Many successful people have a secret life: they procrastinate. People who are deadline driven have good reason to hide the way they get things done. After all, they have been shamed, punished, reprimanded, or berated for their delay. For some, the stigma of being a procrastinator has existed since grammar school. Commonly, procrastinators experience shame or guilt about their task completion style, since the judgements of others lead them to feel humiliated or blameworthy even though they are not inclined to change their way of doing things.
Numerous studies have investigated procrastination behavior, often seeking to find some underlying pathology or undesirable characteristic that leads people to delay. The possible “causes” of procrastination that have been under investigation are wide-ranging, and a prevailing objective of these studies, aside from trying to figure out what is “wrong” with people who procrastinate, has to do with a search for successful interventions to reduce the frequency of procrastination in those who do it.
I do not want to shame my colleagues for inadvertently or intentionally shaming procrastinators, but any search on the Internet regarding procrastination will reveal many studies where derogatory attributions are made about those who are driven by deadlines. Such studies attempt to correlate procrastination with, for example, a lack of conscientiousness, impulsivity, pathological worry, behaving and thinking irrationally, cheating and plagiarism, a work-avoidant goal orientation, problems with distress regulation, neuroticism, task averseness, avoidance motives, fraudulent excuses, self-handicapping, role conflict, a means of avoiding shame and guilt, a fear of failure, and cyber-slacking.
Regrettably, these studies were not designed to explain why some people procrastinate and successfully complete tasks, while others procrastinate and do not succeed. In order to determine why some fail in their endeavors, study participants would have to be separated on the basis of those who are successful at task completion, whether or not they procrastinated in the process, from those who do suboptimal work or fail. Thus, in most procrastination studies, procrastinators who succeed are in the same pool of shame with people who fail. As I noted in a previous post, those who fail save face by blaming their failure on procrastinating and they are very different than individuals who are driven by deadlines. As a reminder, I define procrastinators as people who are primarily motivated to complete tasks when their emotions are activated by an imminent deadline. They are deadline driven.Purposely delaying an intended course of action, a common understanding of procrastination in the research literature, is not synonymous with insufficient action or a failure to act. Nevertheless, successful individuals who procrastinate are unfairly denigrated for their way of doing things.
Although both task-driven people (those who are motivated by their emotions to attend to things immediately) and deadline-driven procrastinators experience heightened emotional states during task completion, to date only procrastinators have been targeted in studies that seek to understand such behavior. Unfortunately, those studies do not consider the potential positive effect of intense emotions as being sources of energy that motivate task completion. Instead, the research has been geared, for example, toward attempting to demonstrate that “arousal” or “thrill-seeking” are simply motives for procrastinating. In one comprehensive study the researchers expected to find that procrastinators were more likely than non-procrastinators to have arousal‑based personality traits, but they failed to find significant differences. Nevertheless, ignoring the role of emotions in motivating behavior, these researchers published an unfortunate and erroneous speculation that “individuals who claim that they are motivated to procrastinate because they believe they work better under pressure are likely fooling themselves, providing a seemingly believable explanation to excuse their procrastinating behavior.” Thus, they offer an accusatory and shaming interpretation regarding the behavior of procrastinators.
In actuality, racing the clock emotionally stimulates those who procrastinate. Since emotions serve to direct one’s attention, we might consider such deadline stimulation highly adaptive as well. Moreover, procrastinating enables some people to perform at peak efficiency, and their task delay enables them to work diligently and attain optimal efficiency. Professionally successful procrastinators report that when they try to get something done ahead of time, often they are compromised in terms of both motivation and concentration. Thus, for procrastinators, the energizing quality and focus provided by emotions that are activated upon nearing a deadline are essential.
Assuming that procrastinators have low conscientiousness, a researcher wondered how procrastinators would evaluate the performance of coworkers who miss deadlines. Participants in this study evaluated the performance of a nonexistent contrived colleague who was late for business deadlines that would affect the company’s productivity. Whether you procrastinate or you do not, if you are successful at meeting deadlines it’s likely you would evaluate their performance as inadequate, but that is not what the researcher expected to find. Instead he found that people who identified as procrastinators were more inclined than non-procrastinators to blame the contrived colleague, and not external factors, for poor performance. Unfortunately, the researcher did not consider the fact that successful people who procrastinate are effective at meeting deadlines, and therefore, of course they would be critical of someone who misses them. Instead, the researcher speculated that blaming the colleague was reflective of the procrastinators’ projection of displeasure regarding their own inadequacies, and thus believed that the target (even though similar to themselves) should be punished. This particular study of procrastination in the workplace, and specifically the researcher’s speculations, illustrates the confusion that occurs in studies when procrastinators who are successful at meeting deadlines are not separated from those who miss deadlines. More importantly, the stigma of procrastination leads researchers to infer pathology when it isn’t present.
Researchers tend to be surprised when their studies reveal that successful students procrastinate. In an investigation of academic procrastination and course anxiety, a researcher noted “an extremely disturbing finding” that a large proportion of graduate students, who represented the upper echelon of academic achievers with a mean grade point average of 3.57, had reported that they nearly always or always procrastinate on studying for examinations and on weekly reading assignments. Actually, this is not surprising at all. By effectively using time pressure as a stimulus, procrastinators activate anxiety, which motivates them to get things done.
Even when procrastinators consistently meet deadlines, they are assumed to have pathological traits or conditions that account for their delay. In this regard, I want to let you know about a study that pertains specifically to deadlines. The study in question involved how well college students estimate the amount of time they needed to get something done. The assumption of the researchers was that procrastinators, more than non-procrastinators, would tend to underestimate the amount of time required to complete a task. Thus, they predicted that procrastinators would be prone to “planning fallacy.” In terms of stigmatizing procrastinators, this notion seems to suggest they are delusional. Unexpectedly, the researchers found procrastinators to be as competent as non-procrastinators in matters pertaining to time estimation and at attaining the study goals they predicted. The investigators explained that where a deadline is absolute, such as an exam date set by a professor, both non-procrastinators and procrastinators alike set realistic study plans and met them. However, the researchers then speculated that when the prediction of a deadline is more flexible, such as predicting the completion date of a thesis, procrastinators would fall short. Of course, they were once again searching for flaws in deadline driven procrastinators when none were found. Fact is, when deadlines are not absolute or clearly defined, procrastinators do successfully meet them. They have their ways. In a forthcoming post I will reveal what they do to meet deadlines that are not absolute and how they effectively use the octane provided by their emotions when a deadline is imminent.
In the meantime, let’s understand differences rather than shame procrastinators for the way they get things done.
Piers Steel, “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure,” Psychological Bulletin 133 (2007): 65-94. Steel’s paper provides a comprehensive review of many procrastination studies.
Schouwenburg, H. C., & Lay, C. H. (1995). Trait procrastination and the big-five factors of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 18(4), 481-490.
Ferrari, J. R. (1993). Procrastination and impulsiveness: Two sides of a coin?.
Stöber, J., & Joormann, J. (2001). Worry, procrastination, and perfectionism: Differentiating amount of worry, pathological worry, anxiety, and depression. Cognitive therapy and research, 25(1), 49-60.
Ellis, A., & Knaus, W. J. (1979). Overcoming procrastination: or, how to think and act rationally in spite of life’s inevitable hassles. Signet.
Roig, M., & DeTommaso, L. (1995). Are college cheating and plagiarism related to academic procrastination?. Psychological reports, 77(2), 691-698.
Christopher A. Wolters, “Understanding Procrastination from a Self-Regulated Learning Perspective,” Journal of Educational Psychology 95, no. 1 (2003): 179-87.
Dianne M. Tice, Ellen Bratslavsky, and Roy F. Baumeister, “Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence Over Impulse Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It!” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80, no. 1 (2001): 53-67. doi: 10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.168.
Bill McCown, Thomas Petzel, and Patricia Rupert, “An Experimental Study of Some Hypothesized Behaviors and Personality Variables of College Student Procrastinators,” Personality and Individual Differences 8, no. 6 (1987): 781-786; Henri C. Schouwenburg and Clarry H. Lay, “Trait Procrastination and the Big-five Factors of Personality,” Personality and Individual Differences 18, no. 4 (1995): 481-490.
Lee, D. G., Kelly, K. R., & Edwards, J. K. (2006). A closer look at the relationships among trait procrastination, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(1), 27-37.
Allan K. Blunt and Timothy A. Pychyl, “Task Aversiveness and Procrastination: A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Task Aversiveness Across Stages of Personal Projects,” Personality & Individual Differences 28, no. 1 (2000): 153-167; Noach Milgram, Sergio Marshevsky, and Chaya Sadeh, “Correlates of Academic Procrastination: Discomfort, Task Aversiveness, and Task Capability, Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied 129, no. 2, (1995): 145–155.
Joseph R. Ferrari, “Procrastination in the Workplace: Attributions for Failure Among Individuals with Similar Behavioral Tendencies,” Journal of Individual Differences 13, no. 3 (1992), 1315-319. Doi: 10.1016/0191-8869(92)90108-2.
Joseph R. Ferrari and Brett L. Beck, “Affective Responses Before and After Fraudulent Excuses by Academic Procrastinators,” Education 118, no. 4 (1998), 529–537; Miguel Roig and Lauren DeTommaso, “Are College Cheating and Plagiarism Related to Academic Procrastination?” Psychological Reports 77 (1995): 691-698.
Brett L. Beck, Susan R. Koons, and Debra L. Milgrim, “Correlates and Consequences of Behavioral Procrastination: The Effects of Academic Procrastination, Self-Consciousness, Self-Esteem and Self-Handicapping,” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 15, no. 5 (2000): 3-13; Joseph R. Ferrari and Dianne M. Tice, “Procrastination as a Self-Handicap for Men and Women: A Task-Avoidance Strategy in a Laboratory Setting,” Journal of Research in Personality, 34, no. 1 (2000): 73-83. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/jrpe.1999.2261.
Caroline Senecal, Etienne Julien, and Frederic Guay, “Role Conflict and Academic Procrastination: A Self—Determination Perspective,” European Journal of Social Psychology 33, (2003): 135-145. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.144.
Rhonda L. Fee and June P. Tangney, “Procrastination: A Means of Avoiding Shame or Guilt?” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, no. 5 (2000): 167-184.
Schouwenburg, “Procrastinators and Fear of Failure,” 225-236.
Lavoie, J. A., & Pychyl, T. A. (2001). Cyberslacking and the procrastination superhighway: A web-based survey of online procrastination, attitudes, and emotion. Social Science Computer Review, 19(4), 431-444.
Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen, Procrastination: Why Do It and What to Do About It Now (Boston: DaCapo Lifelong Books, 2008), 54;
Joseph Ferrari, Kelly Barnes, and Piers Steel, “Life Regrets by Avoidant Procrastinators: Why Put Off Today What You Will Regret Tomorrow?” Journal of Individual Differences, 30, no. 3 (2009): 163-64, doi: 0.1027/1614-0001.30.3.163.
W. Kyle Simpson and Timothy A. Pychyl, “In Search of the Arousal Procrastinator: Investigating the Relation Between Procrastination, Arousal-Based Personality Traits and Beliefs about Motivations,” Personality and Individual Differences 47, no. 8 (2009), 906, doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.07.013.
Simpson, “In Search of the Arousal Procrastinator,” 910.
Schraw et al. “Doing the Things We Do,”11-13.
Lay et al., “An Assessment of Appraisal Anxiety, Coping, and Procrastination,”204-206.
Joseph R. Ferrari, “Procrastination in the Workplace: Attributions for Failure Among Individuals with Similar Behavioral Tendencies.” Personality and Individual Differences 13, no. 3 (1992): 315. doi: 10.1016/0191-8869(92)90108-2.
Ferrari, “Procrastination in the Workplace,” 318.
James Awuni Azure, “Correlates of Anxiety and Academic Procrastination in Higher Education,” Global Journal of Educational Research 10, no. 1 (2011): 61-62, issn: 1596-
Timothy A. Pychyl, Richard W. Morin, and Brian R. Salmon, “Procrastination and the Planning Fallacy: An Examination of the Study Habits of University Students,” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 15, no. 5 (2000):135.