Help fund illustrations for the Shapers of Worlds Volume IV anthology via Crowdfundr! CLICK HERE

The psychology of procrastination

Some people think I have good time management skills because I work at home and yet manage to crank out a lot of words of one sort or another.

Some people don’t know what they’re talking about.

The fact is, my usual working pattern is procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate, panic panic panic!, rinse and repeat. I, in fact, put the “pro” in procrastinate.

Take this column. I’ve started writing it a good hour later than I should have…because first I had to do other stuff. You know, like make coffee. And read email. Post on Twitter. Check Facebook. Shoot down airplanes over the Pacific…

Why do people procrastinate? One of the leading experts on the subject is Dr. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary professor. Two years ago he published a comprehensive analysis of procrastination research.

Steel says between 15 and 20 percent of the general population procrastinates. (Not all delays in beginning tasks are procrastination. It isn’t procrastination until you know that it would be better to start on a task immediately…but you still don’t do it.)

Predictors of procrastination include an aversion to the task at hand, impulsiveness, distractabil…oh, look, there’s a squirrel on my garage roof!

Sorry, where was I? Right…distractability, and how much a person is motivated to achieve.

Impulsiveness and motivational failure account for the failure of most New Year’s resolutions, especially those involving diets and exercise. “Temptations that are close to hand are difficult to resist,” Steel notes. “We load up on bread in the restaurant before the meal is served. Or we check our email 10 times an hour instead of completing a project.”

Ooh! Email! It’s been fifteen minutes! Better take a look…

OK. I’m back…um, fortunately, when you get better at self-control, you begin to believe you can better exert self-control, and believing you have that ability, you can better resist temptation: you can grow your willpower with practice.

Steel boiled all this research into the Temporal Motivational Theory, a mathematical formula: the desirability of task (Utility) equals a person’s expectancy of succeeding (E), multiplied by the value of completing the task (V) divided by its immediacy or availability (capital Gamma) times the person’s sensitivity to delay (D). That looks like this: Utility=E x V/ΓD.

Steel amusingly concluded that “continued research into procrastination should not be delayed.”

Perhaps inspired by that admonition, an international team of psychologists led by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz in Germany just published the results of a new study designed to see if there’s a link between how we think about a task and our tendency to postpone it.

They gave questionnaires to students, asking them to respond by email within three weeks. The questions were mundane, about things like opening a bank account and keeping a diary, but the instructions for completing the tasks varied. Some students were told to think and write about the activities abstractly, i.e., what kind of person has a bank account? Others were told to write about the activities concretely: what steps do you have to take to open a bank account?

Then the psychologists waited for the responses…and noted how long they took to come in. They found that even though all the students were being paid for completing the questionnaire–ensuring they all had equal motivation–those who thought about the questions abstractly were much more likely to procrastinate and send in their responses late than those thinking about the questions concretely.

In fact, some of those in the abstract thinking group never got around to sending in their questionnaires at all.

So, if you want to get something done, start taking concrete steps right away to make it happen: like reading through science blogs for a topic that interests you enough to write a column about it, then printing out the information you found, then sitting at your computer and actually starting typing.

All of which seems to boil down to, “the best way to stop procrastinating and get something done is to actually start doing it.”

Crazy, you know, but it just might work.

In fact, in the case of this column, it just did.

Permanent link to this article:


Skip to comment form

    • Muffaletta on January 24, 2009 at 5:35 am
    • Reply

    PS: I am a bit befuddled with the difference between Utility and Value. Explique a me, por favor. If you get around to it.

    • Muffaletta on January 24, 2009 at 5:08 am
    • Reply

    I am a BIG TIME procrastinator. It’s almost the theme of the story of my life, which will likely never be written.
    I once read that awareness is the opposite of focus – protection from predators in the wild (Sigourney Weaver’s voice over narrates “Planet Earth” in the background as I type) requires a state of heightened awareness, easily tuning into this of that new nuance in their immediate environment in order to stay one step ahead of the predators. Easily distracted because there is no notion of relevancy (or a deadline).
    Everything is relevant.
    Focus probably helps the predator.
    People with ADD (I have renamed it PAC – pluralized attention condition) may actually be too sensitive to details by the sheer fact of their awareness of all those damn details.
    Tune them out, you say? What, and be more like you (being whoever says to try to focus)?
    I should be writing something that has a deadline right now.
    Maybe a sip of sake.

    • Sharon E. on January 13, 2009 at 1:38 am
    • Reply

    What an interesting article – but I’ll get around to reading it later….

    • Janet on January 12, 2009 at 8:01 pm
    • Reply

    I obviously lived in the wrong part of town.

    • Edward Willett on January 12, 2009 at 7:53 pm
    • Reply

    Well, one less since one managed to single-handedly cause a two-hour power outage in our area yesterday…

    • Janet on January 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm
    • Reply

    *asks distractedly* There are squirrels in Regina now? Since when?

    Janet, who has checked her email, snail mail, made coffee, transferred files and actually done some real revising. Woot!

Leave a Reply to Muffaletta Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal