-411[13] Schmeichel B, Vohs K, Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core valuescounteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2009 Apr;96(4): 770-782

    the period would have given maximum amount of time fortask completion, students who set evenly spaced deadlinesgenerally scored better than those who did not [11].

    Procrastination is due to a failure of self-control andnew research shows that this can be reversed by increasing

    the expectancy of success or by receiving affirmation in theform of positive feedback [12,13].

    Finally, remember that procrastination endangersyour health and finances and that the thought of the task

    is often more daunting than the task itself. In fact, a studypublished in 2000 showed that students perceptions of atask often change significantly for the better when they areactually doing it [6]. In the end, Nikes Just Do It might bea good place to start if you want to live a procrastination-

    free life.

    Rebecka Skarstam is a second year studying Natural Sciences atJesus College.