You see my new blog post. Curious and excited about exploring new ideas, you click on the link, and as soon as you start reading you realize that the text is rewarding, but, the post is a long, onerous task. You decide to put it off despite your very conviction of its importance. You might not have realized it, but you have just practiced PROCRASTINATION.
No panic. You are not alone. Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience. We want to start dieting as of Monday, clean the house later, visit the dentist ‘sometime soon’, and study during the weekend. Somehow, there’s something comforting about this story: even Nobel-winning economists procrastinate.
Most experts agree that 95 % of Americans procrastinate regularly, while 15 to 20 % of the population procrastinate to the point of damaging their careers and relationships. Experts also believe these numbers to be increasing with time.
Self control has always been a key element for success and a hallmark of adult mature behaviour. That is, doing one’s work and fulfilling other obligations in a timely fashion seem like integral parts of rational, proper adult functioning. Yes…We all know it.
So why do we procrastinate?
In the words of Piers Steel (PhD.) – one of the world’s most active researchers and speakers on the science of motivation and procrastination, and a University of Minnesota alum – when it comes to social and behavioural sciences, ‘…there seems to be as many theories on a topic as there are people researching it.’ Procrastination, most commonly defined as ‘the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of low-priority’ has been associated with different theoretical models ranging from anxiety, perfectionism and rebelliousness to self-handicapping and temporal motivation theory . The phenomenon is not entirely understood yet. For a good meta-analysis review on the theoretical framework of procrastination, I recommend Steel’s article in the Psychological Bulletin (American Psychological Association, 2007).
Briefly, theories attributing procrastination to anxiety explain it as being a way to postpone a task for two main reasons. The first reason being low self-esteem and fear of failure, the second reason is virtually the opposite (as I see it, and probably where I categorize my own act of procrastination), perfectionism. That is, perfectionists tend to set unrealistic goals for missions they are assigned to. The fear of failure to meet these magnified expected outcomes exacerbates the gap lying between intention and action. Although I am a great supporter of this theory, I am aware of its shortcomings in terms of covering all aspects of procrastination.
Apparently, the Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) has been surfacing as one of the most accepted theories in the realm. According to the TMT, motivation is a key player in one’s decision to embark in a task. The theory suggests that ‘we are more likely to pursue goals or tasks that are pleasurable and that we are likely to attain. Consequently, we are more likely to put off, to procrastinate, difficult tasks with un-enjoyable qualities.’ Anyway, isn’t it familiar that we humans tend to grab immediate rewards and avoid immediate costs?
Why should we care?
The effect of procrastination on task performance, mental, and physical health have long stirred hot debates. Supporters claim to have higher performance and better outcomes when operating under stress. Plus ‘I also enjoy the carefree leisure time that I get out of procrastination’. They also consider that they suffer for a shorter time because stress is compressed over a short period, whereas non procrastinators might suffer longer stress or probably the same amount but at different times. Others see it innocuous: ‘as long as the same amount of effort is put on a task, it doesn’t really matter whether it is done early or late.’
I tend to reject all aforementioned arguments, for scientific evidence has shown that, indeed, procrastination is a harmful behaviour. When you suffer stress right before a deadline, this is most likely a cumulative stress that has started long before you embark in your achievements. Stress is believed to start as soon as you realize you have a deadline at one point. However, the sooner the deadline gets, the higher the level of stress becomes.
When trying to search for books on ‘how to stop procrastination’, Amazon-only search gave me a list of 799 results. That said, the tremendous number of self-help blogs and miscellaneous websites is to be added to the list. Hence, you can definitely find your best fit of methodology for avoiding procrastination behaviors somewhere in this universal list. But then again, and before doing so, I highly recommend (based on the Health Belief Model) that you evaluate what actually drives you to change your behavior so you can focus your efforts on the most effective driver: 1) Your own Susceptibility to the adverse events of procrastination, 2) The Severity of these effects on your life 3) The Benefits you believe you will get from stopping procrastination and what 4) Barriers you need to overcome in order to attain change.
‘As science and technology advance, the greatest mystery of the universe and the least conquered force of nature remain the human being and his actions and human experiences’ (Kanfer & Schefft, 1988).