What would you say if I told you that I delayed the writing of this article until the very last minute, that is, until the deadline for submission made it impossible for me to avoid sitting down and getting it done? You would no doubt say that I am a procrastinator – and maybe you would be right! Procrastinating is a common problem in our society yet very few people know where it comes from and how it can affect mental health.
What is procrastination?
Scientific explorations of procrastination do not abound, but some interesting work has nonetheless been carried out.
In 1995, Schouwenburg defined procrastination as the behaviour of postponing tasks, describing this behaviour as dilatory, needless and counterproductive. This rather straightforward definition, although completely right, is even better understood when enhanced with additional concepts. Solomon and Rothblum, for instance, characterized procrastination in 1984 as the act of needlessly delaying tasks past the point of discomfort; the addition of this “uncomfortable” aspect of procrastination unveiled by Solomon and Rothblum brings us a step further in our comprehension of the behaviour. Then, in 1994, Lay defined procrastination in terms of an intention: the individual who procrastinates must nevertheless have some genuine intent to complete the task.
Putting all of the above together, we can assert with a pretty high level of confidence that procrastination is a behaviour that seeks to delay a task although the individual has the intention of carrying it out because he or she is required to do so. The postponing of the task is needless because there is no actual reason to wait any longer before getting down to work; it is counterproductive because it can affect the quality of the outcome; and it causes discomfort because it puts the individual in a stressful situation and can ultimately have negative effects on his or her self-esteem.
How common is procrastination and what are its effects?
Some researchers have attempted to measure the occurrence of procrastination, and the results they obtained are quite worrying: according to various authors cited in a 2007 article by Steel, between 80% and 95% of college students claim to engage in procrastination, and some 15% to 20% of adults are apparently chronically affected by the habit. An overwhelming majority of those who claim to have a tendency to procrastinate recognize that their behaviour is detrimental to their mental health and productivity and show some willingness to reduce its incidence.
Steel’s article states that procrastinators are prone to feeling remorse and guilt because of their inaction. Increased stress also appears to result from procrastination; the approaching deadline produces an escalation in stress levels. Anxiety also can come out of procrastination, for those who fail to achieve what they had planned to do on a given work day tend to keep thinking about what they did not finish even after they leave the office.
A 2005 survey reported that 94% of people who procrastinate claim that their lethargy has a negative impact on their happiness; 18% of those actually say the impact is extremely negative. Procrastination is believed to affect not only one’s mood , but also one’s performance: studies show a negative correlation between needlessly delaying a task and exam grades, course GPA and overall GPA. Others show that procrastination is also negatively correlated with one’s health and financial well being.
Can procrastination be fought?
Many wonder how procrastination can be overcome, and the answer is not quite clear. Some claim procrastination is inherent in one’s personality and, therefore, it can only be “cured” if one works hard at altering his or her personality. But an interesting study by Ferrari and Tice (2000) suggests something very interesting.
Their first conclusion is that individuals who rate themselves as habitual procrastinators also tend to self-handicap the most in situations where procrastination is quite harmful (before and exam, for example). Their second conclusion goes further: it gives us a clue as to why people procrastinate and how this behaviour can be fought.
Ferrari and Tice exposed their subjects to a math problem; some were told that their cognitive abilities would be evaluated, and others that the math problem was a fun game. All of the participants were provided with entertaining alternatives, in case they preferred to procrastinate a little instead of practicing before the test. The results were striking: even chronic procrastinators did not postpone the task they were asked to perform when it was described as “fun” or as a “game,” but they did procrastinate when it was presented as an “evaluative” and therefore important task!
Does the key to avoiding procrastination lie in this conclusion – namely, that procrastination can be avoided simply by believing that the task to be performed is meant to be fun? Does one only need to be told this to believe it or does one need to genuinely be fond of what he or she is told to do? Could a good start to fighting procrastination simply be to make a real effort to look at the silver lining that exists in every cloud?
As a first step in overcoming the habit of procrastination, perhaps you should ask yourself what you can get out of the tasks you have to do even though you’d rather put them on the back burner: even if the gain seems relatively small, becoming aware of the potential dividends is likely to help you accomplish your tasks and end up feeling some kind of satisfaction, both because you know that you got something out of them and because you finally followed your ideal schedule.
Bear in mind that finishing something remains the best way to get rid of it, to feel proud that you did it, and then to have enough time to do something else!
“procrastination” by cheerfulmonk. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
“I am Procrastinating by Taking a Procrastination Test: I scored as an Above Average Procrastinator”
by Tricia Wang. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Guest Author Bio
Alexandre Duval is a freelance blogger for Tourisme Montreal that offers travel and hotels information in Montreal. He is currently completing his master’s degree in political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal.