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Still Procrastinating: One Researcher's Journey Seeking the Causes & Consequences of Chronic Procrastination
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by Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD - DePaul University (IL)
Categories: Distinguished Lectures
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit runs and runs, looking
at his watch, saying “oh my, I’m late.” He runs, but never seems to reach his goal.
Was it a problem of poor time management? Perhaps, time management classes or a
life coach would teach the White Rabbit to schedule things effectively. However,
was the White Rabbit late in his private life as well as in his professional duties
for the Royal Court of the Queen of Hearts. Was he also late showing up for croquet
events, or miss them altogether because he never purchased his ticket? Was he known
by his family and friends as someone who missed deadlines, or worked on tasks at
the last minute just before things were due?
If the White Rabbit met all his life situations frequently and persistently intending
to delay the start or finish of tasks, then social-personality psychologists label
him a chronic procrastinator. Chronic procrastination is as a needless,
irrational delay of a relevant and timely task.
Clearly, everyone procrastinates on occasion. We may delay doing something we don’t
find pleasant or that we feel forced by others to do (a form of mini-rebellion
against authority). But, such delays do not make you a chronic procrastinator. The
chronic procrastinator, in contrast, accepts delay as a maladaptive way of life
across a variety of settings. Chronic procrastinators delay at home, school, work,
in relationships with family and friends, in how they decide to do (or not do) tasks
(see Ferrari, 2010). It is their way of life. If a person does not RSVP to invites,
misses concerts or sporting events because he or she never bought the ticket, always
shows up late for appointments, doesn’t put gas into the car until the gauge reads
‘empty,’ has food spoil because of not getting around to eating it—to name a few
examples—then that person is a chronic procrastinator.
It should be noted that 20% of women and men of North (US and Canada) and South
America (Peru and Venezuela), European (England, Spain, Italy, and Austria), and
Middle Eastern (Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia) citizens are chronic procrastinators.
Keep in mind, this rate is higher than depression or phobias yet do not receive
the professional attention these other psychological problems receive. This rate
is consistent regardless of race or age among 20 to 60 year olds (Ferrari, O’Callahan,
& Newbegin, 2005; Ferrari, Díaz-Morales, O’Callaghan, Díaz, & Argumedo, 2007; Ferrari,
Özer, & Demir, 2009). That’s high— that’s cause for concern.
Chronic procrastination is related to a host of personality traits including low
states of self-confidence and self-esteem and high states of depression, neurosis,
self-awareness, social anxiety, forgetfulness, disorganization, noncompetitiveness,
dysfunctional impulsivity, behavioral rigidity, and lack of energy (e.g., Beswick,
Rothblum, & Mann, 1988; Ferrari, 2004; Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995; Ferrari
& Pychyl, 2000; Senecal, Koestner, & Vallerand, 1995). Reviews of the literature
suggest that within the framework of the Big-Five personality model, procrastination
is related to low conscientiousness, as well as low self-esteem and self-efficacy
(McCrea, Liberman, Trope, & Sherman, 2008; van Eerde, 2003; 2004).
People who report frequent, chronic procrastination engage in self-sabotaging behaviors
(Ferrari, 1991; Ferrari & Tice, 2000), fraudulent excuse making (Ferrari, Keane,
Wolfe, & Beck, 1998), poor self-regulation of their performance skills within limited
time frames (Ferrari, 2001a), and attribute task delays to factors other than their
own performance (Ferrari et al., 1995). Although different motives have been identified
for procrastination (Ferrari & Díaz-Morales, 2007), fear of failure may be a
primary motive for procrastination (Solomon & Rothblum, 1984), and people report
they delay more on tasks they perceive as unpleasant, boring, or difficult (Milgram,
Sroff , & Rosenbaum, 1988). In short, procrastination is complex, relating to a
variety of different personality variables and involving more than ineffective
time management (cf., Ferrari et al., 1995; 2010; Steele, 2007).
Academic Procrastination: The Same as Chronic Procrastination?
Academic procrastination is the tendency to delay a specific set of behaviors
or tasks related to school settings—like studying, writing a paper, registering,
meeting an advisor (Ferrari et al. 1995; Schowenburg, Lay, Pychyl, & Ferrari, 2004).
Data shows that 75% of college students engage in academic procrastination. But
then, why does procrastination drop from 75 to 20% in studies focused on college
students and everyday adults, respectively? Does this mean as we grow older we procrastinate
less often? No, not at all! Chronic and academic procrastination are two different,
related but separate tendencies. While everyone procrastinates, but as noted above,
not everyone is a CHRONIC procrastinator.
For instance, college students might delay studying, reading, and writing, but if
there is a free concert in the dorm for the hottest hip-hop artist, they will be
there; if there is free pizza for the first 50 folks who show up on campus, they
will be there. See, we all put off a task or two that we don’t care for, that might
be difficult or boring. But if you put off only specific tasks (reading textbooks,
responding to email, or cutting the lawn) then you are not a procrastinator—you
just procrastinate on some tasks.
But students who delay academic tasks may also carry delaying over to their personal
life (those 20% of folks)—they may be chronic procrastinators. This frequent, habitual
pattern creates a maladaptive, dysfunctional lifestyle in which a person is unable
to self-regulate effectively (Senecal et al., 1995). Within those 75% of college
students who delay academic tasks, 20% are chronic procrastinators.
The Thrill of Beating the Clock
A common misattribution by chronic procrastinators is a belief that they “work best
under [time] pressure.” Several years ago in our DePaul lab we found that they don’t
do well (Ferrari, 2001a). Compared to nonprocrastinators, chronic procrastinators
in two lab experiments were unable to regulate their speed and accuracy. They took
longer to engage in experimental tasks and they created more errors, compared to
nonprocrastinators. However, chronic procrastinators believed they did well. Therefore,
it is a myth to say that working at the last minute “gets my juices flowing.”
Claiming they need to stay up late at night right before a deadline to complete
a task effectively, instead of being diligent along the way, is a misperception
of many chronic procrastinators (Ferrari, Harriott, Evans, Lecik-Michna, & Wenger,
1997). If anything, the increased arousal they experience may lead them to mislabel
anxiety as excitement.
Time Management is Real Life Management
Some chronic procrastinators say “I just don’t have the time to start or finish
all the tasks that I have to do.” Perhaps, the chronic procrastinator thinks he/she
is an ‘expert multi-tasker’ and over extends commitments. Research finds chronic
procrastinators are poor estimators of the time it takes to do tasks (Ferrari et
al., 1995). However, chronic procrastinators have the same amount of time as nonprocrastinators,
raising the question—can we really “manage our time?” Time is constant. We all have
the same amount of time each week (see Vanderkam, 2010). There are 168 hours in
a week—60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, 7 days to a week, 4 weeks to a
month, 12 months to a year. For centuries we used these measurements as our criteria
for time (except The Beatles, who famously sang about “8 Days a Week”). If you
sleep for 8 hours a night and work 40 hours a week, that leaves 72 hours a week
to engage in tasks. We can’t stop time, we can’t control time—it is like a stream,
constantly fl owing. Chronic procrastinators, however, blame their inability or
unwillingness to complete tasks on a lack of time (Sirois, 2009).
If we can’t manage time, can we manage ourselves to learn to be more efficient
with the time we have? I propose it is not time we need to manage, it is our self
than needs to be managed more effectively (Ferrari, 2010). The White Rabbit needed
to manage his lifestyle more effectively rather than focusing on the lack of time
he was experiencing.
The author Bertram Russell once said “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted
time.” For the chronic procrastinator, this statement implies a positive aspect
to procrastinating. That is it ok to “waste” one’s time. Chu and Cho1 (2005) even
claimed that one can actively procrastinate. Such a concept is a misnomer, since
to procrastinate is to be inactive. Don’t confuse procrastination with waiting.
With chronic procrastination, a person works not to do something. With waiting,
the person prepares for the next step—working toward a goal, not avoiding one. Waiting
to finish a task may include actively preparing for things that will happen. Chronic
procrastinators need to reframe their thoughts. The chronic procrastinator does
not need to consider waiting as wasting time; instead, frame it as a time waiting
for something to happen while making the wait time productive. Time is finite.
Like the White Rabbit, we don’t really manage time—we manage our activities within
the time we have.
A Focus on the Causes of Procrastination: A 20 Year Journey
Why? Why do procrastinators do it (or, don’t do it)? Answering this question has
been the focus of my 25-year program of study discussed in my recent popular book
(see Ferrari, 2010, for a review of all the research we’ve conducted on procrastination).
I felt too many books focused on ineffective time management—and chronic procrastination
is more than teaching a person time management skills (Ferrari, 2001b). To tell
the chronic procrastinator “just do it” is like saying to a clinically depressed
person “cheer up.” Such a statement misses the point; it will not work—chronic procrastinators
are great excuse-makers.
Becoming a procrastinator. Where does chronic procrastination come
from? Procrastinators are not genetically wired to delay; they cannot claim they
can’t do anything about it because it is just the way they are. We learn early to
use procrastination as a self-handicapping strategy. The development of procrastinators
begins within the home. Mom, and especially dad [depending on parental styles],
may influence the growth of a procrastinator. Ferrari and Olivette (1993; 1994)
found that authoritarian parenting (the cold, demanding style of child-rearing),
especially from one’s father, promotes the development of a procrastinating child.
Ferrari, Harriott, and Zimmerman (1999) found that procrastinators compared to nonprocrastinators
have more conflicts and less of a deep relationship with dad over mom; and they
turn to their friends over family for social support in times of trouble.
Living with a chronic procrastinator. Procrastinators are interpersonally
dependent, letting others do things for them (Ferrari, 1994). To terminate such
dependence the nonprocrastinating partner needs to stop bailing the procrastinator
out by completing tasks for them. Instead, failure is an option— as long as it is
gentle and constructive, and consider bailing them out only in situations with serious
consequences. Often, we learn best and have the longest-maintained change when
reality knocks us down and then we lift ourselves up (like the phoenix, we are reborn
from the ashes).
Indecision, or decisional procrastination. Learning to make decisions
is a fact of life, and while some choices we make result in failure or errors, other
choices result in success. We make a decision and then take action (Cohen & Ferrari,
2010; Diaz-Morales, Cohen, & Ferrari, 2008). Ferrari, Barnes, and Steel (2009) found
that procrastinators report regret for missed opportunities and failed attempts
at making decisions. Make a decision, take the first step toward completing your
plan, and reach for your goal. Even if there are missteps and failures along the
way, no one can fault you for not trying.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The bottom line is that procrastination affects our work life, our academic life
(heck, that is why you probably are reading this article!), and our daily life (see
Ferrari, 2010, for a current overview on the causes, consequences, and cures of
procrastination). As a nation, citizens need to learn not to procrastinate and we
need incentives to get things done early. Why punish for being late? Why not reward
for being early? In short, we need to give the early bird the worm, and create a
society that respects the time of others— that prevents chronic procrastination.
And now, get back to your work. Are you still procrastinating?
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Cohen, J. & Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Take some time to think this over: The relation
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29–40). Washington: American Psychological Association.
Joseph (Joe) R. Ferrari, PhD,
is Vincent dePaul Distinguished
Professor of Psychology
and director, MS in General
Psychology program, at DePaul
University, Chicago, IL. Joe is
a fellow in the Association for
Psychological Science, American
Society for Community Research
and Action, and both Eastern
and Midwestern Psychological Associations. DePaul awarded
him the Excellence in Research award in 2001 and the
Excellence in Public Service award in 2009.
Prof. Ferrari is author of 300 articles/books and 450 presentations. Joe’s interests
include shame/guilt affects, impostor phenomena, self-handicapping, perfectionism,
community volunteerism/service, sense of community, addition recovery, and spirituality
in community. He is editor of the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community
(Taylor & Francis Publishing).
Dr. Ferrari is APA’s international research expert on procrastination. Joe was featured
in USA Today, New York– London–LA Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Cranes
Business, Money, Men’s Health, Fitness, Self, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Psychology
Today and NPR, ABC and CBS radio, plus local and national TV including ABC/NEWS–Good
Dr. Ferrari is the Psi Chi invited speaker at the Western Psychological Association
meeting, April 29, 2011, in Los Angeles. Dr. J, as known by students, is faculty
advisor to DePaul’s Psi Chi Chapter.
Winter 2011 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 15, No. 2, p. 18), published by Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2010, Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.