Never put off until tomorrow what you can easily put off a lot longer than that.
Not, perhaps, the wisest words to live by. But they worked out well for Piers Steel. The University of Calgary psychology professor spent 10 years studying procrastination before he finally got around to publishing his findings in this month’s Psychological Bulletin.
(“I had to read a lot of papers,” he says.)
Steel was on a mission. He wanted to figure out what the reams of past procrastination research really added up to.
Now, after pooling the data from 216 earlier studies -- and incorporating results from hundreds more -- he has compiled a comprehensive report that includes, among other things, findings about the damage procrastination can do to health, happiness and bank accounts; who is likely to procrastinate (young people more than older people, men slightly more than women); and on what tasks people are likely to procrastinate (tasks they don’t like to do).
His most surprising findings may involve the characteristics that drive people to procrastinate. By his analysis, perfectionism and anxiety are not guilty as they’ve so often been charged. In fact, he says, perfectionists are a little less likely than others to stall around -- although they’ll worry about it more if they do. Instead, his findings point to impulsiveness as the prime suspect.
When people act impulsively, they make snap decisions and focus on what they want to do in the here and now. They’ll postpone starting the diet that will have them looking good at class-reunion time because right this minute they want to eat a piece of pie. “Thoughts of the future do not weigh heavily in their decisions,” Steel says.
Other researchers in the field are greeting Steel’s paper with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“I’m glad to see the article, I’m glad it’s getting coverage. A lot of people don’t understand how complicated procrastination is,” says author and psychologist Bill Knaus of Massachusetts, who conducted one of the earliest procrastination workshops 35 years ago and has written books on the subject.
But others take issue with some of Steel’s conclusions -- such as his dismissal of the perfectionism-procrastination link.
“Steel really tried to look at everything for this paper -- I applaud him for that,” says Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. But, he adds, “He makes the sweeping generalization that perfectionism doesn’t have a role in procrastination. He can’t do that.”
You’re not always procrastinating when you put something off. The behavior only counts as procrastination if you know you should do something right away and you know you’ll be worse off in the end if you don’t -- and yet you still don’t do it.
Almost all of us procrastinate sometimes. Many of us -- 15% to 20% -- make a habit of it.
And in many ways, that’s only human. For one thing, “We have an innate tendency to value the immediate much more than the future,” Steel says. Also, it makes a lot of sense for people to avoid tasks they don’t like or don’t believe they can succeed at.
Students might know they ought to do their algebra -- which could help them get an A, which could help them get into college -- yet they might still decide to do some instant messaging instead. That scenario is even more likely if the students think algebra is boring, or fear they’re not good at it.
What intrigues Knaus most in Steel’s study is the high cost of procrastination -- for instance, how much money people lose by overpaying their taxes ($400 on average) when they wait too long then make mistakes when they have to figure too fast.
The costs of putting off medical treatment can be much higher than that, Knaus says. For example, “Seventy percent of the people at risk for blindness from glaucoma don’t use the eyedrops that could prevent it.... They don’t make the necessary lifestyle changes.”
Bruce W. Tuckman, professor of education and director of the Dennis Learning Center at Ohio State University, says he’s not sure how useful Steel’s findings will be to him.
He isn’t surprised by the impulsivity link: “It’s typical, on scales, for procrastinators to be low in conscientiousness and high on impulsiveness,” he says. But knowing about the connection won’t help him in his own work helping people stop procrastinating. “I can’t stop people from being impulsive,” he says.
Tuckman developed a popular course at Ohio State (an elective that attracts 1,100 students a year) about strategies for success in college, including overcoming procrastination. On average, students completing the course raise their GPA a whopping half-point, he says.
Veteran procrastination researcher Joseph Ferrari, first author of nearly 30 studies reviewed by Steel, doesn’t agree with all of Steel’s conclusions.
Steel, for example, has concluded that men procrastinate somewhat more than women. Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, says he hasn’t found a gender difference in the 40 studies he’s done, including ones in various cultures.
He also has a different take on the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination. In his own studies, he’s found, “Procrastinators are perfectionists, and so are non-procrastinators, but they do it for different reasons. The procrastinator says, ‘I want to be perfect so you’ll like me.’ ... The non-procrastinator says, ‘I want the best product. I don’t care if you like me or not.’ ”
Pychyl calls Steel’s study an excellent review but says the conclusions are “far too strong.”
He says the research to date may not show a connection between perfectionism and procrastination, but new studies down the road very well might. It’s too soon to dismiss a link.
“It’s like the Sherlock Holmes story when the dog didn’t bark, which implied that the murderer must be known,” Pychyl says. “Steel should be suspicious of what he’s not seeing.”
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No more excuses
Your term paper on one of those Elizabethan poets (you haven’t decided which) is due. But before you get to work, you really should call your old pal Elizabeth Whatchamacallit -- it’s been so long since you talked with her.
Want to stop putting things off? Here are tips from procrastination mavens, on how to put the kibosh on the habit.
* Make weekly, even daily, to-do lists, says Bruce Tuckman of Ohio State University. Entries must be specific, and no task should take more than an hour.
* Don’t expect to be perfect. (“If you do 80% of your goal, feel good,” says Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University.)
* Make a start, any start. If you’re writing on Elizabethan poets, choose one. Start your day with your easiest task. “I’ve written a lot of books, and still there are times when I just don’t want to sit down to work,” says Massachusetts psychologist Bill Knaus. “Once I start something, it’s easier to go back to it.”
* Ditch distractions. It may make sense to check your voicemail once but not 100 times in a row, says Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University. Learn to notice when you get carried away, and stop. In fact, adds Piers Steel of the University of Calgary, why not (horror!) turn off your e-mail?
* If you think you work best under pressure, think again. Maybe you’ve only ever tried working under pressure. Try getting an early start and see what happens. Picture yourself finishing on time, without rushing -- or rushing and still finishing late. One is better.
* Make deals with yourself. As soon as you choose your Elizabethan poet, then you get to call Elizabeth Whatchamacallit.
* Don’t let yourself off the hook. If you blow it, don’t say, “Darn, I blew it” and just stop trying. Say, “Darn, I blew it. Now I have to try again.”
* Note how much time you spend avoiding something -- and how much time you spend when you actually do it. “A client of mine once spent 40-something hours to avoid two minutes of work,” Knaus says.
* Finally, for the sake of all humankind, don’t coddle dawdlers. And give early birds a bonus.
-- Karen Ravn