How did you become interested in psychology?
I took a psychology class at my high school as a senior back in 1973. As part of the class, the teacher gave us the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) to administer to our relatives. It really got me interested in psychology. When I went to St. Francis College for my undergraduate studies, however, I wanted to go into theater, but I knew careers are less available. I chose to major in psychology and still did acting on the side.
I then chose to go on to graduate school but did not get into any PhD programs. I decided to go into a master’s program instead. At this time, I wanted to be a school psychologist until I began teaching at a community college near Cortland, NY, where I fell in love with teaching. I decided to continue teaching, and after a three-year post at a private junior college (teaching 23 classes a year!), I went back to graduate school to earn a second master’s and my PhD.
Who was your mentor?
In graduate school, I did not have a mentor. However, while I was teaching at Elizabeth Seton College (now Iona College), I met Dr. Lenny Jason, who acted as a professional mentor for me. He told me that I needed to get published and get a PhD. He told me, "No one will take you seriously if you don’t.” Ten years later, he told me I needed to learn how to write grants and that if I came to DePaul University, where he worked, he would teach me how.
How did your mentor help your development as a psychologist?
All of the professors I worked with in graduate school and after showed me how to do the science aspect of psychology. Dr. Jason at DePaul taught me how to write grants and become involved in professional associations. But most of my mentors were "engaged teachers,” who taught me how to teach when I was working at the community college.
What is your favorite course you teach at DePaul?
I love teaching Introduction to Psychology. I’ve been teaching this course at 2 and 4-year public and private colleges (including night and weekend classes) to a variety of students of all ages for the last 30 years. I think it is a great course to teach. I really prefer teaching undergraduates because they are hungry and want to know more.
Do you have any tips for students finishing their undergraduate studies who are trying to decide what their next step should be?
Publish! And consider where you publish, too. Also, be an officer in your Psi Chi chapter because a couple of my studies (with Dr. Drew Appleby, IUPUI) funded by a Thelma Hunt Award show Psi Chi officers are more likely to get accepted into master’s and PhD programs. In fact, try to become the president because the research indicated that PhD psychology majors were often their chapter’s president. Make sure your officer role in Psi Chi is in your personal statement for graduate school. Mention you were an officer and what skills you learned from this position.
When choosing a research area to study, try going into an area where no one else is doing work. Don’t study yourself! If you get an answer to a question in class, go after it. Take the risk and stand by it. Try something different.
How did you become interested in procrastination in particular?
When I was in my doctoral program, I was in a research social psych seminar on self-defeating behavior, where I raised my hand and said that procrastination sounds like a self-defeating behavior. My professor said there were probably studies on that, so I wrote it down and ran to the library to look it up. I found 200 things on procrastination, but they were all on how to counsel students who procrastinate or even writers’ block. There was no good science on it or any cures. I then decided to make this my research focus, with many collaborators, for over 25 years.
Why do you think so many people are procrastinators? Are there aspects of society that encourage procrastination?
It should be noted that 20% of adult men and women are chronic procrastinators. This rate is higher than depression, phobias, behavioral disorders, and substance abuse. And, it is not just in the United States; it is also England, Australia, Canada, Peru, Venezuela, Spain, Italy, Austria, Poland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and more. Data also shows that 75% of college students are procrastinators, but this is entirely different. But academic procrastination is not chronic procrastination. College students put off studying and writing papers, but if their boss says to be at work, they are there.
Keep in mind that society promotes procrastination. I think what society needs is to look at prevention—how to prevent problems before they escalate. We procrastinate, and then problems become large. For instance, AIDS could have been nipped in the bud if we had captured it earlier.
Other examples are Christmas shopping and filing for tax day. People are rewarded for going shopping on Christmas Eve because they get a discount on Christmas Eve, more than at Thanksgiving. With tax day, if you owe money, you should pay early, and the government should give you a percentage off, lowering it every day closer to the last day. We don’t give the early bird the worm anymore. We need to reward people for being early.
How has technology, such as social media and email, affected our procrastination and self-regulation?
People say to me, "Technology is making me procrastinate.” But, technology has always been there; it’s neutral. The snooze button has been around since the 1950s! It is all about how we use technology. They are tools. There is technology available for not procrastinating that can limit your access to email. Technology can be a curse or cure.
What are common misconceptions about procrastination?
I like to say everybody procrastinates but not everyone is a procrastinator. Chronic procrastination is not about time or time management. To tell a chronic procrastinator to just do it is like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up. They are great excuse-makers, and it is never their fault.
Chronic procrastination is not genetic. Parents who are procrastinators can have kids who are not, or vice versa. We learn to be who we are and can unlearn it, too. You can teach an old dog new tricks.
What are the key steps to overcoming chronic procrastination?
Start by taking ownership of your delays. It is not about time; it is about managing our lives. Life is too short. Why not do all that you can as long as you can to improve your life and that of others? You can whine and complain or just do and do it well. Aim for a goal of 80%, and it is success. It is okay if you fail. Perfection is pure fiction like I say in my new book, Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. Go for as much as you can. Make a difference in some way.
You say, "Everybody procrastinates but not everyone is a procrastinator.” Are there times when you struggle with it, too?
I am not a chronic procrastinator. I hope my career achievements reflect that I get things done. There is truth in the expression "If you want something done, ask a busy person” because that person values his/her time and that of others. Still, I occasionally procrastinate, such as having to cut the grass, but luckily I have a son who does that.