The pathology behind procrastination

Like alcoholics, procrastinators lack self-regulation, researcher says

Carleton University procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl says most students who think they work best under pressure work only under pressure.
Carleton University procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl says most students who think they work best under pressure work only under pressure.
Cartoonist Paul Mason and Procrastination Research Group Director Tim Pychyl created a series of comics about procrastination. See more of Mason’s cartoons at bubblestreet.ca.
Cartoonist Paul Mason and Procrastination Research Group Director Tim Pychyl created a series of comics about procrastination. See more of Mason’s cartoons at bubblestreet.ca.
Credit: 
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“Suck it up.”

That’s one expert’s advice to students when it’s time to hit the books. Tim Pychyl, director of Carleton University’s Procrastination Research Group, said everyone procrastinates from time to time—even the experts. The key to coping is recognizing the symptoms.

“I’ve kind of figured out the flags in my life that signal times you’re about to procrastinate,” he said. “I’ve learned to do what everybody has to do, which is to deal with the unpleasant feelings that come when you initiate a task you don’t want to do.”

Pychyl, whose group studies procrastination in a university context, said the danger is chronic procrastination. Somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of adults suffer from chronic procrastination, which can interfere with jobs and relationships and can ultimately lead to depression.

The Procrastination Research Group is looking at such questions as how people make choices between what they’re going to do and what they aren’t going to do, how fear of failure is related to procrastination and how people use to-do lists to get things done—or not.

The group has found evidence suggesting that, contrary to popular belief, there’s no arousal associated with doing work at the last minute. The group is also trying to publish a study showing women who forgive themselves for procrastinating are less likely to procrastinate in the future.

But one study a number of students can identify with looks at the connection between Facebook and procrastination. Pychyl said surveys of students using computer labs found many procrastinated about 50 per cent of the time, often using Facebook.

“It was the pattern we expected,” he said. “People go onto Facebook thinking they’re going to go on for just a minute, and they’re there an hour later.”

Extroverts and introverts use Facebook for different reasons, Pychyl said. Extroverts use it to expand their social network and introverts use it to achieve a social network without actually interacting with people.

Pychyl said that although social networking is important, Facebook is particularly problematic for procrastinators because it includes so many time-wasting applications.

He said the Internet—and new technology in general—has a lot to do with procrastination among students today. Students used to pass notes and daydream during lectures but now they can watch full-length movies, talk to friends on MSN and send text messages.

“A lot of young people would say it’s multitasking, and I’ll just say, ‘That’s crap,’” he said. “You’re just abusing yourself.”

Students procrastinate more than the rest of the population because they’re operating in a world of constant deadlines, he said. In some studies, 95 per cent of students reported being procrastinators. Often students believe they work best under pressure, but Pychyl said that’s usually not the case.

“They only work under pressure and that’s why they think they work best under pressure,” he said. “They’re not really engaged in what they’re doing.”

Pychyl said procrastination is essentially a breakdown in self-regulation.

“Some of the same things that cause alcoholism, gambling, excessive shopping … it’s the inability to regulate your behavior to achieve a goal,” he said, adding that people usually give into procrastination because it makes them feel good at the time.

“What we do to escape the negative feelings is we go and do something that’s more fun,” he said. “It’s the inability to suck it up and stay focused on our goals. There’s no virtue in it; nothing good about it.”

But just because so many people procrastinate as students doesn’t mean they’ll have serious problems with procrastination later in life, Pychyl said.

“You’ll meet people in school that are never late for work,” he said.

At heart, he said, procrastination is an existential issue.

“They’re just not engaged in life,” he said, adding that even though someone might enjoy learning about history, devoting a significant amount of time to the study of history is a different matter.

“Learning is hard work. Imagine that you might like playing a sport, but actually training is hard work.”

John Perry, a philosophy professor at Stanford University in California, wrote an essay about what he calls “structured procrastination.” Perry suggests people convince themselves that certain items on their to-do lists are more important than they actually are, allowing them to accomplish a lot while avoiding unpleasant tasks.

“I was just sitting around one day feeling bad about being such a procrastinator but at the same time realizing … so many people asked me to do things because they thought of me as a very effective human being,” he told the Journal in a telephone interview. “It seemed like kind of a paradox.”

Perry began to write on the subject because it was an opportunity to do something other than what he was supposed to be doing, he said. Since then, he has received thousands of e-mails—most of them enthusiastic—from people telling him they recognize themselves as structured procrastinators.

“Some people write who obviously have bigger problems than my essay can deal with—they’re really depressed,” he said. “But most people say, ‘Ah, I recognize myself and this is helpful.’”

Most of the e-mails come from students and writers, Perry said.

“If you have the kind of job where you have to be somewhere … it’s a little easier not to procrastinate,” he said, adding writers and students work on their own schedules.

Pychyl said he thinks the concept of structured procrastination lets people deceive themselves. The problem, he said, is there are a lot of people who won’t do anything on their list.

“I think a lot of people like what John [Perry] is saying because it’s giving them permission to continue to procrastinate. But this man’s a professor at Stanford University,” he said. “This guy does not procrastinate.”

People convince themselves some activities are better forms of procrastination than others because they feel like they’re doing something good, Pychyl said.

“I get more research participants around exam time than any other time,” he said. “What people are often looking for when they’re procrastinating is some moral good.”

Queen’s Health, Counseling and Disability Services Director Mike Condra, a clinical psychologist and a professor in the psychology department, said he doesn’t think procrastination is worse in the student population.

“It will be one of the chapters in my book ‘Ten Things I Don’t Believe About Student Life,’” Condra said jokingly.

“In many ways, you know, those dimensions of human behaviour don’t distinguish between student and non-student,” he said.

“People tend to see procrastination as a kind of pathology … but in fact most of us procrastinate to some degree and most of us still get things done.” But, he said, procrastination can become a serious problem if it’s linked to anxiety or perfectionism.

“When a person procrastinates so much because they really, really, really want to get whatever they’re doing to a perfect state … then it becomes a problem, because if it becomes a habit, people then start to put such extreme pressure on themselves,” he said.

There is almost no such thing as a perfect paper or a perfect graduate thesis, and very rarely do students get 100 per cent on exams, Condra said. When someone has difficulty accepting that reality, procrastination becomes a large concern.

He said people are often surprised when he tells them he doesn’t begin working on presentations days in advance.

“People procrastinate because sometimes they convince themselves that they’ll get it done—or sometimes they know [they will],” Condra said, adding that when he procrastinates, he’s usually pretty comfortable with the material he’s avoiding.

“I know that ... I’ve processed this, I’ve thought about it,” he said.

Even as students, people usually have a good idea how much time they really need to devote to a particular project, Condra said.

“They know. They will leave it until the last minute to complete it and very often that’s not a problem.”

Queen’s Learning Commons offers workshops for students having trouble with procrastination. Visit queensu.ca/qlc for more information.

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